Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth and emotion for both the pianist and listener. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception producing what are generally considered to be among the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument.
The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are variations on this idea, however, this formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and beautiful piano music.
Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. One of my students presented the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor op. posth a few weeks ago and we have been working hard on various aspects. This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.
There are so many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole variety of touches and colour. It’s possible to work at this piece on so many levels and a Grade 8 or diploma exam is not in any way equivalent in standard to the rendition by Claudio Arrau (one of the greatest pianists of the Twentieth Century), linked below, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on how to approach and practice this work, or any similar style piece, on a fairly basic level.
The opening chords can present a few problems and require consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. It’s particularly daunting starting off with an opening such as this, where each note must sound fully; being perfectly voiced and very quiet all at the same time. The trick (other than trying your concert piano first!) is to focus on the top note, or melodic material, making quite sure it is completely legato by constantly changing fingers and employing sparse pedalling. By making sure your arm weight is transferred to your fourth and fifth finger, you should be able to produce a beautiful sound in the melody line allowing all other notes to fade into the background. Don’t be afraid to change fingers frequently in a legato melodic line – it’s much more effective and ‘clean’ than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys as slowly as you dare, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the chordal progression is effective when played softer, like an echo. Here’s the original passage:
And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering):
After the introduction the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a an exquisite right hand melody prevails. The melody, similar to that in many of Chopin’s Nocturnes, has a wonderful operatic quality which could be viewed as the ‘singer’ and left hand or bass clef part (the accompaniment), as the ‘accompanist’, therefore, the pianist has to engage in being both, effectively occupying both roles at once!
There are three layers of sound in this work;
1. The melodic material in the right hand.
2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand.
3. The bottom of the chord in the bass line which is generally the first quaver of every minim group which occur twice in every bar.
It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone because it requires absolute consistency and evenness with regard to rhythm and tone. This work does not benefit from being over pedalled or from too much rubato. Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music generally, but even the composer himself always insisted on a rhythmical bass proclaiming, ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra.‘ Claudio Arrau’s performance (linked below) does provide an extraordinary illustration of perfect yet slightly exaggerated rubato.
Use a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. This practice technique works effectively in lots of other piano music too. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as mentioned above, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach; you can afford to hold this note a tiny bit longer than the other quavers. This is because they are providing the bottom of the texture harmonically – the constant bass C sharps in this extract;
It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory. Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ layer of sound so therefore should always be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes. A flexible wrist and a rotational hand movement can help here allowing more control over the amount of sound distributed to each note.
If you can, practice the left hand without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As you become more secure with the bass part, so you can add pedal. It’s crucial to listen to your pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious however, it is easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly. Sometimes it’s beneficial to play the left hand part with both hands allowing for complete assimilation of the bass line.
The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass, the colourful chromatic inflections imparting drama, artistry and elegance, synonymous with Chopin’s style. A loose, relaxed wrist with plenty of arm weight should provide a rich sonority; even the pianissimos need proper arm weight and the overall sound needs to project fully. The success of this line relies on an understanding of the nuances within each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Study each two or four bar phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting your sound accordingly. The melody should rise and fall enabling the dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.
The tricky ornamental passagework and scalic runs can be easily negotiated by working again with a full sound, encouraging all fingers to work completely, but make sure you have worked out all your fingering first. You can then experiment with different types of articulation; complete clarity is desired in every figuration. After this, a lighter approach should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until you feel secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until you have a total rhythmic grasp and only then start thinking about rubato.
Chopin has marked all musical details very thoroughly, so if you can colour each layer of sound, you will be on your way to playing any Nocturne effectively.
A performance of the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor by Claudio Arrau.
You can read a more in-depth, detailed, updated version of this blog post here.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.
25 Comments Add yours
Thanks Mel! I have recently started working on this myself, so this blog will be a real help 🙂
Hi Rebecca, So pleased that this post will be of use……thank you. Hope all is well with you 🙂
Thanks for sharing such thoughtful directives on how to play this beautiful nocturne. It may seem a relatively “easier” piece compared to Chopin’s other nocturnes but I think there are some elements of technique such as the right hand trills and left hand arpeggios that require a good level of practice.
Your advice on how to practice without the pedal first is gold – such a logical step to build proficiency as Chopin always encouraged his students to use the pedal “economically”.
Here’s my 2 cents worth on this beautiful piece of work.
Great stuff….thanks for your link and really glad you liked my post too 🙂
Can I translate this and post it on my blog pleaseeeeee???
Yes of course Cecile…..as along as you mention me 😉
Of course! Merci beaucoup ^^
I enjoy your blog Melanie and your interviews with great pianists – keep it up!
One point about the emails though is that the videos are never clickable for me – I have to click on the post title to go through to the website and see it there. No big deal but there’s probably a way of seeing it within the email…(offered in spirit of friendly helpfulness)
Hi Ajay, Lovely to hear from you and I’m so pleased that you enjoy the interviews – thank you for your kind feedback – and for letting me know about the e mails. I will see if anything can be done to change this, but I don’t send the e mails – they are generated by wordpress…….my parents say exactly the same thing as you have!
how about nocturne op.32 B maj ?. I think the third pichardy is interest thing
Hi Yusuf, Thanks for your comment and suggestion….will have a look at this Nocturne…..also a beautiful piece 🙂
thank you. it’s a great blog 😀
Thanks so much Yusuf 🙂
have you listen that?i need your opinion
Thank you for this post ; I have just started learning the piece and found great insights in it here.
Many thanks for your comments. Really pleased that you have found this post useful 🙂
I was searching for some insight into this piece as I’m currently learning it, and your post came pretty handy, so glad I found it, you give some strong advice overall. Thank you.
Thanks so much Chris. Really glad you’ve found this post useful.
Wonderful analysis of this piece, and thanks for the great tips. Fell in love with this piece following the movie the ‘Pianist’ , a very difficult movie to watch, but loved the musical score. Thanks again.
Thank you Janice, really glad you liked the article and found it useful.
Thank you so much ! Very usefull. But according to my piano teacher (actually I m a classical student in Paris), your greatful pianist Claudio Arrau made a mistake repeating the C# note in the 7th mesure. And I think the second part (pp and sotto voce) 21th mesure is really too slow. Rubinstein, Horowitz, Lang Lang (?) interpretation’s are the best.
I´ve always wondered whether the C# note in the 7th measure should be repeated or not. Did your teacher give you any explanation of why it shouldn’t be repeated?
I have just started to learn this amazing piece of music and i found your article. Thank you for sharing it with everyone. Massive massive help. From, Rebecca
Hi Rebecca, Thank you for your kind comments. I’m so glad you found the article helpful 🙂