“Chopin and the Character Piece: Nocturnes, Preludes, and Ballades.”
The transition into the Romantic era of music saw the development of many new characteristics. For the most part, the music evolved from established forms, genres, and musical ideas, but there was more emphasis on expression. Harmonic language established by Mozart and Haydn was coloured with dissonances, and bolder chord changes. Emphasis shifted from the ideals of Mozart’s consonance and order, to the expression and increased ambiguity of Beethoven. As the focus changed to composing music for the sake of expression, new genres appeared, one of which is know as the Character Piece. Translated from the German, Charakterstück, the name is usually used to describe a piece of music for piano that sets out to evoke emotion, based on a single idea. The character piece is very specific in that it is based only on one idea and is often titled as such. Chopin, wrote many of character pieces. He was a master of the character piece and showcased his skill with a few different genres. The three main styles he wrote were Nocturnes, Preludes, and Ballades The Nocturne, which comes from the French nocturnal, pertaining to or evocative of the night, is a musical genre that expresses that influence. Although Chopin was the most prominent composer of Nocturnes, he was not the originator of this genre. “Hitherto Field’s role as the inventor of the genre has been largely unquestioned, and it has been assumed that Chopin simply inherited a well-established formula; but the early history of the nocturne is more complex than it might first appear.” By the end of the eighteenth century, the keyboard style that is normally associated with the genre had already been established. So when Field published his 1st Nocturne in 1812, it was nothing new. He then followed this nocturne up with a few other similar works, which ultimately led to the nocturnes of Chopin. Although Chopin’s nocturnes were influenced by Field’s, Chopin’s simply leave Field’s behind in terms of melody, harmonic variety, and originality of piano style. Chopin’s nocturnes follow a typical style and form. They are usually melancholy in style, with a beautiful bel canto melody flowing above broken chord arpeggiations. They are usually in a simple ABA or ABAB form with the A section developing a slow, dreamlike melody; while the B section is often more intense and dramatic. Being a character piece, these nocturnes were set to express a specific mood. Therefore, many of Chopin’s nocturnes were influenced by, or dedicated to, a specific person or experience. For example, Opus 27, Numbers 1 and 2 were dedicated to Countess d’Appony. Countess d’Appony was a Parisian Countess who threw parties for the high society members. She frequently invited Chopin to attend these. These two nocturnes are said to be Chopin’s greatest, and are arguably his most popular. The first one, in C-sharp minor, begins with a very cloudy and dark atmosphere set by the minor arpeggiated chords, and the dark, dampened tone of the piano. The B section develops a triumphant theme as it modulates to a major key and the full tone of the piano is used. Opus 27, No. 2 features a beautiful bel canto melody opening which is then developed and expanded with parallel thirds and sixths, heightening the dramatic quality of the piece. The nocturne closes with the return of the A section, and the melody slowly drifts out beautifully. Also, the Opus 37, No. 1 was called Les Soupirs, which is translated as “The Sighs.” This nocturne is different in that it is far less technically demanding than the some of the others and it features an odd plain chordal style middle section. Perhaps Chopin was unsatisfied with this particular nocturne or struggled in writing it, hence the title he gave it. One thing that remained constant throughout all of Chopin’s nocturnes is that he wrote them with this “nocturnal” expression. They all feature a moving melody with chord...
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