In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to talk about Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, op. posth. B49. We’ll listen through examples and discuss the finer details – without getting too music jargon-y.
Chopin wrote 21 nocturnes in his lifetime, between 1827-1846. To this day his nocturnes are considered to be some of the best piano compositions of all time.
We’ve talked about Chopin’s most famous nocturne on this channel before, so definitely check out the link if you’re looking for more.
Let’s get started!
Nocturne in C sharp minor: Details
Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor is a short piece – about 3.5 minutes long. By today’s pop music standards that would be considered normal, but it was short against the backdrop of Classical music.
This particular nocturne was written in 1830 but wasn’t published until 1870, 26 years after Chopin’s death. It’s sometimes referred to by its tempo marking, Lento con gran espressione.
He dedicated this piece to his sister Ludwika, saying “To my sister Ludwika as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”. Good call on Chopin’s part to make an exercise for that Concerto – it’s extremely difficult!
Pianistic challenges of the Nocturne
Nocturne in C sharp minor is one of Chopin’s more accessible pieces as well – it’s not his easiest, but it’s around an RCM grade 9/ABRSM 7 level (Henle level 5). I would consider it to be at an early advanced level.
The challenges in this piece involve keeping the opening chords tight without being heavy, letting the trills flow effortlessly, and creating beautiful left hand shape.
The Nocturne in Pop culture
One reason many people are familiar with this nocturne is that it appears in the movie The Pianist (twice – at the beginning and end). It’s not in that movie for fictional reasons, however. The Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp played this piece for a Nazi concentration camp commandant, which impressed him enough to not kill her.
This nocturne is written in common time but features lots of Chopin-esque tempo benders like expressive triplets and trills. Nocturnes are very expressive and melodically-driven, and usually with a moody character.
The form here is ternary (three-part) form. Ternary form is very simple and straightforward, with a main part (A), a contrasting section (B), and a return to the main part (A).
The introduction, 4 bars long, feels very formal and final compared to the rest of the piece. It’s all chordal, played with light and specific pedal. The chords sound very resolute and sad and take some care to play in a way where everything sounds simultaneously, and without sounding heavy-handed.
The two phrases in the introduction are identical – the second phrase serving as a softer echo.
Pianistically, this intro is tougher than it appears. When switching chords you need to keep the top note of the chord smoothly transitioning to the next note – easy with a single melody line, but difficult when your melody is embedded in chords. It’s quiet, so it takes work to get each note to actually sound consistently.
One thing less advanced pianists are wont to do is rely on the pedal to create that legato melody. But not you – right?
After the intro, a beautiful melody enters and there’s no trace of solid chords anywhere.
Let’s take a quick listen to that intro!
The main theme of the piece, which occurs twice (the second time after a brief interlude), features a beautiful melody over a backdrop of broken chords. These are wide broken chords, often spanning a distance of a 10th, which requires fluid wrist movement.
The tempo marking, Lento con gran espressione, means “slow with great expression”.
One thing to keep in mind, if you’re learning this piece, is to not go wild with the rubato in the left hand. Rubato, “rubber band tempo”, is often abused in Chopin’s compositions, but Chopin preferred to keep the left hand (the “orchestra”) relatively steady, while having more tempo flexibility in the right hand melody. No easy feat!
That being said, a great effect is made when the lowest bass notes are held ever-so-slightly longer, like a tenuto. Again, just a teeny-tiny pinch – it’s easy to go overboard.
Second part of the main theme
Immediately following the main theme is a repeat – only it’s not repeated exactly. The melody moves more – there’s a glorious waterfall of notes midway through that is difficult to get sounding natural on the piano, since the rhythm differs from the left hand – and there’s some discordant chord choices.
Pianissimo section (Second section)
This is the contrasting section in the piece. Since Chopin was writing this as an exercise for his second Concerto, you can see a tie-in here. These two bars (21 and 22) resemble the main theme from the third movement of that concerto. The next two bars (23 and 24) resemble the second part of the second theme in the first movement of that concerto.
Pianissimo section part 2
There’s one more tie-in – on bar 33, we get a resemblance to the scherzando of the third movement of the concerto (in bar 145 of the concerto).
Return to the main theme
Then Chopin takes us back around to the main theme, recognizable but with slight variations. I love how he holds back throughout this entire piece – you never get a big, satisfying climactic moment, but you have these gorgeous descending trills that never reach a full forte. Less is more.
Then you have the ending of the piece, which I consider the most difficult personally. You have to keep the left hand steady, while the right hand plays scale figures in polyrhythm (polyrhythm means they have two different timings at once).
That second run is deadly – done right, it sounds like a glissando dragging up and down the keys. But to get the fingers playing that quickly and nimbly to sound so effortless takes a ton of work. The effect is magical though.
When I learned this, I drew lines in the music connecting the left hand note to a corresponding right hand note. I used my ear to decide which notes should match up, and it took a lot of trial and error. I probably spent a couple hours just getting the hang of this part. I’d be interested to revisit it now that so many years have passed since I learned it.
If you’re looking for an excellent interpretation, I enjoy Claudio Arrau’s version – though there is no shortage of recordings of this piece.
I hope you enjoyed this analysis of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor – thanks for listening to Classical music with me!
|Performer Pages||Yikyung Diana Hughes (piano)|
|Publisher Info.||Palo Alto: Musopen.|
|Copyright||Creative Commons Attribution 4.0|
|Misc. Notes||Source: Musopen (lossless file also available)|