Chopin - Nocturne Op 32 No 1
Frederic Francois Chopin (1810 - 1849) was a Polish composer who wrote almost exclusively for the piano and the significance of his compositional style for that instrument is huge, since it reached new heights of expressiveness as well as being technically demanding.
Chopin moved to Paris in the early 1830s, in order to remove himself from the volatile political situation in Poland.
Chopin was largely responsible for introducing piano repertoire based on the Polish dances, mazurka and polonaise and he was innovative in his treatment of the etude, waltz, prelude and nocturne.
Chopin was hailed as a 'genius' by Schumann and a 'perfect virtuoso' by Mendelssohn.
Before learning and teaching this piece, students and teacher may enjoy and benefit from watching this excellent Radio 3 Masterclass on playing Chopin by David Owen Norris.
Pupil Match & Suitability
A student who plays Chopin Nocturnes successfully will have the ability to play with excellent tone control and will possess a highly developed feel for phrasing and detail.
Empathy with overtly Romantic music is essential, with the ability to use well judged rubato. A range of tonal nuance is needed although Chopin is known to have been fairly restrained in his use of fortissimo.
He himself remarked, '... it is being said everywhere that I played too softly, or rather, too delicately for people used to the piano pounding of the artists here.' One wonders, however, about the musical calibre of the artists with whom Chopin was being compared!
Whether or not you speak French, the inspirational Chopin masterclass on Nocturne, Op. post no 1 by the inspirational teacher, Katsaris is well worth a visit:
Style & Tempo
This Nocturne is typical in its expressive RH melody line in the 'bel canto' singing style that so influenced Chopin's music and also in its use of a broken chord LH part.
The structure is binary form, or A-B, with the change to minor keys suggesting an increasingly poignant mood as the piece progresses.
The pace performance marking is 'andante sostenuto' which may be interpreted as a slow walking pace, legato in style.
The actual tempo is open to a certain amount of personal preference. This opening tempo by Ashkenazy works well at around 69 bpm, allowing for rubato.
Phrasing & Articulation
Articulation is almost always legato, with most RH notes slurred. The slurring has more to do with shaping the phrasing in tonal gradation than with making obvious breaks in the legato.
In Romantic music of this character, the slurring tells us how to articulate with the fingers in order to achieve the sense of phrase required, but the pedal often softens the detaching of one fragment from another, with the perfectly valid result that even some of the rests will not, in effect, be observed.
Listen to the seamless flow of the music here in Ashkenazy's playing. Bars 20 - 28 are heard here.
For inspiration and for learning about phrasing Chopin, this is a Must-Watch talk by Benjamin Zander.
Tone & Texture
The tone must be a true cantabile. This is not just a case of making the RH louder than the LH, but a matter of creating a truly lovely, singing tone, with the textures sensitively balanced.
Most students underestimate the importance of the actual tone quality and of the balance needed to allow the melody lines to be prominent.
Listening to great interpretations and critically appraising one's own playing are of inestimable value here for the student.
Listen to Barenboim's tone here, as it moves between pianissimo and forte, whilst remaining consistently beautiful.
Playing widely spread broken chords in the LH can be challenging. The less we use exaggerated under and over the thumb movements, the more fluent and even will be the result.
Using a broad finger 5 base for the lowest note is the key to security, as is completely secure memorisation of the LH part.
It is useful to have completely secure and fluent arpeggio playing well before this piece is attempted, with ease in playing arpeggios in root position, first inversion and second inversion.
A good hand position in which there is freedom of movement and the arm travels with the hand, rather than the wrist bending at an unnatural angle, will facilitate LH fluency.
Reputable editions have good fingering suggestions, although it is worth going through the fingering with the student to check that the particular detail suits their hand and technique.
Decisions will have to be taken as to the choices in the LH, such at Bar 6, where it is possible to use:
5 - 1 changing to 3 - 2 - 1 then 5 - 1 changing to 4 - 2 - 1
5 - 1 - 2 - 1 - then 5 - 1 - 2 - 1
5 - 3 - 2 - 1 then 5 - 4 - 2 - 1.
These sorts of choice are really up to the individual student in consultation with their teacher. The effect, whichever choice is made, must be legato and of course this will ultimately be achieved by use of the sustaining pedal, since the reach is too wide for most hand spans.
The ornament at Bar 4 is a simple mordent (B-C sharp-B), with the emphasis falling on the final B, as may be heard clearly here.
The mordents at Bars 16 and 44 may be treated in a similar manner.
Editions vary in the editorial advice given but the basis of pedalling here is that legato pedalling is needed more or less throughout. It is important, however, to keep the clarity and not overpedal.
The pedal should be changed as the harmony changes, meaning that some bars such those at the start will require pedalling of the bass note to sustain it through Beats 1 and 2, then a change on Beat 3 and another on Beat 4.
Bars such as 8 - 16 will need a change of pedal every beat, sometimes even changing on each quaver, whereas Bar 19 needs pedal on Beat 1 and 3 to sustain the bass notes.
It may be felt effective to omit, or at least to use minimal sustaining pedal at Bars such as 63. This can lend an air of desolation to the sound, in much the same way as a violinist might use liberal vibrato in a piece such as this and yet refrain from using it for certain particularly bleak passages.
The amount and kind of help that the student needs with this piece will depend on their learning capability and on whether they have tackled this genre before. Make sure your student understands the nocturne genre from the outset. Provide appropriate listening suggestions.
Have a definite strategy for the each early lesson on this piece, beginning with the basics of overall structural analysis, rhythmic accuracy, understanding the phrasing of the melodic lines, analysing the chords sequences suggested in LH, establishing fingering, clarifying ornamentation and the way it fits with the LH.
Later lessons will be concerned with similar issues in the second section and also with pedalling and tone production. Set clear tasks for practice, so that your student does not just play through, since music learned incorrectly is difficult to put right.
Practice should reflect what has been covered in the lesson, particularly in a piece that is being studied for examination purposes. Remember that each lesson is a template for that week's practice, so be sure to give clear guidelines.
Encourage your student to have music to play through for fun, without special care and just for pleasure, so that when it comes to preparing a piece for an important occasion they do not mind so much undertaking the rigorous, meticulous work necessary.
Judging the pace can make all the difference to a sound interpretation and a good performance.
The performance here is sound, with attention to producing a pleasing tone, despite some unevenness of triplet rhythms. However the very slow pace makes it difficult to phrase and express the music convincingly.
Chopin Nocturne - Grade 8 Level
An excellent performance will show a sense of style and the essential character of the music will be communicated persuasively in convincing use of expressive detail. Tone control and musical nuance will be authoritative.
A good performance will capture the essential style of the nocturne, with suitable use of expressive detail and a convincing pace. There may be less assured balancing of tone and texture, but phrasing will be shaped expressively.
A sound performance will show sufficient accuracy to achieve secure continuity and some of the expressive detail will be given, showing sound musical intentions, despite possible lapses in technical control The pace may be on the cautious side, or perhaps too fast for a convincingly sensitive interpretation.