History of the Nocturne

nocturne is a piece of music, typically tranquil and expressive (and sometimes so gloomy), that was inspired by the night.

The first musical appearance of the word nocturne occurred in the 1700s. However, these early nocturne-types were small ensemble works written specifically for an evening party rather than evoking images and feelings of the night. One example of this is Mozart‘s Notturno for 4 orchestras in D major, K. 286:

As music developed through the Classical era, a composer named John Field (1782-1837) began writing nocturns in a different way: his nocturnes were character pieces for piano that specifically created feelings of the night (mostly through a beautiful soaring melody over arpeggiated accompaniment).

 

Field established the nocturne form as a beautiful and important genre and as a result influenced another composer named Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) to spend some time writing nocturnes.

I performed two of Chopin’s nocturnes at my senior piano recital at Oregon State University in May, 2016. The first was in C-sharp minor, op. 27 no. 1. One of his lesser-known nocturnes, this piece is full of beauty, sadness, and joy. The piece begins with an ambiguous open fifth, and the harmony is not established until the third measure. The intimately tragic main theme is followed by a series of passionate bursts until the return of the opening ideas.

The second nocturne I performed was op. 62 no. 2 in E major. This particular piece was Chopin’s last nocturne he published during his lifetime. The nostalgia in the opening theme builds to a dark, stormy middle section, and the resigned return of the main theme closes the work.

But the development of the nocturne didn’t stop at Chopin. 20th century composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote a nocturne as a movement in a large piano work (Out of Doors) that actually depicts nighttime sounds through blurred cluster chords, bird imitations, and nocturnal croaking.

Not all nocturnes are for piano. Many composers have written orchestral nocturnes. Claude Debussy (1862-1910) wrote an entire orchestral piece called Three Nocturnes:

These are just some examples of the nocturne. What I love about nocturnes is their intimate beauty and tenderness; for a brief moment, we escape into another world.

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