Posted in Listening for Part 2: Romanticism


This blog post is a list of nocturnes I have listened to.

Early Notturnos

The Romantic nocturnes happen to be one of my favorite genres in classical music in general. However, I realized I never looked into its origins. Interestingly, the label nocturnes was first applied to pieces in the 18th century, when it indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party. Nonetheless, these pieces weren’t necessarily evocative of the night, but were mostly intended for performance at night, similarly to the serenade:

The chief difference between the serenade and the notturno was the time of the evening at which they would typically be performed: the former around 9:00pm, the latter closer to 11:00 pm. (Unverricht and Eisen, 2001)

Wolfgang Amadeus MozartNotturno, K.286 and Serenata Notturna, K. 239

I found that both of these pieces may have been composed in December 1776 as a New Year’s music for performance in Salzburg (Walterskirchen). In terms of K. 286 in D major, it is composed for four orchestras, each with two horns and strings. I found this instrumentation to be very powerful in the way the orchestras interweave through peculiar echoes: each movement opens with a single phrase, the end of which is reverberated three times – this devices is then varied, often in surprising manners. For me the most powerful moment is the way this effect is utilised in the finale minuetto and trio, where the phrases that echo are so short that they ricochet almost at a dizzying pace. I can only imagine if this is performed outdoors live, how the phrases would bounce back and forth across the space in-between performers, especially if they were situated far apart to create an even stronger effect. Recalling those vast court gardens – I wonder what would happen if the ensembles were seated on different terraces, if this vertical dimension would further heighten the echoes? In any case, I have always been so focused on Mozart’s use of harmony, melodic lines and music form, that I never thought about the practical considerations of acoustical space in Mozart’s works and conversely, how his imagination on different types of sonority might be codified into his works. In terms of my learning, this shows how my previous studies made me very focused on abstract analytical aspects divorced from more practical concerns of composers. While analysis is important, I believe the practical, corporeal concerns, like the space, are often overlooked, but these can actually be crucial in the compositional process – something I have also discussed in my learning log in relation to notation. Regardless, I really found the spatial dimension and the unique echoic articulations to be the most powerful aspects of this composition, which transform the already brilliant phrases into ethereal and dreamy sounding, angelic voicings.

As for Serenata Notturna, K. 239., the piece is also set in D major, however, it is completely different from K. 286 in form and instrumentation. While there are just three movements in terms of structure, with respect to instrumentation, it is written for a string orchestra with timpani and a solo concertante string quartet. Although there seems to be a similar echo effect to K. 286, with a very different ensemble grouping, the interchange happens between the solo quartet and orchestra, making it closer to the alternation between the tutti and soloist of a Baroque concerto grosso. As such, I believe the spatial feeling of the piece contrasts K. 286, suggesting a concert hall or indoors courtly setting rather than outdoor garden. Meanwhile, the three movements of the piece themselves, a march, a minuet with trio and a rondo, are very different from the previous notturno. The first movement is a dignified march with a majestic, maestoso tempo, what I would call quite ‘symphonic’ in scope. What I really liked here is the contrast between the opening fanfare motifs with more flowy and melodious lines that come in afterwards. At one point, this contrast goes even so far to become a type of self-parody, when pizzicato strings and timpani seem to almost laugh at the fanfare’s grandiosity in the opening. This idea of contrast in the sentiment is continued in the second movement minuet with trio, where slightly inflated, pompous phrases seem to alternate with elegant and gracefully lines. In this section, I found it particularly absorbing that the trio puts the main focus on the quartet. Moving on to the final movement, it is a high-energy, allegretto rondo of a rustic, Gallic country dance. The parodic quality from the previous movements is maintained in the almost comical lead-ins to the main theme, though there are also surprisingly unexpected interruptions of contrasting, somber phrases. All in all, I found this composition really peculiar, but also entertaining in the way it seems very self-aware and playful at times, yet also serious and galant in other moments.

Romantic Nocturnes

In the Romanticism, not only did the nocturnes came to be cultivated in a true sense of a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, and not solely performed at, the night, but also received generic denotation of the expressive single-movement character pieces usually written for solo piano.

John FieldNocturnes No. 1-10

The first nocturnes to be written under the specific title were by the Irish composer John Field, viewed as the father of this Romantic genre. Field did so under the idiom of the popular salon music, and just like the operatic paraphrase, his nocturnes introduced the singing quality of instrumental playing to express the pathos of the Romantic sentiment as kind of wordless love songs for the piano, which he initially planned to name Romances, Pastoral or Serenade. In any case, the signature cantabile melody over arpeggiate, guitar-like accompaniment of the genre can already be encountered in Nocturne No. 1 in E-flat major, where, over the widely spaced left hand triplets, the chromatically decorated melodic lines in the right hand sound like an Italian bel canto singer.

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