"Songs of the night", "piano bel canto": such is how Fryderyk Chopin's nocturnes are usually described. They are piano miniatures among the most well known and most beautiful of Chopin's works. The genre of the piano nocturne was created by the Irish composer and pianist John Field (1782-1837), to whom Chopin referred. The nocturne, perfectly suited to the mood of the era, evokes with its very name romantic images of the night, the moon, and all the shades of lyrical and dramatic expression associated with them. Its poetry is shaped by an atmosphere of intimacy and reverie. Works for piano adhering to this idiom were written by Clementi, Ries, Szymanowska, Kalkbrenner, Schumann and Liszt, among others, but it was Chopin, above all, who raised the nocturne to the pinnacle of poetry, becoming its most celebrated master.
He composed nocturnes over many years: the first date from 1830 and 1831, the last from 1846, or even-taking account of a different dating-from 1827 to 1848. Eighteen nocturnes were published by the composer in the following opuses: 9, 15, 27, 32, 37, 48, 55 and 62. There are also two nocturnes not published by Chopin: a Nocturne in E minor (disputed date of composition) and a short Nocturne in C minor. Finally, the Lento con gran espressione, in the key of C sharp minor, is also traditionally classed as a "nocturne".
Although they evolved in line with Chopin's style, the nocturnes possess a number of constant features. They are typified by a tuneful and ornamented melody, with a left-hand accompaniment based on flat or broken chords. This tunefulness and the rich and refined ornamentation point to the vocal character of the melodic line, bringing to mind the bel canto Italian operatic style (Chopin was a great admirer of Bellini). With regard to their form, most of the nocturnes can be compared to the operatic da capo aria with ornamented reprise: it is a tripartite reprise form, in which the outer sections are characterised by a lyricism and tunefulness, a dwelling on a particular mood, whereas the middle section brings a violent contrast, a dramatism and animated ‘action'. The opposition between tunefulness and agitation remains crucial, although there are works that adhere to a dreamy cantabile (such as the marvellous Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2 or the Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 55 No. 2, pervaded by polyphony).
Among the most famous works in this genre is the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1, distinguished by its balladic tone, with a dramatic reprise section. Extremely popular is the early Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2, which might almost be regarded as the symbol of ornamented cantabile à la Chopin. The ornamentation of the nocturnes evolved over successive opuses, gradually becoming an increasingly integral element of the melody and a source of rich colouration, and not only an exterior addition. The nocturne idiom also influenced some other works by Chopin.
The most renowned interpreters of the nocturnes have included Sergei Rachmaninov and Josef Hofmann. Excellent recordings of all the nocturnes were made by Artur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau.