COMPOSITIONS compositions

Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15 No. 3 incypit

Genre: Nocturne

Key: G minor

Opus/WN: Op. 15 No. 3

Creation date: 1830-1833

Acc. to Paderewski: VII/6

Acc. to Turło: 113

Instruments: piano

Composition dedicated to:

Ferdynand Hiller


The Nocturne in G minor, composed in a gloomy, melancholy key, has become engulfed in ‘extra-musical’ descriptions and commentaries regarding the work’s genesis.

Seven years after publishing his book on Chopin (and so in 1880), the monographer Marceli Antoni Szulc issued a collection of new and supplementary information. It is understandable that the release of his book drew reaction from readers, who began to send the author their comments. Some of these concerned the G minor Nocturne. ‘They vouch’, wrote Szulc, ‘that on the day after attending the theatre for a performance of Hamlet, Chopin wrote the Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 3 and gave it the inscription “at the cemetery”. But when it was to go to print, he expunged the inscription, declaring “let them guess”.’ In Szulc’s commentary, we read: ‘When improvising among a group of friends and acquaintances, Chopin would often produce musical pictures of situations and episodes from domestic and public life, the characters of people with whom he was on intimate terms, and so on […] Yet he did not like to give his works – as others did – grandiloquent titles to clarify the content, preferring to let them speak for themselves’.

There is no certainty as to whether the anecdote about the Shakespearean inspiration for this work was repeated after Szulc or came from some other sources; suffice it to say that it echoed far and wide and was mentioned in subsequent books on Chopin. Present-day Chopin scholars have endeavoured to verify it. Jean–Jacques Eigeldinger has checked where and when Chopin attended Hamlet. He is certain to have seen it in Warsaw, in the summer of 1830, and then in Paris, in January 1833 – the same year in which the G minor Nocturne is believed to have been composed.

Another Chopin expert, Jeffrey Kallberg, tries to negate the anecdote: it appeared too late, and Szulc did not disclose the sources of his information; so there is no reason to believe him out of hand. Yet for all the scepticism, the Shakespearean motif is repeated insistently in older and more recent interpretations – in the near or distant background – from Ashton Jonson and Huneker to Jachimecki and Zieliński.

When listening to the Nocturne in G minor, yielding oneself up to its peculiar atmosphere – ‘fantastic’ for Huneker, ‘mystical’ for Jachimecki, ‘surreal’ for Zieliński – there is no need to link it to Hamlet or Ophelia. Maurice Ravel once recalled an aphorism that he attributed to Chopin: ‘There is nothing more senseless than music without arrières pensées’, without ‘thoughts that stand behind them’.

The Nocturne in G minor combines two different worlds, which together create no familiar form, unless we think of the Baroque juxtaposition of an improvisational prelude and a strict four-part chorale. And so this binary – and not ternary (as per usual) – nocturne comprises two different kinds of music, brought into harmony. In the first section, which Chopin conceived of as being played not just lento (slowly), but languido e rubato, and so (literally) languidly and waveringly, the melody hesitates and has second thoughts, pondering, as if unsure of its next step. One is set in mind of the words of André Gide, from his wonderful Notes on Chopin [Notes sur Chopin], when he quotes the recollections of genuine witnesses: ‘We are told that when he was at the piano Chopin always looked as if he were improvising; that is, he seemed to be constantly seeking, inventing, discovering his thought little by little.’[i] In the G minor Nocturne, this mode of musical thinking, of musical improvisation, was committed to the page. In the second section, we hear a chorale, played sotto voce, as if under one’s breath, in a quietude that evokes the mood of religious contemplation. To make it quite clear, Chopin added above the music – for the only time in his life – the word religioso.

But that is not all. The melody of the first section, melancholically disposed, spun out on the rhythms of a kujawiak and in an Aeolian-leaning tonality, transforms itself towards the end (before the chorale) into a series of dramatic cries or questions hurled into space, to which there is no answer. The chorale that fills the second section of the Nocturne also becomes strange music that seems to stand still, and it is also replete with unanswered questions. There is no doubt that we have before us one of Chopin’s most mysterious, unfathomed works.

The G minor Nocturne aroused the keen interest of Robert Schumann, who tried to compose variations on a theme taken from the work’s first section. Yet for reasons unknown he did not complete them.

[i] André Gide, Notes on Chopin, tr. Bernard Frechtman (New York, 1949), 21.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
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