The nocturne was first used as a composition played at an evening party, to inspire thoughts of the twilight hours. The term was first official given to a composition by John Field, an Irish composer who had an indirect influence on Chopin’s own music. Chopin openly admired Field and was influenced by his compositions. Field however, held no regard for Chopin’s talent at the piano or as a composer.
The nocturne follows a set pattern of melody in ternary form. A well-defined melody is set over arpeggios in the left hand. Chopin breaks from the traditional pattern in a few of his 21 nocturnes, adding more sections to the ternary form and more technically challenging embellishments to the melody line. Chopin’s love of chromatics is evident in many of the nocturnes. Chopin embellishes the right-hand melody with quick runs, turns, trills, and mordents, most of which are centered on chromatics.
Chopin expanded the depth of the Nocturne by adding elements of classical music. He was greatly influenced by Mozart’s piano music and many French and Italian operas. His compositions included the base nocturne structure of ternary form, a strong right-hand melody, and arpeggios throughout the left hand. To this base structure, Chopin added counterpoint to add tension that created a dramatic effect. He also, like Field, used the pedal extensively to heighten emotional expression through sustained notes. Rubato was liberally employed, giving each piece a flowing feel that helped create the vocal-like qualities of Chopin’s Nocturnes.
Though not as popular at the time, Chopin’s Nocturnes are now considered an essential part of standard piano repertoire. Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No.2 is one the most recognized pieces by musicians and casual music lovers alike. Other classical composers, such as Liszt and Mendelssohn were greatly influenced by the nocturnes of Chopin.
The first 18 of the Nocturnes were published between 1833 and 1846. The final three were published posthumously by 1870. The first nocturne published after his death was actually Chopin’s first attempt at the nocturne. It was composed in the late 1820’s. The second and third nocturnes were composed in the early 1830’s.