Allen Reiser writes a pedagogical column "Sound Thoughts" for
A.P.T.A.'s (Alberta Piano Teachers' Association) quarterly newsletter - "NEWS
AND VIEWS". It is amied at giving teachers hints and pointers about teaching
repertoire. The following is from that column and appeared in the Summer 2004
issue, Vol. XI #4.
Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. Posthumous. - FREDERIC CHOPIN
The works of Frederick Chopin are one of the glories of the piano repertoire. Unfortunately for students, Chopin wrote very little that is easy. Consequently, although there are a few smaller pieces available to students from the grade six level up, it is not really until grade nine that students can really begin to enter Chopinıs sound world in a significant way. At this grade level there are a number of his works to chose from including some of the nocturnes, a form so identified with Chopin that most people forget it was invented not by Chopin but by the Irish pianist, John Field (1782 - 1837). Of the grade nine nocturnes, perhaps the most poignant is the Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. Posthumous.
The C sharp minor Nocturne is a nostalgic piece written when Chopin was in his late teens. After a four-bar introduction, it has three distinct sections, or themes, followed by a recap of the first sectionıs theme and then a coda. It is a challenging piece, requiring some technical fluency, a competency with unusual rhythms, and a superior, sensitive musicianship. However, its strong emotional appeal, coupled with its beautiful keyboard sonorities, ensures that most students will be willing to spend the time required to polish it.
The introduction requires careful tone control, which can be attained by playing very close to the keys with a 'fixed' hand and the tone-producing motion coming from the arm. Use the una corda pedal for bars 3 & 4. The rests here should not be pedaled through, as it gives a more arresting opening to hear the silences.
The first theme, which starts in bar 5, has the character of a vocal lament. This melody really demands space so one should be sure to allow the phrases to breath, with melodic inflection, related to ascending and descending pitch, receiving careful attention. From bar 15 to bar 19 the music seems to require a bit more forward momentum to adequately reflect the passion within. Great care should be taken to highlight the melody while keeping the accompaniment figure softer. The trills require a facile fluidity to sound really beautiful, and seem to fit in best when allowed to start slower and accelerate through the trill. For a seamless melodic line, all of the trills will start on the principal note, thus avoiding beginning the trill with a repeated note, except when the trill has a prefix as in bar 11, where it should then begin on the upper note to again avoid a repeated note. The slide in bar 13 should not be rushed but allowed a certain time and freedom to be expressive. The cross-rhythm of two - against - three which occurs in bars 7 and 15 must be carefully practiced and mastered to avoid a rhythmic jerkiness which will occur otherwise. In working this rhythm out, it is worthwhile to point out to the student that the combined note placement of the right-hand triplet and the left-hand duple is one eighth, two sixteenths, one eighth. Have the student tap this combined rhythm hands together using the words 'not - dif - fi - cult' with 'not' and 'cult' falling on the eights and 'dif - fi' falling on the sixteenths. As the triplets here are in the right hand, it will tap on the syllables 'dif' and 'cult', the left hand will tap on the syllable 'fi', and the hands will tap together on the word 'not'. The student can then practice the passage saying the words out loud. Pedaling in this section generally works best when it is changed twice per bar, on beats one and three, thus allowing the important bass line to be sustained.
The second section begins at bar 21 and offers a welcome emotional change with a nostalgically wistful theme first in A major and then in F sharp minor. The two - against - three cross-rhythm here requires the same treatment as it did in the first section. The graceful dotted note figure present in bars 23-24 and 27-28 should not sound sluggish and can even have a subtle dance-like tripping quality to it. Emotional intensity resurfaces with an impassioned melodic fragment marked forte in bar 29 which quickly subsides in bar 30 which is marked pianissimo. Bar 29 can press forward and bar 30 can ritard a bit to emphasize the emotional contrast of these two bars. As in the first section the pedaling should be mostly two changes per bar, on beats one and three, although a slight half pedal may be necessary on beats 2 and 4 of bar 25.
The third section begins in bar 33 where the time signature changes to 3/4. Chopin wrote this nocturne at the same time when he was working on his F minor, Op. 21 Piano Concerto, and this mazurka-like theme is a simplified quote of one of the themes present in the last movement of that concerto. I would suggest that anyone who wants to attain a truly idiomatic performance of this theme can do so by listening to the last movement of the concerto. It will then be clear that this theme is more suited to be played a little faster than the rest of the nocturne. Many students have difficulty with the widely-spaced leaps in the left hand here. They can be more easily negotiated if the right hand helps out with a few of the left hand's notes. The right hand can play the last G sharp of bar 35 and then play the last two notes (B sharp and G sharp) of bars 39, 41 and 43. This section gradually plays itself out with a decrescendo and a ritard, moving in a relaxed and effortless fashion into the adagio arpeggio of bars 45-46.
The fourth section is a recapitulation of the main theme of the nocturne. This time though, it builds to a much more impassioned conclusion which Chopin marks 'appassionato'. Allowing this section to move forward from about bar 51 and then relaxing the tempo in bar 57 will do much to help the character here. The grace note in bar 57 should not be rushed.
The mesmerizing and emotionally exhausted coda requires fluent scale technique for an artistic performance. In order to play the largest of them (bar 59) fast enough the student will have to learn to play lightly, on the surface of the keys, with no arm weight. Most students will need the four scale flourishes to be subdivided at first for learning purposes. The scale in bar 58 can be divided into 4, 5, 5 and 4 notes to fit with the four left hand eighth notes. The scale in bar 59 can be divided into 6, 11, 10 and 8 notes. The scale in bar 60 can be divided into 3, 2, 3 and 3 notes. The scale in bar 61 can be divided into 3, 4, 3 and 3 notes. Once learnt, one can then allow the left hand to be a bit freer with its placement of eight notes, not insisting that they coincide exactly with any right hand notes except the first one of each run. Again the pedal in these bars should only be changed on beats one and three. Bars 62 and 63 have a rallentando in them which should be sufficient to bring the tempo to an adagio again for the final, serene arpeggio figure, which will then relate more noticeably to the arpeggio figure of bars 45 and 46.
Any serious discussion of this nocturne will also entail a consideration of editions. This nocturne was not published during Chopin's lifetime, and for some reason, its text has been subjected to a myriad of sometimes minor but quite often significant, changes. I will not venture a guess as to which currently available version is the most faithful to Chopin's original, but I personally find the one contained in Volume XVIII of Chopin's complete works edited by Paderewski to be the most plausible and satisfying.
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