Chopin’s Nocturne in Db major

Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2

Measure Observations


Chopin quietly sets up the tonality (Db major) and meter (6/8).  Despite this work being a solo piano piece, Chopin’s use of the pedal approximates an “orchestral” arrangement demonstrated, for example, by the first note, a low Db, that is allowed to ring through the opening four measures.  This creates an effect similar to a cello or bass being sustained.

The left hand accompaniment pattern starts here and remains largely unchanged through the entire piece.  Particularly notable in its design are the notes that occur on beats 2 and 5, primarily and the “and” of beat 6, to a lesser extent.  It is the notes found on these beats that often change in the accompaniment giving the effect of a secondary melody, or sometimes tertiary or quaternary melodies.  Those notes also create a distinct “groove” if you focus on them rhythmically.


Theme A

The primary melody begins in measure 2 and lasts for eight measures.  In that measure Chopin places an accented Eb passing tone on beat 4 in what otherwise would be a descending arpeggio of the tonic chord.  The next measure reverses the contour with an ascending arpeggio with no non-harmonic tones.  Measure 4 makes up for the plainness of its predecessor by placing an appoggiatura on beat one, which is also the highest note of the melody thus far.  The remainder of that measure is structured again with a descending arpeggio of the tonic chord with each pitch being approached with a non-harmonic tone- the Bb resolves to Ab while F and Db are approached by lower chromatic neighbor tones.  The chord tones end up being placed on the “and’s” of beats 4, 5, and 6 which creates a sense of longing in their delayed resolution supported further by their weak rhythmic placement.  This gives a glimpse into the very passionate melodic architecture of Chopin and also clearly demonstrates his ability to get a lot of mileage out of basic material through his ingenious use of melodic decoration.  Further architecture of design can be seen by breaking the 8-bar melody into two 4-bar phrases.  The highest pitch of each occurs in the third measure which can be seen as an ideal approximation of a climactic point if referencing the golden mean ratio derived from the Fibonacci series, as so often is the case in music, if one chooses to look for such things.  The occurrence of proportions found in the Fibonacci series belonging to objects found in nature is well documented.  Its use in music from this time period may be a reflection of the Romantics love of nature as a source of inspiration.



The next 8 measures contain new thematic material in four 2-bar phrases.  The first two are at the same pitch level but the second iteration changes harmony to transition to the third phrase.  Similarly the third and fourth phrases are at the same pitch level again with altered harmony in the fourth phrase to transition to the next section.  The repetition in such phrasing would be far less exciting in the hands of a lesser composer but Chopin alters each phrase rhythmically to prevent this from ever becoming mundane.  Each phrase becomes cleverer than the next with the last being exceptionally exciting.   In all of the three previous phrases the melodic resolution takes place on beat two of their second measure, which in itself is very exciting.  In the fourth phrase he delays that resolution to beat 3, just when you think it will never happen! (keep in mind that the tempo of this piece is very slow thus delaying the resolution even further)  Additionally it feels as though the end of each phrase is improvised.  Such variety and vocabulary easily suggest that Chopin was an excellent improviser.



The hallmark of new material here can be found in the descending melodic half step played in octaves that begins on the “and” of 2 in measures 18 and 20.  Each of those measures begin a 2-bar phrase that is rather similar, especially when compared to Chopin’s previously display of variety and interest.  The next 3 measures make use of a descending chromatic line that culminates with a wonderful and unexpected A major triad!  This is followed by transitional material that leads the listener back to…

Theme A

Theme A.  Chopin revisits the thematic material found in measures 2-9 which, in part, due to its defining characteristics taking place in the second half of its first measure, are rather unexpected resulting from a delay of familiarity for the listener.  This delay could simply be by happenstance but I choose to view it as the result of imagination and craftsmanship in the hands of a true master.  Can you imagine the amount of planning that is required to achieve such results?  With so many other melodic devices being employed prior to this Chopin successfully creates an expectation of yet another melody but feeds the listener with something that has already been heard.  Almost.  Once again Chopin’s brilliant use of variety in creating phrases that sound improvised appear as new transitional material in measures 32 and 33.  This use repetition of course gives unity while the “improvisations” create moments that are audibly stimulating.



Once again theme A is followed by theme B material.  Whereas theme A appears in its original harmonic setting theme B is radically developed.  It is recognizable as being this theme however by its melodic contour.  The first two bar phrase here is voiced in intervals of sixths rather than thirds as it has appeared previously; again a testament to Chopin’s employment of variety.
42-45 These four bars can be best described as transitional material.  Everything in the left hand accompaniment up to this point has been 2 groups of 6-notes.  In the second half of bar 43

Chopin utilizes 3 repetitions of a 4-note accompaniment pattern which greatly obscures the phrasing.  His use of melodic repetition is brilliant here and a trait that I find to be handled particularly well by Romantic composers.  The repetition here temporarily disperses the complexity right at a point where an average listener might otherwise start to lose interest.


Theme A

The material of theme A returns.  Measure four of the phrase lands on the note Cb rather than an A natural, as it has in all of its other statements.  It is interesting how Chopin creates similarity by choosing an equally odd note.  Both Cb and A natural destroy the sonority of Db major.  This could be seen as an example of what jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman refers to as intervallic denial in his book A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody.  This leads to an almost cadenza-like fury of notes (the accompaniment continues) that leads back to…



The melodic material found in theme B.  Once again it appears here at a different pitch level than either of its previous two statements.
62-69 This section bears similarities to the material found in measures 22-25 (the second half of what I have labeled as theme C), specifically a chromatic descending line.  This line is decorated here with a melodic tritone approach note!  This is then repeated in the next four bars only with a grace note preceding the note of resolution from a minor tenth above.
 70-77 Here Chopin devises an ending that is derived from the “improvisatory” transitional line that he uses to get into this section.  The accompaniment at this point is firmly in Db major to help finalize the piece.

Here is a link to a Youtube video for this piece:

Fryderyck Chopin (1810-1849) was a child prodigy of French and Polish descent.  Despite his prodigious talent he did not like performing in front of large audiences and therefore rarely performed in public.  Regardless, his reputation commanded high fees from students and this was how he primarily made his living.  He was able to add to that income by selling publications of his compositions which were mostly for solo piano.  What performing he did partake in usually found him playing in private Parisian salons in the company of intellectuals and connoisseurs.

Chopin’s music is often associated with Polish nationalism and his Nocturnes are of particular interest.  A “Nocturne” is a type of character piece whose first use of that descriptor can be traced to Irish composer John Field (1782-1837) in 1812.  Field was attempting to create a piano style derived from vocal music, particularly the Italian cavatina which were short, simple, and melodious airs that were often part of a larger movement in opera and oratorio.  Field’s 18 Nocturnes, with their lyrical melodies accompanied by broken chords that made use of the pedal to sustain the collective harmony, influenced Polish composer Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831) who was most likely the source of Chopin’s introduction to the genre.  It is worth mentioning that Italian music was what was mostly available in Warsaw during Chopin’s early years.

He is universally considered a Romantic composer for committing to the intensity of feeling in his music.   This is displayed in his use of chromatic harmonies and chromatic overloading which would be seen as being illogical if filtered through the ideals of the Baroque era.  His melodies are very lyrical and often thought of as being vocal-like; again a byproduct of his early exposure to Italian opera.

As displayed in the listening guide above Chopin’s reported abilities as an exceptional improviser are in full effect.  This allows him to create great variety in otherwise very predictable phrasing- Nocturne in D-flat Major is comprised entirely of four- and eight-bar phrases, outside the one-measure introduction.  His improvisational skills also give melodic and rhythmic interest to his phrases that are often highly decorated triadic material.  Chopin’s knack for creating rhythmic freedom in written melodic lines, akin to those found in improvising, which give his compositions a freedom, are beautifully contrasted by the stability of the left-hand material.  This rhythmic freedom often gives the sense that his melodies are falling behind their accompaniment eventually building in intensity so that a flurry of notes allows them to return to agreement.  As mentioned above, his use of the pedal allows him colors that are not often afforded to other piano composers.

If the ability to improvise can produce such wonderful compositional results, assuming one believes that possessing this skill carries as much weight as I am suggesting, why has it become such a lost art?  Especially in conservatories, despite being included almost universally in the objectives found in most curricula?  It can be assumed that the great improvising skills of the foremost composers, like those reported in Bach or Chopin, strongly infused their ideas.  Furthermore, this same skill set presumably made them less married to any one idea so that if a direction they may have been headed in for the creation of a certain piece wasn’t working they could easily abandon their current direction and decide on a new one with little worry.  The benefit to the prolificacy of these great composers can almost be understood when considering such an ability to improvise.

It seems as though the European composers of this time period share more commonalities with jazz musicians of the last 100 years than they do with any composers in the “classical” realm from a similar time frame.  I have studied in depth the history of jazz throughout the last year and it always strikes me how much the history of African-American music resembles the history of European classical music, in both style period and performance practice.  Additionally, isolated musical styles like those found on Jamaica also seems to parallel the history of popular American forms of music (and by extension European music) in their own way and in quite striking fashion.  Further discussion of this is probably best saved for a later time where more effort can be dedicated solely to this topic.  The point here is that different cultures seem to share a similar sort of “microcosm” of the same development, usually not taking nearly as long to develop as their predecessors- hopefully a bit of learning from the mistakes of others is at work.

A common query for jazz history classes is to come up with a composer in that genre who didn’t also possess virtuosic skill as a performer.  Commonly and very debatably people seem to arrive at just two answers; Duke Ellington, who is regularly regarded as the greatest American composer or better-worded, composer of truly American music, rightfully so in my opinion, and the great arranger Gil Evans.  Both were pianists who were certainly capable instrumentalists but neither would have had the illustrious careers that they did if left solely to their performance abilities (again, this is greatly debatable and not necessarily the primary topic of discussion here).  So why do we have so few modern classical composers who don’t improvise when we have so many of the greats, virtually all of them, who did?  Or, a better question, why are so many students studying composition at universities all over the world allowed to ignore this skill?  One answer, one that I have witnessed first-hand time and time again, is poor educators who judiciously leave this off of their coursework to hide the fact that it is a skill that they themselves do not hold, even though it appears as an objective which in part grants them the license to do what they are doing.

Before I am accused of being a jazz snob (or something more vulgar) let me state that I hold an Associate’s degree in classical guitar performance, a skill that I have kept up in all the years since, and I also believe that jazz music is in just as much danger of possessing less and less actual improvisation as it develops.  The insecurities of young jazz performers and the infancy of music programs that teach contemporary music, who are being forced to occupy the same space in universities as their classical counterparts, the same ones who are suggesting that you should study Bach as long as you leave his legendary skill as an improviser off the docket, are certainly part of the problem.  As long as people are suggesting that the way to learn improvisation is to learn the vocabulary of other musicians without ever stating the paramount importance of extrapolating one’s own ideas, improvisation will continue to die a slow death.  In some ways it would be beneficial to cut students off from listening to any music while they are studying improvisation, and let their only influence be the music that they have heard up to that point (as much of it as they could recall), so that they can be responsible for exploring the elements of music (harmony, melody, and rhythm) in an improvisatory way without feeling the need to sound like anyone else.  In doing so the originality that is so scarcely found in this art form would/could begin to be restored.


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