The Nocturne – inspired by or evocative of the evening and night-time – first appeared in the eighteenth century and referred to pieces written for string ensemble to be performed at an evening party. At this time, it was not necessarily a piece evocative of night-time but simply music to be played in the evening, Mozart's 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' being the most famous example.Read more…
In the early nineteenth century the term "Nocturne" became specifically associated with a short work for solo piano and the Irish composer John Field is credited with "inventing" the Nocturne in the form we know it now: a 'cantabile' ("singing") melody over an arpeggiated or guitar-like bass, free in form, full of reverie and tenderness, and rather languid in character. Frédéric Chopin took the genre to new heights of structure, expression and beauty, embroidering his own unique musical personality on Field's template.
But writing in this genre is not confined to the piano. Schubert's 'Notturno' D897, scored for piano trio, is a study in contemplative ecstasy with a mesmerising sustained melody, and a number of his Lieder take the evening and night time as their inspiration. There are Nocturnes for violin, string quartet, orchestra, voice and more, and as this playlist reveals composers took delight in the form to create music of striking expression and variety.
Twentieth-century and contemporary composers use the genre to depict the more unsettling or mysterious aspects of night-time, as in Bartók's "The Night’s Music" from 'Out of Doors', or Britten's evocative 'Notturno' (Night Piece). This work actually harks back to Chopin in its structure – outer parts with a lyrical melody over a gentle moving bass line and a middle section of greater drama – yet is also very much of its own time.