This year the world commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).
Figure 1 Federic Chopin (1810-1849)
My first contact with Chopin was an old movie, The Eddy Duchin Story, starring Tyrone Power (1914-1958) and Kim Novak. My parents took us to a second-timer cinema for the movie's replay, so I am sure not many of you know about it. What I am sure is that many of you must have heard the movie's theme music ― Chopin's Nocturne in E flat major, which still touches the heart every time I listen to it.
Nocturne was among the many genres in piano music on which Chopin made major innovations. In the words of Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), the sublime beauty in his music "revolutionized the art form and opened the way for all modern music".
Speaking of nocturnes, the Irish composer John Field (1782-1837) was generally viewed as the father of the Romantic nocturne.
The aforementioned Chopin's Nocturne was perhaps the best known among his over 20 nocturnes. It was the second among the three nocturnes he first published (Opus 9 in 1833), composed while he was about 19. The first of these three, B flat minor, is popularly heard in commercial advertisements. If one associates the leading melody (repeated in the conclusion) with nighttime, evening or dusk, then the following melody in the middle must allude to a warm, quiet summer day that brings relief and light-heartedness. The third, B major, is rarely heard but demonstrates such a significant innovation that extends beyond Field's influence.
Thus, the emotion brought by Chopin's nocturnes is not confined to the word 'night'. They extend beyond nature's night scene and lovers' secret meetings under the moonlight. They remind us of nightingales' songs, the warmth and dreaminess of a summer night, contemplation by the lakeside, and the sense of loss and helplessness after thunderstorms. They may even allude to wanderings in a graveyard and meditation in a church or monastery.
If I were to recommend recordings of Chopin's nocturnes, it would have to be those by Paderewski, Cortot and Lipatti in bygone days, or Barenboim and Pollini in recent decades. But my listening experience is very limited and the choice very personal.
My favourite among these nocturnes is the E flat major (Opus 55, No. 2). Classical in every sense and lovely played by Pogorelich, it speaks to, and looks forward to, the modern world with its warm sentimentality and mild nostalgia.
Of those Chopin nocturnes published posthumously, the most well-known perhaps is the C sharp minor. It has been popularized in 'The Pianist', the Oscar-winning movie in 2002. To those listening to Radio Television Hong Kong's classical music channel, it was the theme music, played in violin and orchestra, for 'Enchanting Music'. Hosted over the past 50 years by Mr Chan Ho-choi, who passed away in July aged 75, the programme must have charmed generations of music listeners.
(a) 'Chopin's creations', People's Publishing Co., 2008 (in Chinese)