11.19.13 | Constraint

by Raymond

High points in music often are derived from absolute constraint in an earlier point in time. If the same level of drama or immediacy is kept from beginning to end, the high point would not be a high point, but rather a “mesa-like leveling”. This is a greatness of F. Chopin’s writings. He never fails to deliver an effective climax. He never intends to saturate his music with premature ideas.

I am still currently reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is said that most of the plot hangs on a relatively calm atmosphere. Melville takes time to develop the characters. The physical confines of the ship the crew is on is meant for this purpose. Even though the novel highlights a legendary whale hunt, it is the journey that matters, not the destination. Even though I am not even halfway into the novel, I can feel the characters coming more and more to life, and I will expect the destination to be worthy of the crew’s struggle.

The Chopin Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 is unarguably the most dramatic of his nocturnes. The nocturne starts off with an unpretentious, painstakingly subtle tempo. The main theme is presented in the first four bars, and it carries a feeling of sorrow. This A (of the ternary form A-B-A’) section of the piece will be the basis for the climax of the piece. The melancholy develops until the B section, where the piece modulates to C major, settling into further restraint. One may feel their sense of direction lost here. But Chopin had the innate ability to tie this absolute calm of a section into chromatic escalation, as the double octaves undulate. This transition into the A’ section is almost Lisztian.

The theme:

As the last vibrating octaves settle into the doppio movimento, the main theme is reintroduced almost melodically verbatim, however with a completely different texture and 4-3 polyrhythm. The polyrhythm proves to be a technical difficulty, but its purpose is to increase the tension of the music. A similar compositional technique is used in his Op. 66 Fantasie-Impromptu. As aforementioned, the melody in the A section is reused, but as Chopin understood the piano on an inhuman level, the atmosphere is virtually rewritten, and simple melancholy is transformed into utter despair. The doppio movimento is still amazingly restrained, with dynamics oscillating from pianissimo to piano for the near entirety of the section. Impeccable voicing and excellent tone quality with tone differentiation is required to truly do justice to this masterful composition. The nocturne is difficult without virtuosic intentions. The following near-coda is, simply put, exciting. For a few bars, I can feel that the tension cannot be pushed anymore- and it isn’t. The drama is put to an abrupt halt as the melodic line slows, and the bass figures follow a ritardando, and fall onto an absolute stop- the bottom C of the piano. The piece ends with an elaborate, delicate cadence, with fading sorrow.

The score is also provided, if you are interested in having a further look into the piece.


– Raymond