In Paris, far from his Polish homeland, Chopin gave his soul to the piano, creating for it music of unearthly beauty. Into the Nocturnes, he poured the greatest brightness of his genius.
Even before he left Poland, Chopin’s fame as a pianist was spreading. His first concert in Paris was greeted with rave reviews: ‘Here is a young man who … taking no model, has found, if not a complete renewal of piano music, … an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else.’ He was especially praised for the clarity, refinement and poetry of his playing. Such subtlety of expression was better suited to smaller venues than to grand concert halls — plus Chopin hated the fuss and bother of celebrity culture — so he gave most of his performances in the more intimate environment of private salons.
He is perhaps best known for his Nocturnes: a musical genre in which a song-like tune in the right hand is accompanied by a gentle flow of notes in the left hand, ranging widely over the keyboard. The rhythm is very flexible, so that nothing feels rushed, and the melody and the harmony — the right hand and the left hand — each seem to happen easily in their own time, yet still working together as one piece of music. The word ‘nocturne’ means ‘night music’, and the mood is tranquil and serene, evoking the beauty of a calm moonlit evening.
Chopin didn’t invent the nocturne; it was an Irish composer called John Field who wrote the first pieces in this style, in 1812. But Chopin’s Nocturnes — he wrote 21 altogether, over a period of nearly 20 years — took the genre to a new level of eloquence and emotional power, blending Romantic sensitivity with Classical elegance.