How easily can a genre of music be defined? John Banther and Linda Carducci explore the origins of the Nocturne and how it evolved from its simple defining characteristics over the next 200 years. 

Show Notes

Nocturnes to enjoy after the episode


John Field, Nocturne No. 5 in Bb Major. David Quigley, piano.


A Nocturne by Clara Schumann played on her actual piano! Tiffany Poon, piano.

Performances of Scriabin's Nocturne for the left hand

Sergey Kuznetsov, piano

Aidan Mikdad, piano. 

Omny Transcript

John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Linda Carducci, and we are talking about music that specifically deals with the night, the nocturne. But as you'll hear, defining that is sometimes easier said than done. We explore the origins of the nocturne, who came up with the idea, how it evolved, who wrote the most varied settings, and how it's still with us today in pop and film scores in the 20th and 21st centuries.
We have the opportunity to do something really funny in this episode, Linda, because the Webster dictionary definition of nocturne is simply, " A work of art dealing with evening or night, especially a dreamy pensive composition for the piano." I think that about says it all, don't you think? Should we just go get a coffee or something? We can end this one early.

Linda Carducci: That is rather concise, isn't it?

John Banther: It is.

Linda Carducci: Yeah. Although I might add that that may be the definition of the 19th century nocturne, but as was typical during the 20th century, all of a sudden all bets are off and the forms are strengthened and they're relaxed and called other things than we traditionally think. So yes, I think that definition applies to maybe the 19th century nocturnes.

John Banther: And of course the answer for us lies a little bit deeper. So we can go to the Harvard Music Dictionary definition, which says, " Nocturne, the title for certain instrumental works of the 19th and 20th centuries, typically for solo piano. Such works generally do not derive from the 18th century genre of ensemble music termed the notturno. The title was first used in 1812 by John Field, whose 18 nocturnes employed the texture commonly associated with a repertory, a lyrical melody accompanied by broken chords pedaled to collect the harmonies."
Okay, there's a lot to unpack there and we'll get to John Field and those nocturnes, which really do set off the genre in a moment. But we can look at the sentence just before that because Linda, this is another one of those things that's defined by what it is or what it isn't. There's some exclusions. Instrumental works of the 19th and 20th centuries typically for solo piano, generally not those deriving from the 18th century ensemble music termed notturno.

Linda Carducci: Correct. The 19th century and 20th century forms didn't evolve as an evolution from the 18th century form of Mozart. Just for clarification, when we talk about 18th century, of course, we're talking about the 1700s. Mozart, Haydn, early Beethoven. They did some notturno pieces, but those were not intended to evoke nighttime. Instead, those were intended to be performed at nighttime. And it may be a small garden party, that sort of thing. When we talk though, John, as you said about the 19th century and the 20th century nocturnes, those are of a different form. They did not evolve directly out of the 18th century.

John Banther: And even thinking about Mozart, one of his most recognizable tunes, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, night music is in the name, but again, it isn't an nocturne. So let's go to the example literally in the definition. John Field, 18 nocturnes. Well first, who was John Field? He was an Irish composer born in 1782 in London, and he died in 1837. His first nocturne came in 1812 when he's about 30 years old. And we hear those characteristics mentioned in the definition right in the first nocturne, Linda, from the beginning, " A lyrical melody accompanied by broken chords pedaled to collect the harmonies."
A lyrical melody, I think we understand that pretty clearly, but what about broken chords pedaled to collect the harmonies? Because now we're talking about something more. To briefly explain broken chords, that's what we're talking about when we mention arpeggios. So instead of playing an E- flat major chord again and again on downbeats, you play each note of the chord separately, breaking the chord. But Linda, something that may be a little unfamiliar is the phrase " pedaled to collect the harmonies." Can you explain that for a moment? As a pianist, what does that mean? What do you have to do with the piano?

Linda Carducci: Well, traditionally a chord is a structure. It's a harmonic device. It provides harmony traditionally of three or more notes played simultaneously, so you hear them simultaneously. Sometimes, though, they are broken up. The notes are not played simultaneously, they're played individually. The same notes though of that chord. So that would be an arpeggio. And by the way, Johann Sebastian Bach used broken chords all the time. He used them as melodies.

John Banther: Oh, yeah.

Linda Carducci: He used them in his melodies a lot of times. But when we look at then arpeggio, which is a broken up chord, each note is played separately, but instead of each note of the chord being played and then released, silence, played, released, silence, played, released. Instead, those three notes, each one is held down so that its sound continues on to the next note that's played. And then those two are held down until the third one is played. Or it could be a rolling of the three, but there is some simultaneous overlap of sound in an arpeggio when we talk about pedaling the chord.

John Banther: So you can achieve that by holding literally the keys down on the keyboard as you're going to the next note and sustaining the previous one, but also with an actual pedal on the keyboard.

Linda Carducci: Yes, you can also use the pedal. So you would play the first note and then pedal to capture that note and then hold down the pedal as you play the remaining notes. You can release the pedal as need be though maybe for the melody. You don't want to cause any sort of dissonance.

John Banther: Yeah, you have to do a lot of juggling, I think, when you play the piano. Maybe why I didn't really do well in my elective class on piano. It was an elective for a reason, but I could never get a hold of those pedals. And of course, rules are made to be broken as well as we know in music. And perhaps the most famous set of nocturnes people are likely familiar with are actually the ones by Frederick Chopin. And he started writing his set in 1827, about 15 years after the first one by John Field. And they weren't writing them one after another, they'd be writing them and adding to them over the years. But Linda, what would you say is the biggest difference between the two, the nocturnes between Chopin and Field?

Linda Carducci: I would say John Field was earlier than Frederick Chopin. And in fact, Frederick Chopin as a young man heard John Field as a pianist. I think Field's are a little simpler. They are less complex than the form that evolved under the hands of Frederick Chopin. They are less dense and they have less ornamentation than Frederick Chopin. And I think the focus is more on tranquility with the John Field piano nocturnes as opposed to the Frederick Chopin piano nocturnes. Chopin has a bit more drama as he does in almost all of his pieces. More ornamentation, again, a very traditional trademark of Frederick Chopin. Drama piano piece, that would be something almost as a performance piece. So something that we would listen to in a salon, not necessarily just a dream by.

John Banther: Yeah, I love how they are really different. John Field, to me, it feels very in the moment, me alone, solitude, a windless night. Maybe I'm standing in a field with the full moon and it's just... I don't know. But Chopin's are something more urgent, something more outward rather than maybe inward. And they actually knew each other and I think Chopin admired Field's music, but John Field did not quite feel the same way about Chopin. And I think Chopin was an acquired taste for some back then too.

Linda Carducci: Could be. Each of them were writing nocturnes for piano. Each one was an accomplished pianist. But as you mentioned, Chopin's are a bit more complex. They're more dense. They have a little bit more drama, I believe, to them. And also I think that some of the Chopin nocturnes have a section where we have almost turbulence and then a resolution to a more tranquil work. I don't get quite that complexity in the John Field nocturnes.

John Banther: Yeah. And one of the reasons I think the nocturne has grabbed audiences, home musicians and people, is something a little bit deeper that is below the surface and that's the form of the piece. Nocturnes are typically in ternary form. Now don't worry about the actual theory about ternary form because I am definitely not. But what it means is we have something here we can describe in three parts, like A, B, A, meaning we have an A section, a contrasting B section, and then we have the A section returning again in some form. It's not always exact.
And we can really hear how ternary form sounds in practice with actually Chopin's nocturne number seven, Opus 27, number one in C- sharp minor. It begins, of course, with the A section. We have that nice arpeggio on the left hand, very simple melodic line in the right.
Now listen to this section a little bit later and listen for maybe when you can hear something change, a transition into the B section. So that contrast can be tonal, like a different key, tempo like we suddenly speed up here in Chopin's nocturne or something else that contrasts with the A section. Sometimes it's very obvious, sometimes it isn't, but that really helps.

Linda Carducci: It can be a change of mood, as you say. In this particular one, it was 27, No. 1, it's a pretty marked change. He changes meter. So the nocturne starts initially in 4/ 4 meter. The B section is 3/ 4, and then Chopin returns to the A section at the end, pretty much in the same style as the first section, pretty much the same mood with maybe a little bit more ornamentation.

John Banther: And Chopin adds a little bit more sometimes, like a little cadenza before the A section returns. Funny to think about solo piano having its own cadenza, but little moments like that... When you have the A, B, and A sections coming up, it's nice to know these things and it's nice to then be surprised by little additions or subtractions there. And Chopin wrote, like we said, some of the most popular nocturnes.

Linda Carducci: He did. And we were talking about Opus 27 No. 1 just now, which is a rather dramatic, a bit dark, mysterious work. It's in a minor key, that's Opus 27 No. 1, but also contained within that Opus 27 is another one, No. 2, which is also very popular and performed a lot. And in fact, Rachmaninoff would sometimes perform that as an encore. That one is in a major key and it is just beautiful, just a beautiful work.
So it somewhat contrasts. Here we have two nocturnes written by Frederick Chopin, published within Opus 27, but somewhat contrasting so we can see that nocturnes don't have to have exactly one mood all the time.

John Banther: No.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, they can have variations within that. Also, the other thing is when our listeners listen, if they do, to Opus 27, No. 1 and 2, which I recommend that they do, they will notice that in No. 2, Chopin adds a fioritura section at the end, which is breathtaking. The right hand just goes off on its own little filigree that can be very difficult to perform, by the way, just as a little flight of fancy, a little filigree, before he comes back to the main theme again.

John Banther: That one is beautiful and so many of them are as well. And I love how they're short because then you get surprises. You're not listening to one whole long thing and, " Ah, maybe I didn't like that so much," and 10 minutes has gone by. But little surprises as they're only a few minutes long. Now, John Field and Frederick Chopin, they were the main composers or big influencers of this style for a while from what I can find, especially with Chopin in the 1830s, you start to see more of these nocturnes being composed by other composers.
Like in 1836, Clara Schumann writes a nocturne, as you see it called pretty much everywhere. And it was not a standalone work, but rather it was within a larger piano work called Soirées Musicales and in the music itself, I see it sometimes titled notturno, but when you listen to it really sounds like a nocturne, even with its slight evolution from just a lyrical melody and broken chord accompaniment on a piano. There's an instance where it makes sense that even though it's labeled notturno, it does sound like a nocturne. But yeah, you see it pretty quickly start to mix up a little bit after only 20 something years of John Field's first nocturne.

Linda Carducci: A cantabile melody, a singing melody in the treble, beautiful harmony in the base, a lot of times broken chords, but not necessarily and evoking that mood very much in Clara Schumann's notturno.

John Banther: And we can see that it's not always the case that a notturno or something even called a nocturne is really quite a nocturne in the same way in Felix Mendelssohn's 1826 incidental music to Midsummer Night's Dream, there is a section that's often referred to as an nocturne, has a beautiful horn solo. And it's not really like anything we've heard in an nocturne so far. In the play, this is supposed to accompany a scene of sleeping lovers between acts and I don't know, what do you think? Is this really a nocturne or is it a nighttime transition in a play? Maybe it's like a tissue and Kleenex situation. I don't know when it comes to the nocturne, but sometimes you hear it and it's like, " This feels like more of an interlude than rather the plot itself."

Linda Carducci: I think this is an example of the breaking of the boundaries that took place during the Romantic era of the 19th century. The music was based on personal expression and freedom from structures of the 18th century, and so things began to be expanded during the Romantic era. And I think we're seeing an example of that with Felix Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream nocturne, an expansion of the primary definition of nocturne that we saw with John Field and Frederick Chopin. So now it's not necessarily a piano piece with a cantabile melody and arpeggiated left hand harmony. Now we're expanding into something that just may be is depicting a nighttime.

John Banther: And we'll get into how the nocturne evolves and the later part of the 19th century and going forward right after this.
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As we know from so many other episodes, musical definitions and rules really break down going into the later part of the 19th century and especially in the 20th. And we can take a look at three very different nocturnes composed in three years. In 1892, Mel Bonis, she wrote a nocturne for flute and piano also within a larger work, Scenes From a Forest.
In 1893, Augusta Holmes writes a song, and this is the first example of a song I found as a nocturne. It opens with the beautiful line, " In the plains of the night, your image leads."
And in 1894, Alexander Scriabin, again in a much different nocturne here, one for the left hand alone. Now, music for the left hand, or more broadly a single hand, while uncommon, was already composed by several different composers at this point. But it's interesting, Linda, to hear how Scriabin achieves the nocturne sound. When we think about the definition as being two separate musical ideas, melodic line and arpeggios, but that's just being played by one hand.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, with Scriabin, he combines them. You're correct. The traditional piano nocturne has the cantabile lyrical melody in the right hand, in the treble and the left hand is doing the arpeggios to accompany it. Well, Scriabin decided to combine them so that the entire work is done only for the left hand. So the question is with one hand, how are you achieving the harmony, the arpeggiated harmony... It doesn't have to be arpeggiated, I guess, with a melody? And it's fascinating to see that he was able to do that as other composers have done, as you've mentioned.
There is a YouTube video of this being performed by Sergey Kuznetsov, and we can see him in concert with his right hand on his chair the whole time and the left hand playing the entire work, which is a beautiful, evocative nighttime work by Alexander Scriabin. The top part of his left hand is playing the melody mostly in the intermediary part of the register of the piano. And the left hand will alternate with the melody sometimes, but very quickly so it sounds like it's almost simultaneously the base and harmony. Together, it's just beautiful because you're hearing altogether this really unique harmony that was pretty much a trademark of Alexander Scriabin.

John Banther: And just after this in 1899, Debussy completes nocturnes composed for orchestra. Now, Debussy really did us dirty on this one because these are nocturnes, but of course you listen to them, they don't sound like nocturnes because they're not based on the musical nocturne form. They're based on nocturne paintings. So I find that very funny.

Linda Carducci: They have a tranquility, a peaceful sense to them, almost a dreamlike meditation. So I guess that fits the definition of nocturne. But again, as you said, John, we're seeing now an expansion of the definition that we were holding true with John Field.

John Banther: Yes, and they're beautiful nocturnes by Debussy. If you just Google that, you'll also get to the paintings as well, which are beautiful. And we've seen it now for so many different things in different settings. We also see it in ballet with Copland's Rodeo, the Corral nocturne, I think it's titled.

Linda Carducci: And this particular nocturne is a very peaceful, sensitive, soft, wistful work. It depicts a young cowgirl, and she's alone at night out in the twilight, and she's thinking about her lover. And I think that this is an example of the talent that Aaron Copland had for orchestral music that had this depiction of space, of openness, of limitless sky, big western landscape and limitless sky, and a wistful nature that many of the pioneers had when they were going west. He depicts that so beautifully musically.

John Banther: And I think Copland, with this example, it's the first one that I think is culturally even relevant to us today in the United States, that sound of Copland. And to be fair, Copeland is much closer to us culturally and time- wise than Mendelssohn could ever hope to be. But just another great example of a nocturne within an ensemble, but he also wrote one for piano. I love this one. He calls it Midsummer Nocturne. And I love the addition of " midsummer" in the title because I think that also really puts us in a actual place. When I was on air during the week, oftentimes when I had time in the summer, a little bit extra time, I would include this. Later in the night, I always thought it was nice to... You have this and maybe the crickets or cicadas are out there. It's just a perfect companion.

Linda Carducci: There is a mood of mid- summer, isn't it? It's a freedom. It's a little bit of a liberty. We are not quite as constricted as we are during the rest of the year. We can be outside more later and hear all, as you say, the crickets and the sounds of nature. So there is really something about midsummer, and I think you're right to include that in his title was really a great guide for us.

John Banther: Yes. And also speaking of outside, Bartók's Out of Doors.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, this is a work that I just think is fascinating. It's a suite for solo piano, maybe not for the uninitiated. It's a little bit different as Bartók can be. But it's an example of program music, at least at one part of it. Program music, meaning music that depicts something extra musical. For example, an animal or nature or a painting or even a literary device. Well, Bartók in his Out of Doors suite has a nocturne. Again, this is for solo piano. And in this, instead of trying to depict a mood as some of the earlier nocturne writers did, he's almost going in a program way and depicting the sounds of nature that one would hear outdoors in the summer.

John Banther: Oh, it's beautiful. And we're hearing a much different sound than John Field 115 years earlier. This was 1926 when Bartók wrote that nocturne for Out of Doors. One composer who wrote nocturnes for more settings than I could find of any other composer was Germaine Tailleferre. She wrote nocturnes for one piano, for two pianos, for flute and piano, for concert band, and more. So it's fun to see how one composer applies it to all of these different settings, and they're not all the same.

Linda Carducci: She's an inventive composer. Yeah, I recommend listening to her work.

John Banther: And something I was not aware of until you mentioned it actually, Linda, were the nocturnes that Dave Brubeck wrote. I had not known these.

Linda Carducci: Dave Brubeck, of course, the jazz pianist. He's known for Take Five primarily. That's his main signature piece. But he very much liked the Frederick Chopin nocturnes for solo piano. And so he wrote his own nocturnes that are somewhat riffs on the Chopin nocturnes.

John Banther: Yeah. And they have interesting titles as well. The most interesting one perhaps is one called A Misty Morning. You can find all kinds of things in nocturnes, even with Dave Brubeck, A Misty Morning.

Linda Carducci: A Misty Morning. Now I guess morning could be midnight or 1: 00 AM.

John Banther: Okay, that's true too, to be fair.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, but I agree with you. He probably didn't attend that.

John Banther: No, no, no. And we're getting on here, closer to today. Daft Punk, one of my favorite groups, wrote a nocturne for the 2010 movie, Tron Legacy. And I'd actually not heard this. I've not seen that movie actually, although they're one of my favorite groups. This is so funny to me because I wonder, would we even have this two centuries later if it wasn't for John Field? I think we would have this musical device. We are humans. We are not nocturnal so the nocturnal is interesting to us, or spooky or mysterious so we'll write about it. But we wouldn't even have this orchestral music written by Daft Punk, I think, or at least called this in 2010, if it wasn't for John Field. And even one more nocturne, one that Billy Joel composed.

Linda Carducci: 1971.

John Banther: Yeah, for one of his early albums, Cold Spring Harbor.

Linda Carducci: We owe a lot to John Field for even bringing this into our consciousness.

John Banther: Yes. This was a fun look at a particular genre that had its time and place and grew from there. And I think we would've always written about the nights with our curiosity, love, and fear of it. But yeah, without John Field in 1812, we wouldn't have this fun little gem of a genre.

Linda Carducci: Yes, something that we can enjoy from all eras.

John Banther: And I hope everyone uses this episode as a jumping off point. Maybe you have a favorite composer. See if they wrote a nocturne. Maybe you have a composer you really don't like, maybe see if they wrote a nocturne and you might be surprised. Okay, and with that, it's time to get to some listener email. What do we have, Linda?

Linda Carducci: Well, it's always fun to interact with our listeners through these comments that they send us. We very much appreciate that. We love the feedback. We love hearing from you with episode ideas or questions or comments. Sarah sent us this email.
She said, " I recently discovered your podcast and have been binge listening to catch up. I really enjoy the deep dives and insights into all that you discuss. I don't think you've done one yet on Sibelius or any of his pieces, if I remember correctly, and I would love to hear more about him. I fell in love with his work in high school when we performed Finlandia and the first movement of his violin concerto. I personally feel his third and fifth symphonies are some of the most beautiful music ever composed. Thank you so much for all the good content."
Well, thank you, Sarah, for that very good suggestion.

John Banther: Thank you so much, Sarah. I also fell in love with Sibelius when I played his music in high school, also Finlandia, but also his second symphony, which might be my favorite, one of my favorites from him. So maybe you'll be happy to know Sarah, that John Sibelius has been added to the list for this season so keep an eye out for that. Well, thank you so much, Linda, for joining me for this daytime conversation about all things nocturne.

Linda Carducci: Thank you, John. Enjoy your evening.

John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at You can send me comments and episode ideas to classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.