Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes

Frédéric François Chopin painted by his friend Eugene Delacroix in 1838
Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849), painted by his friend Eugene Delacroix in 1838

Network television has traditionally served up certain types of programming at certain times of the day.  Non-stop cartoons for kids?  When I was growing up, that what Saturday mornings were all about.  Soap operas?  Traditionally broadcast on weekday afternoons before 3 pm, presumably for housewives who had finished their chores but before the kids came home from school.  Evening news programs? Broadcast daily between 5 pm and 7pm, for adults who’ve just come home from work.

Let us dwell, in particular, on two more such network television designations: prime time, and late-night talk shows.

Prime time refers to generally adult programming broadcast – depending upon your time zone – between either 8pm and 11pm or 7pm and 10pm.  

Late night talk shows refer specifically to variety/interview shows broadcast between 11pm and 1am.

Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) would not have understood the concept of Saturday morning cartoons any more than he’d know how to operate a remote control.  Be he would absolutely have understood the concepts of prime time and late-night entertainment because there were media equivalents in his day. 

In Mozart’s day, a work designated as being a “serenade” or a “divertimento” was intended to be performed in “prime time”: around 9 o’clock in the evening.  

In Mozart’s day, a work designated as being “night music” – “nocturne” in French, “Nachtmusik” in German, and “notturno” in Italian – was, like late-night talk shows, intended for performance at around 11 pm.

John Field
John Field (1782-1837)

In the early nineteenth century, the eighteenth century Classical era designation “nocturne” was repurposed by an Irish pianist, composer, and teacher named John Field (1782-1837).  Among many other compositions, Field wrote a total of 21 piano works he called “nocturnes” between 1812 and 1836.  Unlike the nocturnes of the late eighteenth century, Field did not use the designation to indicate “when” the pieces were to be performed but rather, their mood.  His piano nocturnes are often dream-like works that are, in their quietude and blurry melodic and harmonic content, evocative of the mystery and darkness of the “night.” 

Field achieved these effects by writing works that are moderate to slow in tempo, with long, languid melodies in the treble (played by a pianist’s right hand), and an arpeggiated (broken chord) harmonic accompaniment in the bass (played by a pianist’s left hand).  His nocturnes are not to be played with an absolutely steady beat but rather, with a rhythmic flexibility called rubato.…

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