Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four and is a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
The night has always been an inspiration for composers. There is even a specific genre, nocturne, conjured up especially for it. They tend to be gentle, but the night is shadowy and composers have tapped into the supernatural and unsettling associations of what might occur under the cover of darkness.
7 Composers and Compositions Inspired by the Night
- Field and Chopin: Nocturnes for Piano
- Debussy: Trois Nocturnes for Orchestra
- Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
- Manuel de Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain
- Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht
- Britten-Rossini: Soirées Musicales
- Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
1. Nocturnes for Piano: Field and Chopin
If you listen to a bel canto aria, such as one by Donizetti or Bellini, you can hear the the adaptation John Field made to create a new genre for the piano. An engaging melody, when repeated, is subjected to all manner of florid enhancement to entertain the audience and show off. And so the nocturne was born.
John Field is generally credited with its invention together with his considerable influence on Chopin, who we probably mostly associate with the genre. Field wrote 18 nocturnes, Chopin 21.
In this E flat nocturne you can clearly hear the influence on Chopin's own E flat version from his Op 9 collection, with it's embellishments of single notes, played over an arpeggiated bass. Field's is very charming and he deserves more outings on the concert platform than he currently enjoys.
By contrast, the Chopin nocturnes, have remained popular, partly because they are within the capabilities of competent pianists, myself included.
All the nocturnes are song-like, often wistful and occasionally dancing along and you feel as if you are taken by the hand and lead into the unhurried, sedate world Chopin has created for each one of them. He increasingly ornaments the melodic line as the nocturne progresses before winding down the double bar.
2. Debussy: Trois Nocturnes for Orchestra
At the end of the nineteenth century Debussy created his own nocturnes.Curiously his three Nocturnes weren't for piano, as so any of his works were, but for orchestra and women's chorus. The three nocturnes are entitled Nuages (Clouds), Fêtes (Festivals) and Sirènes (Sirens).
Debussy's Nocturnes took their inspiration from Whistler impressionistic paintings and according to the composer himself: "It is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, rather all the various impressions and special effects of light that the word suggests." 1
Nuages whispers in delicate string chords, using a simple but mysterious theme, meringues of lightness wisping across the dark sky. The oboe interjects, bringing with it an eastern, exotic hue, as if it is looking down on earth, at you; it's all slightly uncomfortable. The overall effect of music is troubled, clouds come and go, transient, nothing is permanent, all is illusionary.
Fêtes is not the crowded bustle of Stravinsky's St Petersburg's fair, more a festival of will o' the wisps, bouncing from cobweb to cobweb, all coming together, joining hands in a line before the entry of the snare drum and the jazzy celebration of being side by side before they depart to create mischief.
According to legend, the sirens beguiled sailors with such wondrous voices that they found them irresistable and were drawn in to their deaths.
The wordless female chorus, present only in this last nocturne, washes in and out, performing their seductive plaints, the melodic line ebbing and flowing. The chorus is embodied in the orchestra, yet feels far away, untouchable, mirages of the sea, promising an unknown, irresistible world.
Debussy wisely keeps the atmosphere muted, the lid is never taken off. The chorus never sings without the orchestra, they remain within, shielded by a veil of light instrumentation, a presence of fateful promise. Signals are sent out through individual orchestral instruments, designed to lure. Before you know it you are drifting towards the sirens and then are gone.
3. Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
As one of the most technically exacting works for piano, Gaspard de la Nuit is as terrifying for the performer wrestling with almost impossible pianistic challenges as the subject matter that prompted Ravel to compose this exhilarating work.
Based on poems by Aloysius Bertrand, the Gaspard of the night is from the Persian to mean the 'The Man in Charge of the Treasures'. There are three movements, Ondine, Le Gibet and Scarpo.
Ondine was a water godess who forfeited her immortality for the handsome prince Palemon, He promised to be faithful with every waking breath, but when Ondine discovered his betrayal she cursed him so that he would never again be able to sleep.2
The faintest ripple on the surface of the lake opens the work, Ondine taking short dives beneath the surface, the water spraying her as she revels in her aquatic world.
As the music enters the heart of the work, the music is coated with tainted, increasingly sinister harmonies, left hand glissandi swishing up the water before the final lure. She contemplates, catching her breath just for a moment, when the right hand plays an unharmonised simple melody, before she rises up and pulls down her victim to the depths of the lake.
Le Gibet opens with the toll of bells, before a dirge sounds out in the bass. The bells clang continuously, the corpse a clapper hanging in the evening sun.The campanella housing the bells are juxtaposed against the wooden structure of the gallows, a tower stripped down to the bare essentials to accommodate the sentence of death.
The music is divided into three staves, even though there only two hands. The bottom stave is mostly concerned with sustained pedalled chords, over which the gibet swings, the repeated seesaw of two chords swaying back and forth.
The music finishes as it started: the bells are tolling for thee, they tell the corpse.
In the final movement, Scarpo, the flavour is Spanish, the fast repeated notes owing a backward glance back to Domenico Scarlatti. It is, though, by far and away beyond the reaches of Scarlatti in difficulty, competing with Balakirev's Islamay for the acclaim of the most technically difficult piano piece to play. Stylistically there is a strong comparison with Balakiriev both in the taste of the exotic and those almost impossibly demanding repeated notes
Scarpo is the decathlete on the field, he can turn his hand to anything, graceful, showy, a creature of impish fireworks, darting hither and thither, engaging you in a game of hide and seek, whispering around corners before disappearing in a flash.
The pianist is required to perform highly virtuosic, almost unattainable gymnastics whilst preserving a diaphanous quality. The feathery touch must not mean pale - notes should be agile and quixotic and as distinct as any individual instrument - this is as close as you can get to full orchestra on a piano. Bravo to any performer who can bring this daunting showcase to the concert hall.
4. Manuel de Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Now should you rub the lamp and ask the residing genie for something sultry for the evening he might conjure up Nights in the Gardens of Spain to keep you entertained.
Pure atmosphere, pure heat. The dry, arid Andalusian paronama, where Falla was born.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain are a group of nocturnes which started out as a work for piano solo. The pianist Ricardo Viñes, to whom the work was dedicated, put forward the idea that they would be enhanced by adding a orchestra.2
There are three nocturnes in all. The outer two describe actual gardens, at the Ahambra Palace - the Generalife - and at the Sierra de Córdoba, both of which I've had the good fortune to visit, with the abstract middle nocturne called 'A DIstant Dance'.
It's the music to eat hot chillis to, tempered by a cool yoghurt dressing while sitting by dancing fountains, bejewelled cascades of water illuminated by the moonlight. There are beautiful expanses of wonder to be had by any mesmerised observer- yet at times you could be transported to a film set, such is the strikingly illustrative quality of the music.
It's a true partnership between piano and orchestra. The pianist has some wonderful glissandi passages on the black keys, requiring to flatten them with the palm of the hand, a real visual spectacle. In fact you will find many of the same idioms here as in Gaspard de la Nuit such as repeated notes - not as fearsomely rapid though, more like a ballet dancer on pointe retaining her position on the stage.
Falla transports you to this area of southern Spain, a land of flamenco and passion, the music creeping in as it does at the beginning of the work with little whirlpools of sound so as not to disturb the beauty of the Generalife, backlit by the moonlight.
Bombastic, vibrant clusters of sound break out, there are hints of Moorish influence by way of local folk tunes and dancing rhythms, always softening into the gentler mood of quiet intimacy, winding down in pace as if to reflect in the mirrored water of these exotically designed gardens.
5. Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht
If Gaspard de la Nuit is at the limit of a pianist's technical ability, Verklärte Nacht is at the outer edge of tonality.
In this early work before Schönberg ventured beyond that boundary and travelled, musically speaking that is, to boldly go where no man had gone before - the atonal land of the twelve note system.
This work is brooding, matching the nature of the storyline - two lovers walking in the moonlight, the woman dropping the bombshell that she is carrying another man's child. The man loves her enough to stand by her and bring the child up as his own.
To match the turbulent narrative the music is unsteady on its feet, reeling, tonally uncertain. Tortuous ecstatic moments burgeoun as the lovers work through what could have been a untenable situation. But it does finally resolve, with exquisite tenderness and the lovers walk on out of sight.
6. Britten-Rossini: Soirées Musicales
It's a pleasure to come across an upbeat collection of little pieces rather than the subdued nature of the nocturnes, or the menace of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, and the violent uncertainty of Verklärte Nacht.
Rossini created a collection of witty and generally lighthearted songs in later life after leaving behind the forty or so operas he'd produced to settle down to a well earned rest.
Growing up as a child, Soirées Musicales were frequently on the turntable of our radiogram, playing in the background as my father dealt out cards for whist, in the version by Benjamin Britten who was sufficiently captivated by their playfulness to use a handful of them for his own version of soirées.
Britten's orchestration is worthy of Rimsky-Korsakov, bright and breezy, showered with pretty fireworks all to amuse an audience and put them in a good mood. He made two suites.
During the first the listener is happily treated to a march, canzonetta (a little song), a tyrolean ditty, complete with yodelling, a bolero (listen out for the castanets for a taste of Spain) and a tarantella.
For the second there is another march (you can almost visualise the rank and file soldiers thumbing noses at their commanding officer), then an appropriate nocturne, followed by a waltz, a pantomime and a moto perpetuo. The perpetual motion makes for a whirlwind finale, going round and round at breakneck speed.
7. Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
if you were to ask the regular Joe in the street to name a classical piece of music associated with night time, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik would probably come up as the first answer.
It's hardly surprising it's so popular, it's relatively easy for amateur orchestras to play, easy on the ear, and uncomplicated.
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is a serenade written for strings and doesn't only consist of the familiar fanfare-style opening. There are in fact another three movements, all good humoured and designed to swing along while the audience of Mozart's day was probably chatting. A sort of Age of Enlightenment background music.
Although the opening is undoubtedly the most well recognised, the bouncy finale has remained very much in the general public domain. It makes great open air live party music and finishes on a ringing open G string rounding off a flourishingly good time.
Nowadays it's often played on period instruments by a select few specialist players at a faster, lighter pace than in the twentieth century when the intended fresh airiness of the style had a tendency to be weighed down by overly large string sections.
© 2018 Frances Metcalfe
Frances Metcalfe on April 30, 2018:
Hello Flourish. Gaspard de la Nuit is beyond most us pianists but not the listening to of it. I love all these pieces for the different reasons I set out in the article and it's a great way to get back in touch with some of the compositions I haven't heard for a while.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 29, 2018:
I really enjoyed the story behind the Ravel piece and was impressed by some of the hand gymnastics it takes to perform some of these pieces.
Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on April 14, 2018:
Hello Audrey, Thank you so much for your encouraging comments, they are very much appreciated. I always enjoy researching my articles - there's always an immense amount to learn, even when I think I know the pieces pretty well! You never know enough, though. It's also an opportunity to reacquaint myself with works that have got put a bit down the pile, or haven't been on the radio recently - I'm an avid listener. I guess you are a particularly sensitive teacher, on a similar wavelength to myself.
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on April 14, 2018:
As a professional pianist and teacher I can appreciate the music of these historic composers and pianists. Each one, mentioned in your article have provided me with challenges and immense growth as a pianist.
I enjoyed this very much. Each tribute is educational as well as inspiring. Thank you Frances. This is a keeper!