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Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major & Sonata in G minor

January 3, 2023

On this week's lecture, resident lecturer Bruce Adolphe discusses Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat major for Piano, Op. 9, No. 2 as well as Chopin's Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 65. Featuring a performance by Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Michael Stephen Brown, piano.

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Welcome to the Inside Chamber Music Podcast presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I'm Bruce Adolphe, Resident Lecturer at CMS, where I started the lecture series in 1992. In 2011, we began livestreaming the lectures on our website. The audio for this podcast comes from the ever growing archive of videos made available live and on demand at ChamberMusicSociety.org.

We look at the music from a compositional perspective and find parallels in novels, plays and poetry. Plus, we explore historical context and with live musicians in the studio. During the lectures, we experiment with performance issues. Today's podcast for Inside Chamber Music comes from Wednesday, November 17th, 2021. It features two works by Chopin, the Nocturne in E-flat, Major for piano Opus Nine Number Two and the Sonata in G Minor for cello and piano Opus 65 with Nicholas Canellakis, cello and Michael Stephen Brown, piano.

Hello and welcome again to the Rose Studio for another inside chamber music. Today we're looking at the slow movement of Chopin's Cello Sonata, Opus 65, the last work published during his lifetime. For nine years, Chopin was the friend and lover, and often cohabitant of Aurore Dupin, much better known as George Sand, the writer. And she wrote a lot about Chopin.

But the one thing that I want to quote of hers today is that she said, "Chopin did not need a saxophone or an ophicleide to fill a listener's heart with terror." It's an amazing quote. An ophicleide is a kind of tuba like instrument that sort of looks like a saxophone mixed with a tuba. It's not being used anymore.

But she was saying he didn't need a saxophone and he didn't need an ophicleide because all he really needed was a piano. And of course, we know that most of Chopin's music, the vast majority, is just solo piano. And yes, there are two concertos. There's an early piano trio from age 18 that is not very good, primarily because the violin writing is terrible.

And then he collaborated with a very, very close friend, Auguste Franchomme, a cellist who taught cello at the conservatoire, and he was Chopin's closest French friend for a great deal of his life. Of course, you know, Chopin died at 39, the same age that Gershwin died. And so there are a few pieces for cello and piano, and especially this sonata dedicated to Franchomme.

And I think what I'd like to do is something strange first, before we hear any of the Chopin, we're going to hear a little bit of music by Franchomme himself. He was a cellist, a composer, and also an arranger of music by Chopin. He arranged many pieces that Chopin composed for piano, for cello and piano and for cellos.

So here is the opening of a piece by Franchomme called Meditation for Cello and Piano. (music) Well, If you came In late, that is not by Chopin. That is music by Auguste Franchomme who was the cellist for whom Chopin wrote his cello sonata. He was also a composer. And Franchomme wrote this little meditation. That's the opening of it.

And I want you to hear it for a few reasons. I mean, one is to realize that Franchomme was a real person and that he also was a composer. Now, he also arranged a lot of Chopin's music for cello and piano and for four cellos. But as a composer himself, he was very pedantic, what we sometimes call academic.

In other words, he followed the textbook idea of what a piece of music should do, and he wasn't terribly imaginative as a composer. But I want you to understand what he was doing so we can gradually get to the Chopin and see what Chopin is not doing. So let's look at the textbook idea of a little piece of music at that time. Starting with the the tune where the cello comes in.

The first phrase comes to a kind of question mark. Let's hear the first phrase. (music) And the next phrase is going to modulate change key and go to the dominant, which, we're in D major. So it's going to go to A major. That is an absolute requirement of a textbook piece. Let's hear that modulation. (music) Perfect. And now the next idea is usually to go through a few distant keys.

It's not a matter of showing off, it's just giving it some extra texture. But you save these keys for the third phrase, which then comes back to the dominant again. Let's hear the third phrase. (music) And and the final phrase of this tune closes it off and kind of answers the question that has been asked three times. (music) Perfectly clear answer to the question.

Then comes the B section like you would have in any song in which there's a slightly different feel and a new tune. Here's a little bit of the B section. (music) Right. And of course, in this piece, the most interesting moment is where the cello gets to do a little cadenza because Franchomme was a cellist and he felt freer there.

So he was kind of in a compositional straitjacket following all the rules. Then he gets a little moment to express himself as a cellist. The important things that just happened in this piece are a question, a questioning phrase, sometimes called the antecedent, which eventually gets an answer, which is also important a consequence. An answer comes after the question, in this case, three times.

Also, it modulates to the dominant. That's because it's absolutely required of the music at that time that if you're in D major, you will go up to the dominant and then eventually come back down. Moving upward creates a sense of tension and a sense of drama, and all the sonata movements and major keys go up a dominant with very few exceptions until we're in the romantic period when different kinds of things happen.

Now, let's take a look at a nocturne by Chopin before we get to the cello sonata, because now much more beautifully, more elegant, more personally, more imaginatively, Chopin also does the same kinds of things. So here's just the first phrase, which is the question from this nocturne in E-flat major. (music) Okay. And the second phrase will answer that question simply by concluding it and turning it around and coming to a cadence in the key. (music)

Thank you, Michael. And then typical of Chopin, he repeats the question and the answer. But this time they're ornamented. Let's hear that. (music) Perfect. And now we need to go, do remember? We need to go to the dominant and here we are. And actually this not only will be in the dominant, but it's the B tune. So there's a B section just like you would have in a song.

And so Chopin is being both traditional at this point, but also imaginative in the actual material. Here's the B section in the dominant. (music) And we're back. Thank you, Michael. And we're back. And you know what's going to happen next? It returns and there's more ornamentation. And then at the end, there's a coda which you will hear the whole thing.

Mike will play all of it later. Now let's turn to the slow movement, the Largo of the Opus 65 cello sonata. That Nocturne you were hearing was Opus Nine. This is now Opus 65. That's late music. It's the last published piece in his life. Remember, Chopin died at 39, like George Gershwin. So it's amazing how much music there is.

But this cellist sonata, a slow movement, it's a very mature piece. And the thing that we're going to look at most is that the piece pushes back against all of the expectations of a beautiful melody in this period. It it changes all the rules. So let's just hear, I'll stop you. Start at the beginning and hear a few phrases. (music)

Okay, beautiful stuff. Now, if you're listening, you're probably not thinking about what we were talking about, which is good. But did it modulate to the dominant? I don't see any hands. Actually, I don't see any of you at all. It doesn't modulate to the dominant. Did we get an answer to the question? No, we didn't. What's even more amazing in this whole piece, this whole movement, it never modulates to the dominant.

We have the chord of the dominant. You know, we're in B flat. And we have that chord, but we never go to the key. And he never answers the question. Now, let's hear that again. But this time I want you to think about what you're hearing. You have a phrase. (music) A clear question, right? And then you have it repeated.

Exactly. But the instruments change. The piano gets a chance to play the same thing, and then it changes key. And I'll say a word after you hear it about how and why he's changing key this way. But it is not going where we expect it. It's not going up, it's going down and it keeps going down and down.

It's very difficult. The very first chord (music) is a dominant but not of the key we're in. It's a dominant of E-flat. We are in B-flat. So it would have been a little clearer and simpler, but not as good if he had just not had this A-flat, which makes this chord. That's the key. That changes the key on the first chord.

It's not the most unusual thing. It happens. Happens in Mozart and Beethoven, but it is a little surprising here. So we feel like that's the key, but it's not. And then we think, "Ah, this must be the dominant, but it's the key." So he already creates a confusion by starting with a dominant seventh built on the key itself, on B-flat.

So forget the technical language for a moment. It simply starts as if it's already moving down and that A-flat, the culprit here, (music) goes away for a moment here in the harmony. It comes back when the tune is repeated. There's the A-flat. Goes away. And the third phrase, the A-flat is very present in the third phrase, because he has modulated downward and he also goes to C minor.

Now it all seems very simple and beautiful, but actually it's working against the classical norms because he's moving through, using the note A-flat to take a journey down to E-flat and then he goes to E-flat's relative minor of C minor. It feels beautiful, but it's moving down and then to the side. It never travels up in the whole movement and that is anti classical.

The classical concept, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is you have a theme and then it moves up where there's more tension and then relaxes down. What he's doing is starting in a key that is already moving down and it keeps moving down. And do we ever get the key of A-flat Major? A solid key that is two down. B-flat, down, five, E-flat.

We got that down five, A flat. He really does get there. And it's the first loud part of the piece. It's the first time he writes Forte We arrive all the way down to A-flat, so let's hear the opening again. Let's go a little further. I'll stop you again and see if you can follow this downward... It's kind of a descent harmonically into a different area than we would normally expect.

And it creates a very autumnal, reflective kind of mood. (music) Okay, thank you. That's halfway through and we got to the return of the tune in the right key. But we never had a B section and we never had a modulation to the dominant and we haven't yet had, and we never will have, an answer to this question that he's asking over and over in full phrases and short phrases.

Now, let me play for you what a modulation to the dominant might have sounded like. (music) Now I'm going to modulate here to the dominant, and here's the tune in the dominant. He never does that. And what's strange is that even if he did do it, it still would be a little confusing because he's modulating within the piece, within the phrase. Like I told you at the beginning, it already is moving down.

So even if you transpose it up, it's confusing as to where it actually is. But he never does that. Now, I also mentioned he never answers the question, the question ends... (music) What is the answer? It would have been very, very easy for Chopin to write an answer. Here's an example of the simplest possible answer. (music) He never does that.

He doesn't have to actually, for example, end like this. He could have made it a little more subtle. Still ending on the right harmony, but he never gives us the answer. It's very provocative. He's asking why over and over. Why? Maybe it's not why, maybe it's what. But we never get an answer. And who knows what that is?

You know, he was ill his entire life, probably with tuberculosis, and many of his relatives died of it. Some of his students got it from him and he made it to 39. But maybe one of the questions he was asking is what? Why? How? I mean, what is this? None of the doctors ever knew for sure. And they all disagreed and there was no treatment.

Now, he also, aside from not going to the dominant so he never lifts us up harmonically to come back down. He only goes down, which is very beautiful and a little bit sadder to have it actually literally depressed. But the other thing is he doesn't answer the question and he doesn't give us a B section. We've just heard half the piece and it's going to now come back to the opening tune again.

It's going to modulate to A flat, which is very far down, and there'll be a coda. But he never gives us a B section. Let me give you a little B section. I'll play the opening phrase with an answer and a B section and a return. He does not do any of this. (music) You see the idea. That makes it a very standard piece.

It's a beautiful tune. It's still his tune. It's perfectly lovely, but it doesn't have any strangeness. It's pretty. It's no longer beautiful and it's no longer strange. Now let's look at some of the other strange things about this. Probably the weirdest moment in this piece is the climactic return to the opening theme. You've already heard it, but I'm going to point out how strange it is. (music)

The cello and the piano arrive on this dissonance, which then becomes the tune. It's a harmony that he could have avoided. It's dissonant and it's not clear what it is doing there. I will tell you what I think it's doing there in a moment and what he could have done. I'm going to ask Nick and Michael to play a version of what he might have done.

Let's do the first one. This is a return that is not by Chopin. It's just got one chord that is different. Let's hear that. (music) Thank you, guys. Now, I think I can't prove this, but I think he probably wrote that first and changed it. We know he was meticulous and very refined composer who changed his mind a lot, even though he was a great improviser and very intuitive.

When he wrote things down, he changed them and worked on them relentlessly until they were perfect. So it seems to me he was about to do something and he changed his mind because the baseline, this is just the piano part... (music) That's the next note. And that note would have been in A flat and the harmony could have been exactly like it was at the beginning.

Different inversion, but he could have started the tune. That's what I just asked him to play, as if he did go up chromatically (singing) to the A-flat with the same chord that he started with, but he decided that he didn't like that. Maybe it's too obvious. Maybe he didn't like the a flat in the bass, which comes a little bit later.

So he might have done something else too. Here's a simpler version and absolutely traditional version that maybe if the task was given to Franchomme to edit this, he might have written it this way. (music) Yeah. So you see there you probably didn't notice anything strange because there was nothing strange. What I did there was simply put back the right chord.

In other words, the most, I shouldn't say right, the most typical, the most ordinary, and the chord that most composers would have put right before the return, which is the five seven of where we're going and we start the piece again. He could have done that. There's nothing in the way to do that. Nothing that he wrote prevents that.

He didn't want to do anything ordinary. So what he actually did, listen again, the way he really wrote it. But we're going to stop right on the C-sharp, right on the moment that we arrive. And we'll take a look at the weird, dissonant chord that Chopin actually decided to put in this spot. (music) Right. And then that really, you think something is going to happen normally that could go a few places.

It could go here (music) to G minor. It also could have gone to A-flat Major. But that does come, but later. Instead, this chord slides with one common tone. It just slides into the next phrase. It's very strange. It doesn't have a functioning relationship to the next chord. It just slides in there. Now, of course, Chopin was famous for slithering and sliding around from harmony to harmony.

But in this piece, this movement, the chords are basically functioning. They're all functioning. But in unusual ways. But this chord, the climactic moment of the return, is a chord that does not really belong there. And what's great about it, though, is it could be heard as the dominant of A-flat, which is that note and that key that has been causing all the trouble because the A-flat that comes right from the beginning, which brings us down to E-flat and it gives us C minor. And it's going to now give us the first loud phrase of A-flat major.

So he gives us a chord that suggests A-flat major is still present. We want to hear it resolved there, because if he did this (music), he could have gone, not rhythmically, but he could have gone right into this phrase. But instead he massages it into another key. We get a return to the theme and then he comes to A-flat. Let's hear, starting two bars before, starting the same spot (singing) and keep going into the A-flat major section. (music)

Okay, great. I hope you heard now how strange what he did is and how it suggests again, the A-flat major key, which we get. This is a very carefully planned idea and a strange idea. As I said, he sacrificed something more typical, something simpler for something complex, a moment of intense dissonance that is somewhat incomprehensible at the moment that suggests something later.

It's quite extraordinary. You know, when Chopin was asked how he practiced for a concert and he didn't like to give concerts, he didn't like playing for the public, but how did he prepare? And he said he never practiced the music he was going to play, which was his own. He only practiced Bach. That's it. And the only Bach that he practiced were the 48 preludes and fugues.

Many people have said that this has a Bach-like sound. And I would say that the baseline, especially when it's in the piano and sometimes in the cello, has an organ pedal-like feel, especially here. (music) And you're hear it in the cello. It makes you think of... (music) Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme of Bach. I mean, it's that kind of organ like feel in the bass with a beautiful line and it does have kind of a mysterious counterpoint, almost unheard counterpoint, suggested counterpoint in that you have layers, you have a bass line, you have the inner voice in the piano, which is always doing things like (music) and you also have the tune which is passed back and forth.

But it isn't really counterpoint. So I thought since so many writers on this subject of Chopin and Bach say that this movement is full of counterpoint, I'm just going to show what it would be like if it really were full of counterpoint. I wrote a section of it, just a small, bit with the counterpoint that could have come out of these ideas. (music)

Yes. Thank you. Beautiful, if I must say so myself. He didn't do that, but he did something which is the opposite of that. He, at the end, writes the accompaniment and not only is there no counterpoint, there's no tune. Just before the very end, the cello and the piano start to give the feeling that they might sing a duet.

For the first time, they're almost playing counterpoint, but not quite. And then the last two bars, the piano plays the harmonies of the melody, but the cello is silent. You probably know the quote heard melodies are sweet, but unheard melodies are sweeter. Keats. That's exactly what happens at the end. Let's hear the last four bars where the cello and piano are considering a duet.

And then we get the unheard music. (music) I mean, the cello is present, but it's not playing the tune. Why don't you play the opening tune while Michael plays the last two bars? This this would have been a little bizarre. And it's lovely that it's just a coda. It's not silent, but it's repressed. Let's hear it with the actual tune. (music)

What do you think? You like that better? Let's see. A show of hands. No, you like the Chopin better. Good. I agree. It's understated and it's that unheard music. Now, in order to really make the point of what Chopin was doing here, before you hear the whole piece, what he was not doing, not modulating to the dominant, not giving us an answer, not giving us a B section. And what he was doing was taking the same melodic phrase that is a question and putting it through the various keys, never going up where we expect and finally ending.

So I decided to take a melody that you all know, I think, that's a little bit like the Chopin tune and do what Chopin did to it. So this is going to be a little shorter than the movement itself, and I'll play it a little quicker. It's a tune where I'm going to only use the question, no answer, and I'll do exactly the techniques that Chopin did and avoid all the things he avoided. (music)

And now let's hear the real music by Chopin. Thank you. (music)

We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Visit ChamberMusicSociety.org to watch videos of these lectures as well as masterclasses and concert performances. And while you're there, check out the calendar of upcoming Chamber Music Society events in New York and around the world. See you next time.