The main subject in Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 consists of two phrases that each begin with "B A# G# F# D#". However, they are not aligned relative to the barline, because it seems that the first phrase is 3.5 bars (regardless of whether you consider the first four notes a pickup or not). I am quite surprised to find something like this in Chopin's music where [with the exception of improvisatory-type passages] phrases are usually demarcated by barlines; this kind of "stream of consciousness" that ignores the usual "4-bar phrase" seems more characteristic of Schumann. Does anyone know (or have references to) analysis of this particular part of this nocturne, or other similar examples in Chopin or his contemporaries?

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What further baffles me is that when this exact subject returns, it is offset by half a bar relative to how the it appears the first time:

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Thank you Richard for suggesting Rothstein's book. Below is a quote of what he writes about this nocturne.

The last two nocturnes, Op. 62 (1846), are considerably more complex—especially the first one in B Major, which is perhaps Chopin’s most breathtaking venture into endless melody. . . . I would point out the equivocal nature of the strong beats in Chopin’s 4/4 meter (the metrical shifts are reminiscent of 18th-century practice); I would also note that I interpret the cadence in m. 10 as a contraction or compression of a more leisurely close. The repeated F#’s sound like obvious expansions, given the motivic pattern. And there is clearly a phrase overlap in m. 7. Beyond this lie several mysteries, including the precise coordination of melody and harmony in the basic phrase . . . But these mysteries lie very close to the heart of Chopin’s late style, in which the rhythmic practices of a lifetime (however brief the lifetime!) reach a peak of complexity and refinement.

  • Another Chopin example you might like to consider is his fourth Ballade (in f minor). After a 7-bar intro comes the main theme. Though it is written in 6/8, the alternation of strong and weak beats is disrupted many times. – Rosie F Aug 8 at 8:56
  • @RosieF I see, that is another good example. There it seems the offset is due to the resolution of each phrase receiving an extra half-bar, which I can make sense of (I think some hymns have 5-bar phrases because the resolution is held an extra bar). It is harder for me to make sense of what is happening in the nocturne though, and the as far as I can tell the ballade is more consistent in that each time that subject returns it is in the same position relative to the barline, unlike the the return of the nocturne's subject. – angryavian Aug 8 at 17:36

Perhaps the most fruitful path of inquiry would pertain to what we call hypermeter, which is a pattern of strong/weak metrical pulses that occurs above the level of the notated meter. For instance, an entire measure is "beat one," the next measure is "beat two," etc.

Bill Rothstein discusses this extensively in his Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music, and he devotes an entire chapter to Chopin. And at the end of that chapter, he discusses this exact piece.

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  • Thank you very much for recommending this book. I've copied the section regarding this nocturne into my question in case others are curious. It seems the matter is more complex than can be discussed on this site, but thank you for the great starting point for my further reading. – angryavian Aug 8 at 17:59
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    Just to agree on William Rothstein "Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music". Also Rothstein has written an article within a book called "Structure and Meaning in Tonal Music". It deals with this Nocturne. The citatation is Rothstein, William (2006). ‘Circular Motion in Chopin’s Late B-major Nocturne (Op. 62, No. 1)’, in: L. Poundie Burstein and David Gagné (eds), Structure and Meaning in Tonal Music: Festschrift in Honor of Carl Schachter. Hillsdale NY: Pendragon Press, 19–32. Otherwise was thinking "Jim Sampson" would likely have written. But the Rothstein definitely the way to go. – Owain Evans Aug 9 at 6:48

Charles Rosen's "The Romantic Generation" has two or three chapters on Chopin. He does discuss Chopin's style in detail.

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  • Including this (likely slight) tendency of Chopin for phrases involving a partial measure? – Dekkadeci Aug 8 at 13:46
  • I don't remember whether or not this particular style feature is discussed. I do know the feature goes back to Medieval music. – ttw Aug 8 at 16:55
  • Thank you for the reference recommendation. Richard recommended a book by Rothstein that mentions "metrical shifts of 18th-century practice," and I also recall some examples of this in Bach's works, so there is definitely a precedent, but I just found it unusual in the context of Chopin's other work. Rothstein seems to mention some creative exploration that Chopin did in his later years, and I suspect Rosen discusses that too. I look forward to reading these two references later. – angryavian Aug 8 at 18:02

You'll likely find the analysis is something like below. I'm seeing small sections of about a half-note in length. It's like a modular approach to a phrase. The a section seems to develop the most, but starts on b, ends on f#. b section transposes. c section so simple, stays the same. etc., etc.. enter image description here

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  • Thank you for outlining the structure like this. I see that if you omit the "c" sections entirely, the melody then parallelism (ababdb) is clearer and lines up with the barlines (which is helpful for me in understanding the structure but is not necessarily the only way to think about what is going on). – angryavian Aug 10 at 19:07

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