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Chopin completed his Nocturne in F minor in 1843. During the time he was creating the piece, what was happening in his compositional or personal life that might influence one's interpretation of the music?

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  • Thanks for the "might," not necessarily "should"! There are some composers for whom their personal life should be understood as integrally entwined with their work—it would be irresponsible to approach Beethoven's Sixth without an understanding of the journey there from the Heiligenstadt Testament, and we can talk about Shostakovich's chamber music as a "confessional genre." And then there's Mahler. But far too often people expect to treat Bach or Josquin the same way, and they just didn't understand their relationship to their craft the same way. Dec 10, 2021 at 14:33
  • TBH I don't know enough about Chopin to know where he fell on that continuum, but watching with interest. Dec 10, 2021 at 14:33
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    @AndyBonner - I once read that Chopin did not consider himself to be a Romantic-era composer (despite his tendency for small forms leaning towards that). Maybe he was more disconnected from his music than we might think.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 10, 2021 at 15:29
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    @AndyBonner Chopin's biography is often considered in interpreting his music. A couple of prominent themes are his general poor health and his relationship with George Sand.
    – Aaron
    Dec 10, 2021 at 16:28
  • (Also, disclaimer: Of course it makes sense to track Bach's and Josquin's personal lives alongside their works; if anything, the failure of upheaval or trauma to even put a dent in their output is noteworthy. It's just important not to expect personal investment where it wasn't intended.) Dec 10, 2021 at 16:31

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His life brought with it continual reflections on dying, death and the otherworldly. [Jeffrey Kallberg]

In 1836, when he first met 4ft 11in George Sand - a woman who wore men's clothing and smoked cigars - Chopin was repelled by her. She was already an enormously popular and successful writer, admired by Flaubert, Balzac and Hugo, and she was bowled over by him. They soon became lovers and went to Majorca!

In 1838 the Marquis de Custine1 encountered them on their way there. He wrote: "Consumption has seized that figure and has made of it a soul without a body". . ."To say his farewells to us he played [the Funeral March. It] made me dissolve in tears. It was the cortège that led him to his final abode. The unfortunate one does not see that this woman has the love of a vampire!"

He and George Sand stayed on the island for less than a year, hidden away in a former monastry to avoid the locals, who didn't approve of unmarried couples. It was a dreadful winter. George Sand famously described him at the time:

"The cloister was for him full of terrors and phantoms, even when he felt well … When I would return from my nocturnal explorations in the ruins with my children, I would find him, at ten in the evening, pale at his piano, his eyes haggard, his hair standing almost on end. It would take him some moments to recognize us.

"He would then make an effort to laugh, and he would play us the sublime things he had just composed, or, better, the terrible and harrowing ideas that had seized him, unwittingly, in that hour of solitude, sadness and terror."

In May 1839 they headed to Sand's estate at Nohant for the summer, where they spent most of the following summers until 1846. Each autumn they returned to Paris, where Chopin's apartment at 5 Rue Tronchet was close to Sand's rented accommodation on the Rue Pigalle. He frequently visited Sand in the evenings but both retained some independence.

In the 1840's: "Chopin is much emasculated. His retreat inward. Rejection of physical love, or physicality itself." [G.S. probably.]

In 1840 he met Scotswomen Jane Stirling and her widowed sister, who had been living in Paris since 1826. Jane became his pupil two years later. She admired him and became devoted to him. "Touched by her kindness and generosity of spirit" he dedicated the two Op.55 Nocturnes to her.

In 1841 he was grief-stricken at the failure of the anti-Russian insurrection and the resulting deaths of thousands of Poles. There are frequent references to death in his letters. He had a peculiar fascination with the morbid.

In 1842 Chopin and Sand moved to the Square d'Orléans, living in adjacent buildings.

He wrote very little music in 1843. I don't know which of Chopin's Nocturnes Liszt performed in 1843, adding numerous embellishments, to Chopin's annoyance.

Woman pianists were the principle consumers of nineteenth-century nocturnes. Czerny2 said nocturnes were "really an imitation of those vocal pieces which are termed Serenades." Love-songs sung by a woman to a man.

Is the Nocturne about death? The "Funeral March" from the Sonata in Bb minor op.35 certainly "invokes the central tropes of suffering and death." Chopin struggled with this movement. Even after its publication he required changes in its printed text, including its renaming from Funeral March to simply March. It isn't known why he changed it. He disliked Berlioz's music so much he used to put his hands over his ears3 and run away from it. And he disliked his Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale (1840). Did he want to distance his own march from Berlioz's? Chopin's music was private: Berlioz's was public.

In 1848, a year after Chopin and Sand split up, the Scottish sisters (mostly Jane) invited him to London. He went - his second visit - though his health was deteriorating steadily as his tuberculosis gained ground. He played at the homes of various lords and ladies. [20 guineas a matinee!] Public concerts too. Johann Baptist Cramer wrote, "In a drawing room he was to all a delight to hear, but in a larger space, before a more numerous audience, it gave more pain than pleasure...his touch so enfeebled by long suffering4."

He was no longer able to perform the "demanding works from the Sand years, such as the Fantasia, the B minor sonata, or the weightier Polonaises, Scherzi and Ballades." But in drawing rooms "his delicate gems provided the perfect antidote to the schmaltz of Mendelssohn and the raging rhapsodies of the Liszt-Thalbergs4."

Chopin died almost a year after leaving Britain and an arrangement of the Funeral March from his Bbm Piano Sonata was played at the graveside. So someone still called it Funeral March!

Btw, Although Chopin's music is "refined" and never incorporates folk tunes, I believe Poles recognise something uniquely Polish in it.

Scraps:

  • "The vocal roots of the Nocturne were still felt strongly in Chopin's day." - JK
  • Chopin was an ardent admirer of Rossini's music.
  • An autograph copy of the 1843 Nocturne exists.
  • Fun Fact 1: When he finally fled Britain (and especially Jane's sister, who kept calling in to discuss the afterlife) he weighed six and a half stones (91 lbs; 41.3 kg).
  • Fun Fact 2: Sand didn't go to his funeral.

(Aaron: It's all a bit unspecific, but I hope there's something in here that helps. Nice piece, btw. I didn't know it.)

References:

1Chopin's March, Chopin's Death by Jeffrey Kallberg. 19th Century Music Vol. 25, No.1 (Summer 2001) Published by the University of California Press

2The Harmony of the Tea Table: Gender and Ideology in the Piano Nocturne by Jeffrey Kallberg. Representations No.39 (Summer, 1992),pp.102-133 (32 pages) Published by the University of California Press.

3An autographed letter from Sand's daughter, Solange, to Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, published in Jean-Jaques Eigeldinger: "Placing Chopin: Reflections on a Compositional Aesthetic," Chopin Studies 2, ed. John Rink and Jim Samson. Cambridge, 1994), p.106

4Chopin in London by Iwo and Pamela Załuski. The Musical Times Vol. 133, No. 1791 (May, 1992), pp. 226-230

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Sand

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Chopin

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  • Unspecific, true, but really a nice overview of the trends in his life over the time he would have composed this particular piece. Two suggested clarifications: 1) In the sentence about 1842, who is "they"? Chopin and Sand, or Chopin and Stirling? 2) How much is 6.5 stones in lbs and/or kg?
    – Aaron
    Dec 10, 2021 at 18:33

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