A nocturne (from the French which meant nocturnal, from Latin nocturnus) is usually a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night. Historically, nocturne is a very old term applied to night Offices and, since the Middle Ages, to divisions in the canonical hour of Matins.
The name nocturne was first applied to pieces in the 18th century, when it indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party and then laid aside. Sometimes it carried the Italian equivalent, notturno, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's quadraphonic Notturno in D, K.286, written for four lightly echoing separated ensembles of paired horns with strings, and his Serenata Notturna, K. 239. At this time, the piece was not necessarily evocative of the night, but might merely be intended for performance at night, much like a serenade.
In its more familiar form as a single-movement character piece usually written for solo piano, the nocturne was cultivated primarily in the 19th century. The first nocturnes to be written under the specific title were by the Irish composer John Field, generally viewed as the father of the Romantic nocturne that characteristically features a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated, even guitar-like accompaniment. However, the most famous exponent of the form was Frédéric Chopin, who wrote 21 of them. One of the most famous pieces of 19th-century salon music was the "Fifth Nocturne" of Ignace Leybach, who is now otherwise mostly forgotten. Later composers to write nocturnes for the piano include Gabriel Fauré, Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie (1919), Francis Poulenc (1929), as well as Peter Sculthorpe. In the movement entitled 'The Night's Music' ('Musiques nocturnes' in French) of Out of Doors for solo piano (1926), Béla Bartók imitated the sounds of nature. It contains quiet, eerie, blurred cluster-chords and imitations of the twittering of birds and croaking of nocturnal creatures, with lonely melodies in contrasting sections. American composer Lowell Liebermann has written eleven Nocturnes for piano. Other notable nocturnes from the 20th century include those from Michael Glenn Williams, Samuel Barber and Robert Helps.
Other examples of nocturnes include the one for orchestra from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (1848), the set of three for orchestra and female choir by Claude Debussy (who also wrote one for solo piano) and the first movement of the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1948) by Dmitri Shostakovich. French composer Erik Satie composed a series of five small nocturnes. These were, however, far different from those of Field and Chopin. In 1958, Benjamin Britten wrote a Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings.
Nocturnes are generally thought of as being tranquil, often expressive and lyrical, and sometimes rather gloomy, but in practice pieces with the name nocturne have conveyed a variety of moods: the second of Debussy's orchestral Nocturnes, "Fêtes", for example, is very lively, as are parts of Karol Szymanowski's Nocturne and Tarantella (1915) and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji's Symphonic Nocturne for Piano Alone (1977–78).
The word was later used by James Abbott McNeill Whistler in the title of a number of his nocturne paintings, consistent with his belief that fine art should essentially be concerned with the beautiful arrangement of colors in harmony. Debussy's nocturnes were inspired by Whistler's paintings.
Principal composers of nocturnes
- Charles-Valentin Alkan: five for solo piano
- William Basinski: Nocturnes
- Georges Bizet: Premier nocturne en fa majeur Op. 2 and Nocturne in D major.
- Frédéric Chopin: 21 for solo piano
- Carl Czerny: 17 for solo piano
- Claude Debussy: 3 for orchestra and choir, one for solo piano
- Gabriel Fauré: 13 for solo piano
- John Field: originator of the piano nocturne, wrote 16 of them
- Mikhail Glinka: three nocturnes: E-flat major, "La Separation" in F minor, "Le Regret" (lost)
- Kevin Keller: 10 nocturnes for piano and treatments
- Ignace Leybach: now known only for his Fifth Nocturne
- Lowell Liebermann: 11 for solo piano
- Franz Liszt: one for solo piano entitled En reve ("In a dream" or "While dreaming"), plus his collection of three Liebesträume (Love Dreams), a series of three Notturnos, of which no.3 is the most famous
- Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy wrote the incidental music, for William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream by
- Francis Poulenc: eight for solo piano (1929)
- Erik Satie: five for solo piano (1919)
- Clara Schumann (Clara Josephine Wieck): Nocturne in F major Op.6 No.2 from 'Soirées Musicales' (1819-1896)
- Robert Schumann: four Nachtstücke
- Alexander Scriabin: four nocturnes, including one written for the left hand only (opus 9, 1894)
- Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: over 30 for solo piano
- Maria Agata Szymanowska: Nocturne in B-flat and Nocturne Le Murmure
- Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge by Whistler (painted c. 1872–75)
- Nocturne, a 1983 live album by Siouxsie and the Banshees
- Aubade, "a song or instrumental composition concerning, accompanying, or evoking daybreak"
- Wignall, Harrison James, "Mozart and the 'Duetto Notturno' Tradition", Mozart-Jahrbuch, 1993.
- Wignall, Harrison James, "Duetto notturno", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (ed. Sadie), London, MacMillan, 2000.