Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory British MP, famously undermined the party-leadership prospects of fellow parliamentarian Michael Howard in 1997 by suggesting he had “something of the night” about him. The novel phrase, with its sinister implications, has since entered the British public’s compendium of put-downs.
In the world of music, associations with the night carry a further range of emotional attachments, as can be heard on one of this month’s new releases from Vox Humana, a new chamber choir based in Dallas, Texas (Naxos 8.572511). With the cover title Into the Night, the individual tracks variously explore night as a representation of mortality and depression, of a time for religious reassurance and of incomparable peace, and of an optimistic future once the nightly shades have lifted.
In addition to the machinations of bogeymen, it’s also a time for lovers and lullabies, as encapsulated in the two Nachtmusik (Night Music) movements in Mahler‘s Seventh Symphony (Naxos 8.550531). Bartók also had the tag of ‘night music’ applied to his music by others, a practice he was happy to tolerate. In comparing two movements from his Piano Concerto No 1 (Naxos 8.550771, track 2) and Piano Concerto No 3 (ibid, track 8), you can decide which is the one describing things that go bump in the night, and which the one you could use to put your baby to sleep. The elegiac central movement of his Concerto for Orchestra (Naxos 8.572486) might have you swinging between the two possibilities.
The French and English term for night music, nocturne, is most closely associated with Chopin, who wrote 21 short pieces for piano under the generic title (Naxos 8.554531 and 8.554532); their cantabile melodies are supported by flowing accompaniments in a relaxed poetic vision of a nocturnal atmosphere. So popular are they nowadays that many suppose he invented the form, but Chopin took his lead from the Irish composer, John Field (1782-1837), who wrote 18 pieces with the title between 1814 and 1835 (Naxos 8.550761 and 8.550762).
Field’s effect on the world of music didn’t stop there. He was as much a performer as composer, travelling to London, Paris, Vienna and St Petersburg where his keyboard skills were much admired. He decided to settle in Russia in 1803 and his influence as a teacher contributed to the development of the Russian school of piano playing. His Air russe varié and Kamarinskaya give a hint of the folkloric works that were soon to be kindled by the father of Russian nationalism in music, Mikail Glinka (whom Field taught) and developed by the Russian Five later in the century; and maybe beyond, in light of the fact that Rachmaninov‘s grandfather also took lessons from Field. Listen to Rachmaninov’s Three Nocturnes (Naxos 8.553004) and make the link for yourself.
Field’s European influence was felt by many besides Chopin. Despite their representing the antithesis of the emerging virtuoso flamboyance that was becoming all the rage, Liszt published an edition of Field’s nocturnes, prefacing it with a gushing eulogy. Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann‘s father, was also one of the many devotees of Field’s refined style of playing that attracted a significant following in Europe and which Wieck passed on to his daughter.
The Irishman’s influence continues to be felt in the works that adopt the mantle of the nocturne. Examples include Dave Brubeck‘s Nocturnes for piano solo (Naxos 8.559301), written in a relaxed jazz style that are within the grasp of younger players, and Britten‘s Nocturne (Naxos 8.557199 ) featuring a tenor solo, strings and seven solo instruments to explore the texts dealing with themes of night, sleep and dreams.
Regional flavours predominate in the Spanish composer Lorenzo Palomo‘s Andalusian Nocturnes for solo guitar and orchestra (Naxos Spanish Classics 8.557135) while Kurt Weill‘s Lady in the Dark – Symphonic Nocturne (Naxos 8.557481), based on the music from the 1940 Broadway musical strays from the veiled emotions envisaged by John Field a century beforehand. By the same token, the classical-period nocturnes that pre-date Field’s vision of the genre smack more of aristocratic evening entertainment than an emotional response to the time of day. Mozart‘s Serenata Notturna (Naxos 8.557023), for example, is best heard with a glass of champagne in hand rather than your head on a pillow.