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9 minutes reading time (1722 words)

The A-B-C’s of Nocturne Repertoire: Alexander Before Chopin

Piano students transitioning from method books to standard intermediate repertoire often yearn to study the beautiful and deservedly popular Chopin Nocturnes. However, these require oft-underestimated musical sensitivity and technical command. Jane Magrath recognizes this in The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performing Literature, stating that Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2 "is often assigned before a student is fully prepared for its difficulties."1

Dennis Alexander's Nocturnes: Romantic-Style Solos for Piano (2018) specifically bridge the gap between method book literature at level 3 or above, and Chopin's early advanced nocturnes. Based on Magrath's ten-level system, the fourteen works in this two-book collection generally progress from Level 2 to Level 8.2 They are accessible for intermediate students due to oft-repeated motivic material, accompaniment patterns that fit easily under the hand, key signatures of four or fewer accidentals, and familiar tonic-subdominant-dominant harmonic progressions. Each work focuses on one or two specific "nocturne" elements such as expansive range, cantabile chromatic melodies, graceful right-hand fingerwork and ornamentation, voicing left-hand melodic lines, various wide-range accompaniment patterns, and rhythmic complexities such as two-against-three and quintuplet embellishments. Such structural and artistic elements in Alexander's nocturnes directly correlate to specific Chopin works, including Nocturne in F Major, op. 15, no. 1; Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2; Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, op. post.; and Nocturne in E Minor, op. 72. By understanding the relationships between Alexander's and Chopin's nocturnes, teachers may effectively plan long-term for intermediate students to encounter essential musical textures common in advanced nocturne repertoire.

Suggested Alexander Nocturnes

Within Books 1 and 2 of Nocturnes: Romantic-Style Solos for Piano, several essential works stand out. The following five progressively difficult selections introduce students to fundamental elements of lyrical playing, with correlations between Chopin nocturnes illustrated.

Late Elementary-Early Intermediate: Nocturne No. 2 in E Minor

Voicing of melody and accuracy in ornamental flourishes require considerable agility and control in the hands and fingers. Alexander's Nocturne No. 2 in E Minor (Book 1) is a straightforward, accessible piece in ABA form that addresses these elements in a manner geared toward late elementary-early intermediate students. The work introduces voicing a left-hand tenor melody with fingers 1, 2, and 3 while sustaining bass pitches with fingers 4 and 5. On a basic level, this texture mimics Chopin's Nocturne in F Major, op. 15, no. 1, which features a quarter-note tenor line that compliments the soprano melody:

Example 1: Alexander, Nocturne No. 2 in E Minor, mm. 1-2
Example 2: Chopin, Nocturne in F Major, op. 15, no. 1, mm. 1-2
In addition, Nocturne No. 2's undulating right-hand motives feature actively crossing finger-work. This requires the same articulate but still legato touch needed for the ornamental filigree found in almost every Chopin nocturne:
Example 3: Alexander, Nocturne No. 2 in E Minor, mm. 15-16
Alexander's Nocturne No. 2 in E Minor excellently introduces the nocturne genre to early intermediate students. Despite the challenges of left-hand balance, maintaining evenness in the fast right-hand eighth notes, and modulation to B-flat Major in the B section, this work merits labelling as a Level 3 due to simple rhythmic patterns, lack of distinct textural and character changes, and considerable motivic repetition.

Intermediate: Nocturne No. 4 in D Minor, Nocturne No. 6 in F Major

Chopin's beloved Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2 features leaping melodies with chromatic inflection, and chordal accompaniment patterns with displaced lower bass notes. Alexander replicates these textures in Nocturne No. 4 in D Minor (Book 1) and Nocturne No. 10 in F Major (Book 2). In Nocturne No. 4, the left-hand patterns remain within or just past the span of an octave:

Example 4: Alexander, Nocturne No. 4 in D Minor, mm. 38-39
Nocturne No. 10 requires the left hand to travel farther, leaping at least an octave, with full chords in the inner voice rather than dyads. Chopin's patterns in Nocturne, op. 9, no. 2 present even more challenge, since the harmony or inversion changes within the bar:
Example 5: Alexander, Nocturne No. 10 in F Major, mm. 1-2
Example 6: Chopin, Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2, mm. 1-2

Nevertheless, both Alexander pieces introduce students to the concept of bringing out the bassline, gracefully and efficiently moving the left hand into the tenor range, and keeping the inner chords subdued.

With Nocturnes No. 4 and No. 10, Alexander also ingeniously prepares students for chromatic, disjunct melodies that still require a lyrical, connected touch. Nocturne No. 4 features simple rhythmic values in common time, with well-placed eighth rests to accommodate hand shifts. In the example below, Nocturne No. 10's melody also moves upward from below Middle C, but the line features increased rhythmic complexity and considerable chromatic inflections. These require fluid navigation between black and white keys:

Example 7: Alexander, Nocturne No. 4, mm. 38-39
Example 8: Alexander, Nocturne No. 10, mm. 33-35
Both Alexander's nocturnes feature grace notes. In Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2, Chopin introduces additional ornaments such as trills and inverted mordents. Nevertheless, depending on the student's prior experience with lyrical playing, either the accessible Nocturne No. 4 in D Minor, (Level 4) or the more complex Nocturne No. 10 in F Major (Level 6) would serve as excellent introductions to freely lyrical melody, wide-range chordal accompaniment, and simple grace-note ornamentation.

Intermediate: Nocturne No. 13 in G Major

Alexander's Nocturne No. 13 in G Major (Book 2) exposes students to the calm, intimately serene character also found in Chopin's Nocturne in B Major, op. 32, no. 1. In fact, the opening melody of Alexander's work features the exact rhythmic pattern of the Chopin theme, but with inverse directional motions:

Example 9: Alexander, Nocturne No. 13 in G Major, mm. 1-2
Example 10: Chopin, Nocturne in B Major, Op. 32 No. 1, mm. 1-2
Although the pieces' left-hand patterns have similarly steady eighth notes beamed in groups of four, the pattern in Alexander's nocturne matches even more closely to that of Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, op. post. Because these figures require hand extension outside comfortable five-finger positions, a supported, elevated wrist and smooth rotation are required for even, healthy execution:
Example 11: Alexander, Nocturne No. 13, mm. 1-2
Example 12: Chopin, Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. post., mm. 5-6
Like many Chopin nocturnes, Alexander's Nocturne No. 13 in G Major also features a contrasting middle section. Throughout this section, the left-hand passages demonstrate complexity, rapidity, and chromaticism, while the mezzo-piano dynamic necessitates control and a light, secretive touch. This, as well as the artistic sensitivity required for the A section's calmly intimate character, make this piece a Level 7.

Late Intermediate: Nocturne No. 14 in F Minor

Character and musicality play important roles in all of Alexander's nocturnes; however, the attention to notation, ornamentation, phrasing, pedaling, and articulation required in Nocturne No. 14 in F Minor (Book 2) renders this work the sole Level 8 of the collection. The melody opens on a C above the staff, and features ledger-line notes extending another fifth higher. Grace notes, trills, and quintuplet or sextuplet thirty-second-note embellishments abound. Alternations between duple and triple divisions of the beat occur in both hands, necessitating a solid sense of quarter-note pulse rather than counting subdivisions:

Example 13: Alexander, Nocturne No. 14 in F Minor, mm. 35-37
This diversity of texture, beat divisions, and ornamental figurations serves as excellent preparation for Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72. For example, the double thirds in Alexander's Nocturne No. 14 teach students even voicing and control. Both of these factors are required for Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor, which features thirds in a combination of sustained and moving voices:
Example 15: Alexander, Nocturne No. 14, mm. 23-24
Example 14: Chopin, Nocturne in E Minor, op. 72, mm. 15-16

Conclusion

Dennis Alexander's two-volume collection Nocturnes: Romantic-Style Solos for Piano holds significant pedagogical value because the pieces share distinct textural and stylistic similarities with Chopin nocturnes. However, they were specifically composed to be accessible for an intermediate student. Since the two-volume Nocturnes includes only one work at a Level 8 difficulty, additional Level 8-9 lyrical pieces should round out the student's preparation for Chopin. Works to explore include John Field's nocturnes or Gabriel Faure's Romances sans paroles, Op. 17. However, in terms of intermediate repertoire, Alexander's fourteen-piece collection excellently introduces genre idioms such as expressive melodies with chromaticism, leaps, and graceful ornamentation; arpeggiated accompaniments; and the need for dexterity in both fingering and motion around the keyboard. If these nocturnes are thoughtfully assigned, especially in the order detailed above, throughout the course of intermediate study students will gain invaluable familiarity with both the musical and technical fluency required for advanced Chopin nocturnes.

1Jane Magrath, The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performing Literature (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc., 1995), 143.
2These works are not catalogued in Magrath's text, but have been leveled according to her system for the purposes of this article.

Bibliography

Alexander, Dennis. "Meet the Composer: A Conversation with Dennis Alexander." Piano Pedagogy at the New School for Music Study. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.pianopedagogy.org/single-post/2017/12/18/Meet-the-Composer-A-Conversation-with-Dennis-Alexander.

———. Nocturnes: 6 Romantic-Style Solos for Piano. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music, 2018.

———. Nocturnes: 8 Romantic-Style Solos for Piano. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music, 2018.

Chopin, Frederic. Chopin Ballads and Nocturnes for Piano. Edited by Alfred Cortot. Paris, France: Editions Salabert/Hal Leonard, 2013.

Magrath, Jane. The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performing Literature. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc., 1995.

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From the Artist Bench with Lara Downes
Chopin: Waltz in B Minor, Op. 69, No. 2
 

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