Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. posth.

The Pianist (2002), a film directed by Roman Polanski

The Pianist (2002), a film directed by Roman Polanski & featuring Chopin's nocturne in C sharp minor

 “All wars are civil wars because all men are brothers.”

~ Francois Fenelon, French poet, theologian and writer


Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. posthumous, was first published 26 years after the great composer’s death in 1849.

Chopin dedicated this work to his older sister Ludwika Chopin, with a note “To my sister Ludwika as an exercise before beginning the study of my second concerto.”

Chopin composed a total of 21 nocturnes, some of which are widely regarded as the most beautiful and important short solo pieces for the piano. The musical directive for this nocturne, Lento con gran espressione means “slow with great expression” makes it a hauntingly beautiful work and  among the most melodious of his nocturnes which are characterized by his cantabile style.

Chopin’s nocturne in C sharp minor and World War II 

In 1939 when Nazi Germany began its bombing and invasion of Warsaw at the start of World War II, the last piece of music to be broadcast on Polish radio was this nocturne in C sharp minor by Chopin, played by a Polish Jew named Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Adrien Brody wins an Oscar playing Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

Adrien Brody wins an Oscar playing Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

Szpilman hid as bombs rained down on the Polish capital. Separated from his parents, a brother and two sisters, his immediate fight was for his own survival, trying to escape from the Nazis where half a million Jews were rounded up and killed in death camps from Warsaw alone.

He managed to escape death with the help of some of his countrymen and also a German captain, Wilm Hosenfeld, who promised to help him, giving him food and advice on where to hide and how to escape the onslaught of the Nazis. In return, he played for the captain on a piano they found in the dilapidated building where he was hiding.

The Pianist (2002), a film by Roman Polanski

This true story was made into the film, The Pianist, in 2002 by Polish director Roman Polanski, who himself escaped the Krakow Ghetto although his mother was killed by the Nazis.

Hollywood actor Adrien Brody, playing Wladyslaw Szpilman in the movie, became the youngest ever winner of an Oscar for best actor at age 29, competing against other more well-known actors.

Listen to Wladyslaw Szpilman play Chopin’s beautiful nocturne in C sharp minor 

(Listening tip: use a good set of headphones)

Wladyslaw Szpilman (5 December 1911 – 6 July 2000)

Wladyslaw Szpilman (5 December 1911 - 6 July 2000)

Wladyslaw Szpilman (5 December 1911 - 6 July 2000)

Immediately after the war, Szpilman played this piece again and picked up from where he abandoned his playing when the bombing began at the start of the war.

Szpilman wrote a memoir of his hellish ordeal in Warsaw after the war ended in 1945. The circulation of the book, called The Pianist, was initially restricted by Stalinist Polish authorities immediately after the war.

As the de-Stalinization began in the 1950s, the book was more widely circulated. Szpilman’s effort to locate Wilm Hosenfeld  was in vain when the German died in 1952 in a Sovient prisoner of war camp.

Szpilman’s son Andrzej published his father’s work in 1998 in German and then later in English as The Pianist. In March 1999, Szpilman visited London for Jewish Book Week to meet English readers and to mark the publication of his book which has now been translated and published in more than thirty languages.

Szpilman died on 6 July 2000 in Warsaw at the age of 88. On the centenary year of his birth in 2011, commemorative ceremonies were held in his honour by the President of Poland. On 4 December 2011, a commemorative plaque to honour Wladyslaw Szpilman was unveiled  in Warsaw in the presence of his wife Halina, son Andrzej and Wilm Hosenfeld’s daughter Jorinde.

An analysis  – Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. posth.

Opening bars of Chopin's nocturne in C sharp minor Op. posth.

Opening bars of Chopin's nocturne in C sharp minor Op. posth.

A relatively easy piece to play, it begins with descending and repetitive minor chords. The use of trills embellish this piece of music and it may have well been an inspiration for the second movement of Chopin’s second piano concerto in F minor where it is reputed to be one of the most beautiful melodies even composed in the classical repertoire.

The melody is distinct and hauntingly beautiful where it accompanied by arpeggios in the left hand. Chopin introduces a variation to the piece by briefly modulating the key to A major in bar 21, and then contrasting this cheerful motive with its relative key of F sharp minor before returning it to the home key.

Chopin once told his students that the sustain pedal should be used very sparingly. It should not be used to mask any technical deficiency in piano playing. Rather, it should be used to accentuate lyrical melodies and enhance phrasing that require legato playing such as this piece. Clever and subtle use of the sustain pedal is probably the least understood and most neglected part of piano playing and teaching when it is just as important as being able to play with proper technique and style. Every good pianist will have developed the ability to use both the sustain and soft pedals to deliver seamless performances and to “smooth out the rough edges” so to speak.

A poignant and perhaps most significant contrast of this piece is the ending where Chopin brings the work to a close with a Picardy Third, a harmonic technique of using a major chord as a final resolution to a minor key. This technique often evokes stark contrast between a “haunting” or “gloomy” piece of music written in a minor key with a “happier” ending created by the major chord at the end.

Chopin wrote many works that depict his emotions during the Russian invasion of Poland and perhaps this work was also among one to signify there may be happy endings too when the situation seems doomed.

Perhaps Wladyslaw Szpilman chose to play this nocturne when German bombs began destroying his beloved homeland because he was also dreaming and hoping for an eventual happy ending to the terrifying war.


So dear readers, did you watch the movie The Pianist and if so, did you enjoy it?

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16 Responses to Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. posth.

  1. Charles says:

    I’ve never seen this movie (or heard of it actually), but I loved reading your post today – such sad stories, and occasionally you encounter these little uplifting stories which make you think maybe the human race isn’t so bad after all!

  2. Kimby says:

    Dear Chopinand… this post featuring your namesake touched my heart. Music can soothe the most savage of situations and Chopin was a master of articulating “feelings” in notes. Thank you so much.

  3. JasmyneTea says:

    What an amazing man, to witness the horrors he did but still be able to channel such beauty!
    I have seen the movie, I absolutely loved it. Great post!

  4. Hotly Spiced says:

    One night my husband and I went to the movies with no idea what we would see. We saw The Pianist was on and had no idea what it was about but bought tickets anyway and went in to see it. And I’m so glad we did.

    This is a very powerful story that was directed and acted brilliantly and the Oscar was very well deserved. The pianist’s struggle to survive and his courage were unbelievable.

    The tragedy isn’t just that all members of his family were murdered or that so many others were murdered but also that one of the very few Nazis who did any good towards the Jews, perished. This story is tragedy piled upon tragedy but for one pianist who managed to survive. Great that you have brought this true story to everyone’s attention again xx

  5. I love this video and this story. Yes, I’ve seen the movie and I enjoyed it a lot.

  6. This is a wonderful movie. I remember seeing it at the movies which is really how it should be seen. I haven’t seen Adrian Brody in much since though, perhaps I’m not looking in the right places/movies?

  7. Sissi says:

    I think it’s the only Polanski’s film I haven’t seen. I remember the media talked about it non-stop before the premiere and the story was told in such details, I simply stopped planning to see it because I felt as if I had already seen it. It happens quite often when they talk too much about films before they are actually in the cinema. I planned to go and see it much later and then forgot. Thank you for talking about its really interesting aspects.

  8. Shameful to say, I still haven’t seen the movie yet! It’s a movie that I’ve been intending to watch for the longest time but never got around to it, it looks fantastic though. :)

  9. This was a fantastic movie, very poignant. Definitely worth seeing and more then once. Thanks for the reminder. GG

  10. I haven’t watched this movie yet but I do remember of the preview. Now everyone here is giving very positive feedback, I must see this. Time to put in my Netflix que. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Such a beautiful film. I love your posts about food… but your posts on music are a real treat for someone like me who mostly reads food blogs. Thanks.

  12. sophia says:

    I watched a bit of that movie and had to stop because it was too graphic for me. I lived close to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. but never visited because I knew I’ll be plagued by nightmares.

  13. Juliana says:

    Oh yes….I saw the movie a while ago…very touching, disturbing, sad…I just remember sitting at the theater for a while after the movie ended…and thoughts were all over…
    Hope you are having a great week :)

  14. I very much love this piece, and I’ve been surprised how easy it is to play, once you’re able to do trills. I’ve also watched the movie and liked it a lot. I think it’s one of the most dreamy nocturnes Chopin has written – many of the others become very dramatic at some part, but this one just remains in its melancholic peacefulness.

  15. Corrie says:

    I am so glad to have found your blog! It seems we have a lot in common. I have been teaching music for over 30 years as my profession (which I enjoy very much) but food is my passion! I have only recently started to blog about food as I thought one had to have some kind of degree to be able to speak with any conviction about a subject, however after telling my students for years to follow their dreams I am finally practising what I preach and have started my blog to speak about the things I love….while still teaching and listening to Chopin!! :-) ps…I also love the use of the tierce de picardie! :-)

  16. Matt says:

    Awesome article, The Pianist is definitely one of the best movies of all time. I watched it about 5 times and it still breaks me completely. :)

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