”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.
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)
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.
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?