Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, Op. 33: Aftertones of Chopin

Samuel Barber gave his Nocturne, Op. 33 for solo piano the subtitle, “Homage to John Field.”

Field (1782-1837) was the Irish pianist and composer who is credited with inventing the nocturne. Barber’s piece, written in 1959, is as much a dreamy reflection on the Romantic nocturne itself, with all of its atmospheric allusions to the poetry of the night. Perhaps it is the spirit of Frédéric Chopin, whose twenty-one nocturnes pushed the form to its apex, that most haunts this music.

Chopin’s adventurous harmonic excursions opened the door to later music, such as the Impressionism of Claude Debussy. Barber’s Nocturne pushes this sense of adventure to the furthest extreme. Throughout the piece, the arpeggios of the pianist’s left hand remain rooted in tonality while the melody in the right hand flirts with the tone rows of Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s serialism dissolved the tonal hierarchy of pitches, rendering all twelve tones of the chromatic scale equal. Tone rows emerge in Barber’s Nocturne, yet the rules are broken in a way that never pushes the music over the edge. The resulting synthesis is simultaneously tonal and atonal. Haunting strands from Chopin’s Nocturnes seem to float in midair. The final notes evaporate into a primal open fifth.

Recordings

  • Barber: Nocturne, Op. 33, Daniil Trifonov Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, Op. 33: Aftertones of Chopin”

  1. I very much enjoyed Barber’s Nocturne. Most of his music is a bit too tame harmonically for my 12 tone tastes. But this one is striking.
    About 40 years ago I auditioned for the Richmond Symphony Principal Bass position. Did not get the gig, but finally ended up in the section of the Boston Symphony, from which I retired 3 years ago. I now spend my time traversing my CD and LP collections of 20th Century music. I would be happy to introduce you to some of my favorites sometime.

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