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Frédéric Chopin's Nocturne in G Minor, Op. 15, No. 3. The marking "languido e rubato", slow tempo, and subdued dynamics creates an evocative mood characteristic of nocturnes.

A nocturne is a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night.


The term nocturne (from French nocturne 'of the night')[1] was first applied to musical pieces in the 18th century, when it indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party and then laid aside. Sometimes it carried the Italian equivalent, notturno, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Notturno in D, K.286, written for four lightly echoing separated ensembles of paired horns with strings, and his Serenata Notturna, K. 239. At this time, the piece was not necessarily evocative of the night, but might merely be intended for performance at night, much like a serenade. The chief difference between the serenade and the notturno was the time of the evening at which they would typically be performed: the former around 9:00pm, the latter closer to 11:00 pm.[2]

In its form as a single-movement character piece usually written for solo piano, the nocturne was cultivated primarily in the 19th century. The first nocturnes to be written under the specific title were by the Irish composer John Field,[3] generally viewed as the father of the Romantic nocturne that characteristically features a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated, even guitar-like accompaniment. However, the most famous exponent of the form was Frédéric Chopin, who wrote 21 of them. One of the most famous pieces of 19th-century salon music was the "Fifth Nocturne" of Ignace Leybach, who is now otherwise mostly forgotten.[citation needed] Later composers to write nocturnes for the piano include Gabriel Fauré, Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie (1919), Francis Poulenc (1929), as well as Peter Sculthorpe. In the movement entitled 'The Night's Music'[4] ('Musiques nocturnes' in French) of Out of Doors for solo piano (1926), Béla Bartók imitated the sounds of nature. It contains quiet, eerie, blurred cluster-chords and imitations of the twittering of birds and croaking of nocturnal creatures, with lonely melodies in contrasting sections. American composer Lowell Liebermann has written eleven Nocturnes for piano, of which No.6 was arranged by the composer as Nocturne for Orchestra. Other notable nocturnes from the 20th century include those from Michael Glenn Williams, Samuel Barber and Robert Helps.

Other examples of nocturnes include the one for orchestra from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (1848), the set of three for orchestra and female choir by Claude Debussy (who also wrote one for solo piano) and the first movement of the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1948) by Dmitri Shostakovich. French composer Erik Satie composed a series of five small nocturnes. These were, however, far different from those of Field and Chopin. In 1958, Benjamin Britten wrote a Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, and the third movement of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) is also titled "Nocturne".

Nocturnes are generally thought of as being tranquil, often expressive and lyrical, and sometimes rather gloomy, but in practice pieces with the name nocturne have conveyed a variety of moods: the second of Debussy's orchestral Nocturnes, "Fêtes", for example, is very lively, as are parts of Karol Szymanowski's Nocturne and Tarantella (1915) and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji's Symphonic Nocturne for Piano Alone (1977–78).

Principal composers of nocturnes[edit]

Popular music[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Nocturne Definition from the Free Merriam-webster Dictionary".
  2. ^ Hubert Unverricht and Cliff Eisen, "Serenade", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  3. ^ Brown, Maurice J.E. & Hamilton, Kenneth L. (2001). "Nocturne (i)". In Sadie, Stanley & Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-56159-239-5.
  4. ^ Maurice J. E. Brown, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (ed. Stanley Sadie), London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980, Vol. 13:[page needed]. ISBN 0-333-23111-2 ISBN 978-0-333-23111-1 pp. 258–59.
  5. ^ Marc-André Roberge (2013-05-30). "Sorabji Resource Site: Titles of Works Grouped by Categories". Retrieved 2013-06-30.