Nocturnes

About this work

The musical genre of the nocturne as we know it originated in the 19th century, with piano works of John Field and derivative ones by Frédéric Chopin. The piano form tends to suggest a simple and gentle piece of music, with improvisatory content, suitable for part of an evening's amateur musical entertainment (though many of Chopin's Nocturnes, in particular, are beyond the skills of many amateur pianists!). Danish-American composer Morten Lauridsen borrows the generic term for a set of three simple yet almost mystically sensual pieces for mixed choir and piano that he calls the Nocturnes (3).

Lauridsen chose three disparate texts for his compositions, but three texts that are linked by the richness of their nighttime imagery and their richly erotic evocations of the experience of evening. The first poem he chose is the French lyric by Rainer Maria Rilke, "Sa nuit d'Ete." The text gently evokes a touching of bodies and souls under the evening stars of a lush summer night. Lauridsen's music carefully steps between the languid repose of the lovers and the powerful tension of their touching; much of the music slowly oscillates between placid and sultry repetitions of repeated or closely similar chords, and more vibrant shifts of harmonic grounding. A central moment of major-mode harmonic pleasure recedes into the more subdued harmonies of the opening as the text repeats "this night, this night," and melts into a piano postlude that is deep, sensuous, and evocative of colors beyond the lovers' starlight. Lauridsen's second textual choice was Pablo Neruda's "Sonnet of the Night," a love song with a different cast. The lover speaking in this poem, which Lauridsen set for choir without accompaniment, envisions the day of his death. He envisions the physical sensation of her hands touching his eyes in death, and in the second and third verses envision the continued life of the beloved, hoping that she will experience the beauties of the ocean, and of flowers; the composer heightens the wishes for the beloved by a striking harmonic shift in the midst of the third verse, as the poet imagines the beauties that his love can send her way even after death and ends with a reverent reflection on her hair and his song beyond the grave. The third poem, Agee's "Sure on this shining night," brings to life an American poem of similar nocturnal intimacy; soli voices, the return of the piano, and soaring harmonies evince a brilliant and full-breathed evening.

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