McMaster Music Analysis Colloqium





Barbara Swanson

Listening to Chopin’s Nocturne in g minor, op. 37, what always strikes me is the sudden shift in character between the mournful and searching melodies of the A section and the B section’s all too brief chorale-like measures in E-flat. I am equally fascinated by the motivic-structural unity of the piece when approached in a Schenkerian manner. Because of this dual interest, the question that I would like to return to periodically within this essay is to what extent, or, in what way motivic-structural unity can be heard in this nocturne.

In his book Free Composition, Heinrich Schenker describes a common three-part song form in which structural unity is achieved through the use of a neighbour-tone figure.(1) Using the example of Chopin's Ballade in g minor op. 23, he illustrates how scale degree 5^ (d), prolonged throughout the A sections, is neighboured by a prolonged scale degree 6^ (e-flat) in the B section. Schenker's graph of the Ballade's structure provides a useful model for considering levels of structure in Chopin's Nocturne. Also in g minor, the Nocturne begins on a two-beat tied d (5^); the B section modulates to E-flat and melodically centres around the e-flat tonic (scale degree 6^). The retransition (m. 65) facilitates a return to the A section via a D major chord and four repeated d's. This large scale 5^-6^-5^ motion is also developed on a motivic level throughout the piece and originates within the piece's first measure.  Thus, the neighbouring d -e-flat- d figure is the organic unit, like Schoenberg's Grundgestalt, from which the rest of the piece grows.(2)

THE A SECTION: Measures 1-8 (a)

As just stated, the seeds of the structural d -e-flat- d figure can be seen in the first measure of the piece. While the left hand begins with a clear bass g, the tenor states a d-e-flat/c-d motive that prolongs the V chord and thus postpones the tonic until m. 3. Similarly, on a larger structural level the e-flat prolonged by the B section interrupts and thus postpones the return to g minor. The d-e-flat-d figure structures the opening melody as well. The piece begins on d in an upper voice and moves to c in m. 3. The e-flat of m. 3 reaches over to the d of m. 5 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Foreground and middleground graphs of mm. 1-8.

Although the form of the piece is structured around the 5^-6^-5^ neighbouring principle evident here on a motivic level, the A section itself is structured around a 5^-1^ linear descent in mm. 5-6, a series of ornaments emphasizes the beginning of this linear descent from d to b-flat. Although a linear descent can be seen in mm. 1-4 as well, it is left incomplete on scale degree 2 (a). Thus, the antecedent phrase (mm. 1-4) can be said to more properly present the d-e-flat/c-d motive while the consequent phrase (mm. 5-8) completes the linear descent. The d-c-b-flat outlined by the ornaments moves to the accented a in m. 6 and resolves to the g in m. 7 that, as the resolution of a deceptive cadence, postpones the arrival of the cadential g in m. 8. Thus, within the first phrase, two motions are outlined - the neighbouring motive that unifies and develops the A and B sections, and the linear descent from 5^-1^ that becomes, at the conclusion of the piece, the fundamental line.

Of issue in this opening A section is the appearance of a cadence in B-flat at mm. 4-5. An antecedent phrase usually ends with a half cadence, but here, there is a cadence on III, the relative major, drawing attention to this key area as being potentially significant later in the piece, a point that I will develop later. Because of the elided cadence, the consequent phrase does not begin on the tonic. Only in m. 6 with the b-flat in the melody does the tonic chord reappear. I would like to explore the difficulty of interpreting this gesture by provisionally arguing that while the e-flat of m. 3 resolves to the d of m. 5, the c acts as an inner voice in m. 3 that resolves to the b in m. 6. The significance of seeing this motion in this manner is that the d -e-flat- d figure becomes a motion in its own right, independent of the c.

My reservation in claiming this is that such a claim posits a series of overlapping structural motions. Not only would there then be two descents from the d beginning in mm. 1 and 5, but a neighbouring d -e-flat- d motion that concludes in m. 5, and a d (m. 1), c (m. 3), b-flat (m. 6) pattern that spans both phrases. When I listen to this passage, I do not hear two overlapping motions, but rather, I hear the d of m. 5 as a point of arrival. The b-flat of m. 6, while tonally more solid, falls in the middle of the phrase and, to my ear, derives from the d of m. 5 (interestingly, though, I now listen for the arrival of g minor in m. 6 because of these questions).  The descending line of the ornaments in m. 5 (d, c and b-flat) undermines this overlapping theory as well.

Another reading of this same passage could be that Chopin is highlighting the relation between g minor and its relative major by substituting one chord for the other. Because the B-flat is the V of E-flat (the key of the B section), B-flat becomes a linking key area between the prominent key areas of the piece.

A SECTION: Measures 9-16 (b)

This middle section of A, like the opening, exhibits two motions - a linear ascent from g to d that counterbalances the linear descent of the opening, and a prolongation of the upper-voice d through and f-e-flat-d motion. Constructed as a sequential pattern, this middle section departs from g minor in m. 9 with a series of sequences and fragments and returns definitively to g minor in m. 15. The first statement of the sequence is in the key of B-flat which, in the opening, has already been established as a digressing key. After repeating a third higher on d, the sequence reaches its highpoint with an arrival on f (m. 13) that marks the beginning of the sequence's fragmentation and dissolution. The bass d that supports the f in this measure suggests that we have arrived on the minor V of the home key. This arrival on the minor V and the melodic descent from f to a b-flat supported by a g-minor chord, suggests g-minor as the frame for a digression from i (g minor), through the relative major and the dominant. Seen in this light, the cadential g of m. 8 is the initial framing note of this section. The a of m. 8 is a transitional note that prepares the b-flat of m. 9. The b-flat, quickly departed from, more fully arrives in m. 15 with the return of g minor. The ascending line continues in m. 15 through c to d. The ascent from b-flat to d in mm. 9-10 foreshadows this final resolution (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Foreground and middleground graphs of mm. 9-16.

The second motion in this section is the prolongation of the d. If one stacks the b-flat and d of mm. 9 and 10 over the B-flat chord in the bass, the d becomes the melody note, prepared by an ascent from b-flat through c to d. Measures 10-14 develop this prolongation. After passing through e-flat to f in m. 12, there is a tonal arrival in m. 13 on the minor V chord that signals a return to the home key. The melodic f that crowns this arrival descends through e-flat to the d of m. 14 supported by a B-flat Major chord that recalls mm. 9-10. The f-e-flat-d relation is suggested twice more in the ornaments (mm. 14 and 15). The resemblance of this descent to a 3^-2^-1^- Urlinie suggests the tonal-melodic importance of d in this section. It is perhaps also significant that a phrase marking extends from the f of m. 13 to the d of m. 16.

One would expect the A section to be a-b-a in form, but instead, it is structured as a-b-a-b-a. Tonally, the extra repetitions of a and b firmly ground the A section in g minor.  Structurally, the repetitions establish the centrality of the fifth scale degree (d) before developing the neighbouring e-flat in the B section.  Melodically, as will be discussed in more detail shortly, the repetitions of the a sections in particular allow for virtuosic development of the ornaments so common in all of Chopin's oeuvres.  Perhaps most significantly, the extra repetitions of a and b set up an imbalance between the length of A and B sections, thus challenging the balance between sections expected in ternary form.    The B and A' sections, seen as a unit, are about the same length as the initial A section.  The "indefinite" or rather, elided endings of both the A and B sections creates a blurring of the boundaries between "contrasting" sections and thus undermines the otherwise obvious melodic, tonal, rhythmic and textural distinctions between A and B.  Within the A section itself, a similar blurring between a and b occurs,  especially in that the tonal "frame" of the b section, according to the graph discussed earlier, is arguably the g-minor chord of m. 8.

To return to a discussion of the a section proper, the a section is repeated twice: in mm. 17-24 and mm. 33-40. Each repetition undergoes subtle development through ornamentation. While the developed phrasing of the repeated b section challenges the perception of note relations, the ornaments of the repeated a sections emphasize melodic motives as well as give room for increasing virtuosity. The rush of notes from a to e natural back to d in mm. 36-37 are a development out of the octave leap between a's in m. 20. Both decorations of the a draw attention to a as the final note of the antecedent phrase and the interrupted descending line (see Figure 3)

Figure 3. Measures 33-40.

Also significant are the ornaments in mm. 37 and 38. Whereas in previous statements of this phrase, the ornament on beat two of m. 37 outlined a B-flat chord, here it evokes d minor with a c-sharp at its base. More significantly, the c-sharp emphasizes c as the passing note between d and b-flat. The fundamental line is being emphasized here even more clearly in its closing statement before the B section. Seen as a whole, the section prolongs 5^ (d) while also accomplishing a linear descent from d to g (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Background graph of A Section


As was stated earlier, the colour, texture and range of this middle section are strikingly different from the A section. With the difference between the two sections being foregrounded in this manner, the unity between the sections appears in more subtle ways, specifically, the development of the neighbour note e-flat through modulation to the key of E-flat. As part of this development, the d, so prominent in the A section, becomes an ornament and a neighbour to the e-flat.  Like the A section, the B section develops two related motions. E-flat is prolonged at the same time as the section as a whole develops a melodic descent of 3^-2^-1^.

Structured as an identical antecedent and consequent phrase, the opening phrase prolongs the new tonic, establishing it clearly before digressing about as far as possible tonally through a series of voice leading maneuvers in mm. 49-56. The highpoint of each phrase is an a flat that neighbours the structurally more significant g's of m. 43. Although the g's fall on traditionally weak beats, the regular placement of the I chord on beats 2 and 4 throughout the phrase has the effect of reversing the expected pattern of strong and weak pulses. The weak cadences in m. 44 confirm this unusual pattern of accents. The g's on the off beats of m. 43 are thus more significant than they might first appear. The importance of the g is once again emphasized by an ornament in m. 44 that decorates a 3^-2^-1^ descent (see figure 5).

Figure 5. Middleground and background graphs of mm. 41-44.

The middle section of B, beginning in m. 49, develops the g-f-e-flat descent both structurally and melodically. The g, supported by an E-flat chord in m. 49, resolves through a neighbouring a flat to f in m. 51 (and more immediately to the f in m. 49). This melodic resolution is accompanied by an unusual modulation from E-flat Major to f minor. Measure 53 completes this melodic descent through a sequential repetition of the g-f phrase beginning on e-flat.

The e-flat-d phrase that follows (mm. 53-56) serves as a destination in that it develops that e-flat-d relation that unifies the piece.  The e-flat resolves immediately to d in mm. 53/54, but accomplishes this more fully in m. 55 with the arrival in the bass of a D chord. The d in this measure is neighboured by the e-flat in the soprano and the c in the bass. For the first time, the d -e-flat- d motive is stated in a condensed complete form! Arguably the climax of the piece, the octave d’s and c’s in the bass are the lowest notes thus far in the work. A crescendo leads to and away from this measure, all factors thus highlighting the motivic and structural significance of the moment. The depth, colour and symmetry of this neighbour motion signal to the ear as well, a significant point of arrival (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Background graph of mm. 49-57.

The d thus highlighted becomes part of a passing motion of notes from e-flat to b-flat in mm. 56 and 57 and back to e-flat in m. 58.  The section proper ends with the 3^-2^-1^  (g-f-e-flat) descent in m. 60. Although mm. 61-64 initially appear to be the expected repetition of the antecedent phrase, an unexpected modulation to f minor triggers the recognition that this phrase is acting as a retransition back to the A section. The evocation of f minor recalls the related modulation to f minor in m. 51 and facilitates in voice-leading terms, a rise from the e-flat in the bass of m. 61, through f in mm. 63-64, to the f-sharp of the first inversion D chord. The relation of f minor as a passing key area between E-flat and g minor is also highlighted at this moment. The arrival on d in the treble clef foregrounds the neighbour-note development that has occurred thus far, revealing the remarkable structural and motivic unity of the piece (see figure 7).

Figure 7. Background graph.


Unlike the a-b-a-b-a structure of the A section, the A' section has a more simple a-b-a form. The middle two repetitions of a and b from the A section have been omitted as if the progressive development of each repetition is no longer necessary. Given that the motivic and structural climax of the piece occurs in the B section, the return of A need only reassert the g-minor tonality and, with its brevity, create a more appropriate balance with the brief yet significant B section.

The brief coda in mm. 90 and 91 is where the three sections are most obviously unified. A plagal cadence recalls the I-IV-I progression that opened the B section, which contained little development of the dominant key area.  Perhaps most significantly, the I-IV-I progression in mm. 90-91 facilitates a "resolution" of the tension, so central to the work's structural and motivic character, between e-flat and d.  The Picardy third that ends the piece evokes the colour and stability of the middle section and thus provides resolution to the mournful reflection of the A sections (see figure 8).

Figure 8. Measures 88-91.

The motivic-structural unity of the piece, analyzed primarily in terms of Schenker's comments on the three-part song form, is remarkable. The markedly different characters of the A and B sections are unified structurally through the 5^-6^-5^ neighbour motion, and each section highlights the motivic d -e-flat- d figure. Approached in a Schenkerian manner, the B section with its contrasting colour, texture, rhythm and range appears not simply different from A but related intrinsically to A in its large scale development of a small scale "organic" motive. While it is arguable that this unity cannot be heard, it is significant that one of the most striking expressive moments in the piece is the m. 55 d-e-flat/c-d progression that precedes the B section's conclusion. Thus an important structural-motivic moment coincides with a significant moment of hearing. Although one might not hear m. 55 as a significant structural moment, it can be heard as such, in which case, the d-e-flat-d motive lies like a secret within the heart of the piece. Worth considering is the issue of whether m. 55 is heard as significant because it has been identified as a crystalization of the piece’s "organic motive." I would suggest that it is heard as a striking moment both before and after Schenkerian analysis, but that, having analyzed the piece in the manner that I have, I am more inclined to listen for that moment and to carry images of unity with me as I hear it.


1. Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition (1935; New York: Longman, 1979), 132-133.

2. Schoenberg, Arnold, Style and Idea (New York:  Harper Row, 1945)

3. Douglas Green, Form in Tonal Music (New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1979), 85.

Copyright 1999 by Barbara Swanson.