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Chopin Nocturne 15.3

One of the most fundamental, most important principles in music is return: when things happen, they come back. Throughout a piece of music, there are recurring elements that unite the whole. The beginning and the end connect. If we depart from where we started, we return there — or at least look back.

The familiar verse / chorus / bridge form that underlies so many pop songs follows this principle: we might get a new melody, the bridge ("Why she had to leave, I don’t know"), but we still come back to the original repeating verse / chorus music ("Yesterday…"). Many, many classical pieces (especially Chopin nocturnes) follow ternary or “ABA” form: thing 1, thing 2, thing 1 again. That includes many of the pieces I’ve posted in this blog. Even in a less clearly delineated structure, you’ll hear the principle of return: listen to Bach letting new material unfold continuously so that same initial idea keeps resurfacing in new forms, or Brahms letting several distinct ideas mingle and interact with one another.

Return can be the operating principle even when it’s not immediately obvious: the three parts of Three Places are all built out of the same material, and the melody that was floating on top of a thick swirl of sound at the beginning comes back at the very end, transformed (the swirl is gone, and it’s bare now) but still present. The point is: look for return, and you’ll find it.

Then we have today’s piece by Chopin. Everything in it happens twice … and then never comes back. It’s like a series of matryoshka dolls that you cannot put back together once you’ve opened them. It moves through four distinct musical worlds, each more inward than the last, constantly curling in on itself and finally leaving us far from where we started, as if, having gone into whatever strange interior world this is, it is impossible to return to the place where we began, or even to imagine what that place was like.

There is no reason this piece should work. It is, to my mind, a miracle. This is one I keep returning to, searching for its secret as a composer, and marveling at it as a human.

Nocturne Op 15 No 3 (in G minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano