In musical terminology, a “nocturne” is a keyboard composition inspired by the qualities of the night. Such short lyrical pieces were favored by pianists during the first half of the 19th century because the dreamlike quality of the music naturally complemented the Romantic artist’s interest in the transformative powers of the imagination.
The term was coined, most music historians agree, by the Irish pianist and composer John Field, whose work deserves, in my opinion, to be much better known.
It was he who established the basic requirements of the nocturne, whose fairly slow, songlike melody is played by the right hand with a steady, soft accompaniment played by the left.
Certainly Field led a colorful cosmopolitan life, carving out a significant career on the concert stage, particularly in Czarist Russia where he was enormously popular and had a considerable influence on later pianists and composers for the keyboard.
He cast such a spell over his enthusiastic listeners that Czar Nicholas I wanted to lure him to his court, but Field preferred to chart his own course in life, fueled by the hefty fees that his artistry merited.
A similarly distinguished performance career, also international in scope, marks the life of contemporary Irish pianist John O’Conor, who will be visiting Aiken later this month as the featured soloist in this year’s Winter Nocturne, an annual evening concert of piano music now in its fifth year.
Born in Dublin in 1947, O’Conor is world-renowned as both a performer and teacher. Recently retired as director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music – although he still continues to teach at the school – O’Conor is currently Distinguished Artist in Residence and Professor of Piano at the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia and visiting professor at Showa University in Japan, where he received just last year the “Order of the Rising Sun” from the current emperor.
Forming the principal part of the program for the Jan. 24 recital at USCA’s Etherredge Center are works by Ludwig van Beethoven. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with O’Conor’s stellar career since he is widely regarded as the foremost living interpreter of Beethoven’s works for the piano.
In 1973, after he won the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna, his future career trajectory was set. Since then, O’Conor has literally recorded – mostly on the Telarc label – all of Beethoven’s keyboard compositions.
For the Winter Nocturne, O’Conor will play some of the best, including the “Sonata in C minor,” popularly known as the “Pathetique” or “pathetic as in ‘impassioned’” because of its arguably tragic sonorities, and “Six Bagatelles,” short pieces composed late in the composer’s life.
After a brief intermission, O’Conor will return to the stage to perform Franz Schubert’s “Sonata in C minor,” whose first two movements are said to contain passages that echo certain moments in Beethoven’s “Pathetique Sonata.”
With many pieces of otherwise abstract, instrumental music, commentators are often tempted to ascribe programmatic meaning; this has certainly been the case with Schubert’s final three piano sonatas, whose four movements have been interpreted as phases of a cycle – initially tragic but ultimately triumphant – beginning with alienation and moving through banishment and exile to ultimate self-assertion and/or reintegration.
Some Schubert scholars have also been tempted to interpret the works as products of the composer’s presentiment of his own death, not unlike how Mozart was said to have viewed his requiem mass.
Given the fact that Schubert’s sudden demise was not something that he himself anticipated, this particular interpretation lacks merit.
The annual Winter Nocturne is made possible through the generosity of local benefactor Ben Cox and his wife Elizabeth Cummings, who has invested their time, energy and resources in helping USC Aiken develop its music program. This year, for example, in addition to providing a recital for the Aiken community, O’Conor will be conducting workshops for students.
The Winter Nocturne is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. on the main stage of the Etherredge Center. Tickets are $20; for more information, call the box office at 641-3305.
A free artist reception will immediately follow O’Conor’s performance.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.