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Hymns in strange places



Frédéric Chopin, nocturne in G minor, Opus 37, No. 11

Some years ago, a friend who is a professional pianist (and not a very nice person), hearing what I was playing at the piano, made the rude comment, “Hymns are the lowest form of music, you know.” Instantly angry, I threw an insult back at him: “No. Jazz is the lowest form of music.”

I was listening to the Chopin nocturnes tonight, partly because, at last, I can. The speakers and stereo amplifier are in a more or less permanent place in the newly painted radio room, and the iMac (and therefore iTunes) is now connected to the sound system.

Again and again in the nocturnes, Chopin gently slips away from the wild rubato rhythm and falls into a strictly timed four-part hymn, or anthem. The four measures above are just one example. If you’d like to find and listen to this example, the hymn starts about three minutes into Claudio Arrau’s seven-minute recording of this nocturne. Adjust the times for whatever recording you may have.

Anyone who thinks hymns are the lowest form of music knows nothing about human voices singing in chorus in four-part harmony. In the nocturnes, I would say that these hymn-like sections were a form of musical contrast for Chopin, a way of anchoring and grounding the wildness of the nocturnes.

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