Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor, Op. Posth.

One can discover a lot about history by reading various articles related to a piece of music and those who wrote or have played it.

Polish-Jewish author, composer and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911-2000) wrote The Pianist, a memoir of the Holocaust, in 1946. His book was the basis for Roman Polanski’s 2002 biographical drama film of the same name. If you’ve seen that movie, today’s selection will sound familiar as it appears in the soundtrack.

Polish romantic composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) wrote the Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor in 1830 and dedicated the piece to his older sister Ludwika. It was published in 1870, 21 years after his death.

The notes from a YouTube post on the nocturne say, “Wladyslaw Szpilman (Wladek) played this music in the last live broadcast for the Polish Radio on 23.9.1939. An hour later German bombs destroyed its power supply and the Warsaw Radio closed for long 6 (sic) years.” Later in World War II, Szpilman played the nocturne for a German army captain who eventually helped hide him and other Polish Jew from the Nazis.

The Liverpool Echo newspaper’s version of the obituary for Polish pianist and Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp (1911-2007) tells that she played the piece at a birthday party for the commander of the Nazi concentration camp Krakow-Plaszow. Karp and her sister were imprisoned there after being captured in Krakow, where her first husband was killed in German bombing. After she played, the officer said he would keep her alive, though she asked him to spare her younger sister instead; he spared both lives. Later, the sisters were sent to Auschwitz, but both survived the horrors of the Nazi death camps. 

The Nocturne No. 20 is slow and contemplative and has a slightly mournful quality, perhaps because of its associations. Containing numerous beautiful trills, it’s an extraordinary piece of music.

As with all classical music, the timings of versions can vary widely. Interestingly for such a short piece, a 1980 rendition by Szpilman, at three minutes, thirty-nine seconds, is over a minute faster than one played in 2010 by Russian-German pianist Olga Scheps (4:54).

Now you know a little about why this is My Song of the Day for Today, on Classical Sunday. Thanks for joining me here.

Here’s the audio for the Wladyslaw Szpilman version:

And the Olga Scheps rendition:

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