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Composer Q&A: The Inspiration Behind Dennis Alexander's Nocturnes

By Dennis Alexander | March 5, 2019

Composer Q&A: The Inspiration Behind Dennis Alexander's Nocturnes

There is something about Romantic style repertoire that sparks something in pianists. Something about the beautiful melodies and rich textures speaks to us on a deep level. Piano students are always drawn to pieces written in Romantic styles, and these two books of Nocturnes by Dennis Alexander fill a need for accessible pieces in this timeless style.

We’ve recently released a series of videos on the Nocturnes books featuring performances and practice tips from Dennis Alexander himself, and we’ve asked him to share a little more about his inspiration and processes for writing these beautiful books.

What was your inspiration for writing this series?

First of all, I have always loved the nocturnes of Chopin—they are the among the most magical, inspiring, and creative pieces in the classical repertoire! In addition, I have always loved performing with great singers. I made it a point in college to play for lots of singer friends, and as a result, I became a real fan of opera. Not long after E.L. Lancaster at Alfred Music suggested that I do books of nocturnes, I attended one of the Metropolitan Opera live broadcasts at the theatre—it was La Traviata. Driving home, with those gorgeous Verdi arias still swimming around in my head, I decided right then and there that the books of nocturnes would be the perfect thing for me to do next! This particular style has always been my "favorite" to write, it's more effortless for me to create, and I also felt there was a real need for pieces that would serve as great preparatory material for the Chopin nocturnes.

If you had to choose just one, which of the 14 Nocturnes is your favorite, and why?

To be honest, I really have a hard time choosing just one. They're all quite different, and I have several personal "favorites" because of particular melodic, harmonic, or rhythmical features. But certainly, Nocturne No. 11 in D Major is "right up there" because I chose a meter which, to my knowledge, has never been used for a nocturne—5/8. At first, I wasn't sure it would work, but it turned out to be one of the best "lyrical" pieces in the book, and also has a really interesting LH part in the middle section with lots of running 16th note passages full of chromaticism and color. This nocturne also has a confident, optimistic quality with some big, dramatic passages—very similar to what Chopin does in a number of his nocturnes.

What did you find most challenging about writing this collection?

Book One was probably more challenging for me than Book Two simply because I felt that it was important to make these nocturnes as sophisticated sounding as possible even though the level had to remain early intermediate to intermediate. Creating that true "nocturne style" at this level, with typical broken chord accompaniment style, beautiful melodic lines, LH melodic sections, etc., really forced me to think very carefully about how to craft these pieces while maintaining the appropriate level of difficulty.

You mention a few times in the video series that D Major is your favorite key. Why do you think that is?

As a composer, I've always had a tendency to associate different keys with mood, color, and character. When you examine good repertoire from the standard classical composers, it's hard to not be influenced by the key signatures that are used for various favorite pieces. For example, several pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, such as the little "Musette in D Major," the "March in D Major," all have a very bright, optimistic character. To me, D major has always possessed that same quality—unabashed optimism, hope, and confidence. B-flat major is a more tender, lyrical mood; G-sharp minor is daring, more tumultuous; A-flat major is quite "bluesy."

Why do you think Romantic-style repertoire resonates so much with students?

When I was a young student, I always gravitated to pieces that had beautiful melodies and gorgeous harmonies! Today, I think it's no different with most students—who doesn't love a melodic line that is so "catchy" you might end up humming it all day long? These kinds of pieces often speak to our soul, and they remind us of why music is so often the perfect remedy to brighten our mood and overall well-being!

Nocturne No. 11 in D Major

Watch as Dennis Alexander performs Nocturne No. 11 in D Major from Nocturnes, Book 2, and provides pedagogical tips to help you and your students learn and interpret this work.

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Dennis Alexander

Dennis Alexander has over 400 publications and recordings that have earned him an international reputation as one of the most prolific composers of educational piano music. He maintains an active composing and touring schedule. His personal website features recordings, videos, teaching tips, and much more!

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