A nocturne (from the French for "nocturnal") is usually a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night. Historically, nocturne is a very old term applied to night Offices and, since the Middle Ages, to divisions in the canonical hour of Matins.
The name nocturne was first applied to pieces in the eighteenth century, when it indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party and then laid aside. Sometimes it carried the Italian equivalent, notturno, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's quadraphonic Notturno in D, K.286, written for four lightly echoing separated ensembles of paired horns with strings, and his Serenata Notturna, K. 239. At this time, the piece was not necessarily evocative of the night, but might merely be intended for performance at night, much like a serenade.
In its more familiar form as a single-movement character piece usually written for solo piano, the nocturne was cultivated primarily in the nineteenth century. The first nocturnes to be written under the specific title were by the Irish composer John Field, generally viewed as the father of the Romantic nocturne that characteristically features a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated, even guitar-like accompaniment. However, the most famous exponent of the form was Frédéric Chopin, who wrote 21 of them. One of the most famous pieces of nineteenth-century salon music was the "Fifth Nocturne" of Ignace Leybach, who is now otherwise forgotten. Later composers to write nocturnes for the piano include Gabriel Fauré, Alexander Scriabin and Erik Satie (1919), as well as Peter Sculthorpe. In the movement entitled 'The Night's Music' ('Musiques nocturnes' in French) of Out of Doors for solo piano (1926), Bartók imitated the sounds of nature . It contains quiet, eerie, blurred cluster-chords and imitations of the twittering of birds and croaking of nocturnal creatures, with lonely melodies in contrasting sections. Other notable nocturnes from the 20th century include those from Michael Glenn Williams, Samuel Barber and Robert Helps.
Other examples of nocturnes include the one for orchestra from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (1848), the set of three for orchestra and female choir by Claude Debussy (who also wrote one for solo piano) and the first movement of the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1948) by Dmitri Shostakovich. French composer Erik Satie composed a series of five small nocturnes. These were however, far different from those of Frédéric Chopin and John Field.
The first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata has also been considered a nocturne (certainly, Ludwig Rellstab, who gave the piece its nickname, thought it evocative of the night), although Beethoven did not describe it as one.
Nocturnes are generally thought of as being tranquil, often expressive and lyrical, and sometimes rather gloomy, but in practice pieces with the name nocturne have conveyed a variety of moods: the second of Debussy's orchestral Nocturnes, "Fêtes", for example, is very lively.
The word was later used by James McNeill Whistler in the title of a number of his paintings, consistent with his theory that fine art should essentially be concerned with the beautiful arrangement of colors in harmony. Debussy's nocturnes were inspired by Whistler's paintings. Several other artists followed suit.