- something composed or uttered without preparation or premeditation; a musical
composition having the character of an improvisation.” That is the dictionary
definition of the word, and while it’s a helpful starting point for considering
the music for solo piano played in this recital, it has its limitations.
for instance, does a composer retain the freshness of a melody invented
“impromptu”, on the spur of the moment, when it’s time to write it down in
definitive form on paper? How do you keep the sense of spontaneity involved in
an initial moment of one-off improvisation, when you try to capture it in
perpetuity, for others to play and study?
the answers to these questions can be found in Frédéric Chopin’s Impromptu Op. 66 (or
“Fantasie-Impromptu”) of 1834, the last of his four impromptus in terms of opus
number, but the first in order of composition. The discrepancy arises because
the piece was not actually published in Chopin’s lifetime; it was presented in
manuscript form to the Baroness Frances Sarah d’Este, an aristocratic admirer
of Chopin, and remained for over a century in her personal collection.
Baroness hear Chopin improvising in one of the numerous performances he gave in
the private “salons” of the well-to-do and socially connected? Did she then ask
him to write down something similar to put in her own piano album? It’s
possible, although we do not know for certain. It’s undoubtedly a short step,
however, from the type of dazzling extemporisations Chopin is known to have
excelled at in his piano performances, to the rippling cascade of right-hand
semiquavers in the Op. 66 Impromptu, which one can easily imagine originating
in a “warm-up” exercise.
“Fantasie-Impromptu” is, though, far from being a shallow piece of
audience-pleasing. Against the swirling right-hand triplets Chopin sets a
left-hand accompaniment in duple time, creating a polyrhythmic interaction
which is tricky for the player. And in the contrasting middle section (all four
of Chopin’s impromptus have a tripartite A-B-A structure) the composer gifts
one of his beguilingly long-spun lyric melodies (a tune that later became the
popular American vaudeville song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”).
is, undoubtedly, an “improvisatory” feeling as the melody unravels - but there
is artfulness and sophistication too, as the tune is pruned and set
proportionately in the context of a broader, overarching structure. The
structural outline is trimmed further in the Impromptu Op. 29, composed by Chopin three years later in 1837. In
many ways the keyboard writing is technically similar to Op. 66, although the
agitated polyrhythms have disappeared and the mood is brighter.
The Impromptu Op. 36 is more tentatively
shaped, and more inclined to micro-shifts in mood, as the pianist mulls the
path the relatively benign opening material might follow. The train of thought
appears suspended in a string of chorale-like chords, before a change of key
heralds the more assertive, tolling rhythms of the central section. The music
of the opening section returns, significantly embellished by brilliant,
aspirational roulades. These are eventually supplanted by a second appearance
of the chorale, which is in turn truncated by a stinging double-forte chord,
imposing a blunt full stop on a musical paragraph one feels has not quite
reached its final destination.
particular challenge of the impromptu - to embed a sense of free-flowing
invention in a structural format which the listener will find satisfying to
follow - is most fully met in Chopin’s final essay in the genre, the Impromptu Op. 51. The tempo marking
here, “Tempo giusto”, is instructive: there should be no sense of undue haste
or tarrying in a performance of this music, no undue manipulation of the
illusion it creates of inspiration freely expressing itself with “the fluid
appearance of a stream”, as the writer André Gide put it, “the imperceptible
gliding from one melodic proposition to another”.
fingerprint is still clearly evident four decades later in the Impromptu Op. 25 of the French
composer Gabriel Fauré, most obviously in the fluttering melody of its outer
sections. The central interlude and the coda are, though, more distinctive,
with a whiff of the Wagnerian harmonies Fauré had been keenly inhaling on trips
to hear the German master’s operas.
Wagner influence, never particularly potent in Fauré’s piano music, was
evaporating by the time he wrote the Impromptu
Op. 31 two years later, replaced by an alacrity and elegance which still
owe something to Chopin - though more the Chopin of the virtuosically focused
Études, perhaps, than of the freer-wheeling Impromptus. The Impromptu Op. 34 dates from the same
year (1883), and is quintessential Fauré, the graceful finger-filigree of the
opening paragraph yielding to a palpably more ruminative central section, and a
coda which twice calls into question the need to end the piece with a
two decades before Fauré wrote another impromptu, around the time of his
sixtieth birthday. Is it the gathering uncertainties and insecurities of
advancing age we hear in this Op. 91
piece? The jittery rhythms and unsettled harmonies of the work’s outer segments
suggest so, an impression hardly mitigated by the sombre mindset of the middle
agitation characterizes the relentlessly racing, spinning figurations of Impromptu No. 5, with more than a
passing nod to the famous “wind howling around the gravestones” finale of
Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata. Impromptu
No. 6 is relaxed and airy by comparison. Originally written in 1904 for
a harp competition at the Paris Conservatoire, it was later adapted for piano
by the French pianist Alfred Cortot. The sweeping, glissando-style gestures
typical of the harp occur at several junctures in the piece, and test a
pianist’s dexterity at least as much as they do a harpist’s.
Chopin was an enduring though flickering presence in Fauré’s piano music, he
totally dominates the Impromptu a la
Mazur, Op. 2, No. 3 by the young Alexander Scriabin. Scriabin was just
15 when he wrote it, at a period of his life when he was attending a military
school in Moscow, and slept with copies of Chopin’s music under his pillow.
The Two Impromptus, Op. 10 date from seven years later, and show Scriabin
beginning to pull clear of his boyhood hero’s influence. The jaggy contours of Op. 10, No. 1, in F-sharp minor,
bespeak a partial fracturing of the elegant, untroubled posture struck in
Scriabin’s early Chopin imitation. Op.
10, No. 2, while superficially blithe in demeanour, has a rhythmic
skittishness hinting at a keenly individual, nervy temperament below the
The Two Impromptus, Op. 12 date from a year later. Op. 12, No. 1, for all its determination to achieve a smooth,
lyrical fluidity in the right hand melody, has nagging uncertainties in its
harmonic patterns, and clouds darkening the horizon further in the central
section. The summoning of dark forces intensifies in the chordal rumblings,
rising to a triple-forte dynamic marking, of Op. 12, No. 2, where the intense, visionary quality of Scriabin’s
later style is clearly adumbrated.
The Two Impromptus, Op. 14 from later the same year (1895) marked the
23-year-old Scriabin’s farewell to the genre. Did he know it? There is
certainly an element of wistfulness, and possibly leave-taking, in the gently
Schumannesque musings of the opening melody of Op. 14, No. 1, which is strangely halting in nature, as though an
intimately stored confidence cannot be fully articulated. The chordal central
section is also swiftly truncated, the A-B-A structural outlines of the
traditional impromptu blurring over, as deeper emotions swill around beneath
is more confidence and clarity of purpose in the central episode of Op. 14, No. 2, where slivers of
Chopin’s salon style are scattered on the music. The work’s mistily introverted
opening section, by contrast, points unmistakably forward to Scriabin’s later music,
where he dreamed mystical dreams, and summoned up exotically poetic visions.
the opening material returns at the piece’s conclusion, however, it is dropped
almost instantly, in a coda spanning just eight bars of music. Here, finally,
the modest impromptu form is abandoned by Scriabin. For all its adaptability,
it could never hope to encompass the heady, flamboyant expansion of the
composer’s expressive ambitions - a “really new body of feeling”, Aaron Copland
called it - the seeds of which are fascinatingly evident in the second of the
Op. 14 pieces.
© Terry Blain