Schubert wrote two sets of Impromptus (D899 and D935). Composed in 1827, his post-‘Winterreise’ annus mirabilis, a year of fervent creativity, the Impromptus remain some of his most popular piano works, particularly the first set and the third of the D935 (a set of variations based on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme from his opera of the same name). The first set tend to be performed more frequently and I have occasionally heard both sets in the same concert, with a selection of the Moments Musicaux slotted in between them.
The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece. In fact, all of Schubert’s Impromptus are tightly-knit and highly cohesive works, and the longest lasts over ten minutes. Schubert did not invent the term “impromptu”: Jan Vorisek, the Bohemian composer living in Vienna, published the first impromptus in 1822, and the term was assigned to Schubert’s works by his Viennese publisher. When he sent out his second set of Impromptus, Schubert numbered them five through to eight. Schumann posited that Schubert may have had something much larger in mind when he composed the D935 set, and even suggested that the key sequence of the four pieces formed a piano sonata in all but name. Certainly the F minor Impromptu (the first of the D935 – the set ends with another F minor impromptu) has the grandeur and scale one expects from a piano sonata from this period but all four works also stand alone, each distinct in their own right.
I have lived with Schubert’s Impromptus since my teens, and have muddled through all of them and learnt two of them properly (the E flat Impromptu from the D899 formed part of my first Diploma programme). For me, the works are continually interesting for their range, depth, variety, individual characters and specific musical challenges. They each display in microcosm many aspects and distinctive characteristics of Schubert’s large-scale piano music (sonatas and fantasies for example) and are extremely rewarding to play. They work well in concert programmes, performed either as a complete set, or as separate pieces, and remain perennially popular with artists and audiences alike.
The entire D935 is a much more substantial set of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the first F minor Impromptu. Organised in sonata-rondo form, the tone of this impromptu moves between an almost-Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section and the more flowing, melodic duet of the central sections.
In terms of learning and playing this Impromptu, I would suggest the following based on my current study of the work:
- The piece is organised in distinct sections (and one will tend to learn it sectionally). Keep in mind the overall structure and narrative of the piece to produce a cohesive whole and be alert to the bridges between each section
- Be careful not to over-emphasise the forte, fortissimo and fz markings: remember this is Schubert not Beethoven. I feel the dynamic contrasts are not as black and white as one would expect in Beethoven.
- Bars 13-19 (and also 126-133): here you want to try to recreate a sense of the underlying chords and chord changes. This section must not sound too dry. Aim for a “shimmering” touch with a sense of string articulation. (Extract 1)
- Bars 30-38 (and also 144-152): don’t begin this section with too much power or heaviness (remember – it’s not Beethoven!). Hold back to allow for a real climax into bars 30/31. Keep the touch light and the RH semiquaver arpeggios delicate.
- Bars 44-64 (and also 159-177): after some discussion and experimentation with my teacher, I try to keep this section light and rhythmic (there is a danger of making the textures too thick here because of the chords). Although Schubert marks it sempre legato, the staccato markings suggest that one should continue in this vein throughout this section. This gives the chords a wonderful dancing lightness. But be sure to observe all the legato markings very diligently. The RH semiquavers at bar 56+ should just shimmer over the LH chords. (Extract 2)
- Bars 69-112 (and also 182-225): this is the emotional heart of the piece – plaintive duetting fragments in treble and bass, accompanied by gently rippling semiquavers in the RH. The accompaniment must not intrude, but it is also important to retain a sense of the underlying harmonies and chord changes. Keep the hand soft and the wrist flexible: some of these broken chords are awkward (in particular, bar 204) and at no point must these semiquavers sound “notey” or dry, especially in the forte sections. Meanwhile the duet (played by the LH only) should sing, with careful shaping in the fragments. (Extract 3)
John Daverio – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms