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Four Impromptus, Opp. 29, 36, 51, & 66

February 26, 2017: Emanuel Ax, piano

Between 1834 and 1842 Chopin composed four impromptus (opp. 66, 29, 36, and 51 in that order), which, though conceived as separate pieces, share certain thematic material and a basic ternary shape (ABA). For Chopin, impromptu did not mean a piece of an improvisatory nature but rather a character piece—a common if vague nineteenth-century designation—and his impromptus show evidence that he revised his materials more than once before arriving at their final form.

Chopin composed his so-called Fantasy-Impromptu in C-sharp minor c. 1834, but decided not to publish it for unknown reasons. He himself called the piece an “impromptu,” but his friend Julian Fontana added “fantasy” to the title when he published it in 1855, six years after Chopin’s death. (An alternate version was also published from a presentation manuscript Chopin made for dedicatee Baroness d’Este.) In 1834 Chopin had not yet solidified what “impromptu” meant for him personally as a genre. He had recently published his Etudes, op. 10, and this first Impromptu belongs to that world. It also shows indebtedness to the Impromptu in E-flat major, op. 89, by Ignaz Moscheles and to Schubert’s Impromptu, op. 90, no. 2. (It has been suggested that similarities to the Moscheles Impromptu may have been a reason for withholding it from publication, but that notion is contradicted by the fact that he published other pieces modeled on those by Moscheles.)

The C-sharp minor Impromptu continues to be one of Chopin’s most popular pieces. It unfolds in a simple ternary form whose outer sections feature rippling figuration from which a melody in longer notes emerges. The slower middle section offers an expansive, lyrical melody (later appropriated for the pop song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”), which Chopin treats several times at leisure before returning the scurrying opening section. He also recalls the tune in his ruminating coda.

By 1837, when Chopin wrote his second Impromptu in A-flat major, he demonstrated his clear personal definition of the genre by modeling the piece on his own unpublished C-sharp minor Impromptu. Many commentators have pointed out similarities between the two in regard to formal design, texture, and details of phrase structure and motives.

That this was a time of despair for Chopin, when his hopes of marrying Maria Wodziński were crushed, contrasts markedly with the effervescent atmosphere of this piece’s outer sections. The middle section becomes more ruminative but hardly brooding. Especially memorable are the cascading chromatics of the “A” sections and the harmonic digressions and melodic embellishments of the “B” section.

Chopin composed the third Impromptu in F-sharp minor in 1839 at Nohant, the country estate of writer George Sand (pseudonym of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), with whom he had by now become romantically involved. Chopin scholar Jim Samson has argued persuasively that “this piece was the single most important harbinger of Chopin’s later style” in its variation style that is built on an ostinato (repeating pattern), its march-like middle section, and the threefold variation of the reprise.

The manuscript reveals that the form of this prophetic composition caused Chopin a great struggle. Some of the most striking features of the piece are the astonishing tonal wrench to the unexpected key of F major for the return of the opening theme and the amazing figuration as the theme is varied—finger exercises transformed into magical effects.

The delicate, harmonically adventurous fourth Impromptu in G-flat major, Chopin’s personal favorite, dates from the summer of 1842 at Nohant, polished the following autumn/winter. It exists in two versions, one transmitted through his onetime pupil Carl Filtsch, who copied it out either by ear or from a manuscript in 1841. If by ear, he hadn’t remembered how Chopin exquisitely varied the main theme in thirds and sixths on its later appearances, and, if copying from a manuscript, he must have been looking at a version from before Chopin arrived at this imaginative stroke.

Chopin likely modeled his G-flat major Impromptu, especially the figuration of the outer sections, on his A-flat major Impromptu. The fourth Impromptu’s outer sections are striking for their ethereal rising scales before certain phrase endings, the adventurous harmonies of their transition passage, and a new second theme. In the slower middle section Chopin features a singing, contemplative melody in the cello register. The sophistication of his harmonies and intricately interconnected flow of ideas make it clear why Chopin favored this Impromptu and regrettable that it has often been overlooked.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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