A Little Improv...

One of the pieces I'm currently working on is Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C-sharp Minor. I have been mulling over the title "Impromptu" and trying to wrap my mind around his reasoning behind it. What makes this piece an impromptu, an improvisation? Did Chopin sit down with a C-sharp minor chord in mind and start playing this fantastic elaboration?

Did it sound like this at first?

Chopin was experimenting with a relatively new “form” in 1834 with this impromptu. Although not technically a musical form (such as a “sonata” which has a very definite theme, development, and reiteration of the theme*), the term describes more of an improvisation of ideas. As an admirer of jazz piano, I love finding these jewels of improvisation in the world of classical music, and I am blown away by the actualization of Chopin’s improvisatory ideas.

It seems relatively simple – the development of a minor chord structure – but what Chopin begins simply in the left hand twists and turns at a rapid pace when it enters the right. After showing off a bit, he slows to a beautiful lyrical section that plays around with the same chord structure in a different key. Afterwards, Chopin returns to his initial improvisatory madness with a few surprises at the end. 

I adore this piece. I remember my dad playing it as I tried to drift off into sleep in my childhood (Never mind the numerous times I came out of my room to tell my parents his playing was “too loud”!). This morning I listened to Arthur Rubenstein’s set of all four impromptus written by Chopin. Thank goodness for YouTube. What wonderful pieces! 

Donald Alfano wrote a fascinating article on them which explains that the fourth impromptu contains material from which the others are derived (So perhaps it should have been called Impromptu No. 1). The difficulty with the numbering lies in the fact that Chopin never published No. 4. It was published posthumously by his friend Julius Fontana in 1855, against Chopin’s wishes that his unpublished works should be burned upon his death. Interestingly, Rubenstein later came across a manuscript of No. 4 through an auction sale and found an inscription to a baroness, which suggests a commission was made for the piece. It could be that the baroness owned the rights to the composition following her purchase, and thus Chopin did not feel free to publish it on his own. 

Horowitz and Rubenstein have some fabulous recordings of the fantasy, using almost no pedal. There is a wonderful collection of recordings, including theirs, on the website of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute.

*For a detailed, and highly entertaining, explanation of sonata form, see Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert on the subject.

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