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Franz Schubert - Impromptus D. 899 & D. 935

Music > Piano Music

Franz Schubert wrote 2 sets of Impromptus for the piano named Opus 90 (D 899) and Opus 142 (D 935). However, he was not the first composer to use the term Impromptu. His bohemian colleague and aquaintance Jan Vaclav Vorisek had already written one in 1822. On publishing Schubert's Op. 90 numbers 1 and 2, the company of Tobias Haslinger proposed to call them 'Impromptus'.

Schubert seems to have approved on this description, because he himself used the same term for the second set (Op. 142). This can be read from a letter to the publishing house Schott, in which Schubert lists some compositions, among them, four Impromptus for piano solo 'which can be published seperately or all four together'.

Schubert wrote his 8 Impromptus in 1827, one year before he died and it's hard to understand that the nowadays very popular Impromptus were published so late. Opus 142 was only printed in 1839 and the numbers 3 and 4 of Opus 90 had to wait until 1857, thirty years after they originated!

impromptu schubert

With few exceptions, there is nothing here that suggests improvisation, much less unpreparedness. Although ostensibly composed with an eye on the burgeoning amateur market, at least two of the pieces (No. 2 of the first set and No. 4 of the second) require something close to a virtuoso technique if they are to be brought off with the necessary panache and colour. And even the more evidently ‘easy’ ones – in particular, the beautiful, lyrical G f lat (No. 3 of the first set) and the deceptively four-square A flat (No. 2 of the second) – need the subtlest possible control of texture and sonority to release the true extent of their magic. In a clear concession to the demands of the then new and clamorous amateur market, the G flat Impromptu (in five flats, thus embracing all the black keys of the keyboard) was for many years printed in G major (using only one black key, F sharp) on the grounds that it was easier to play. Not so – easier to read, yes; but actually harder to play.

Schubert’s writing for the piano was not always as natural as either his music or the accounts of his playing would lead us to expect, but in the case of the G flat Impromptu (Op. 90) he got it just right. The keys lie under the hands in the most comfortable and grateful way, so that playing the piece is a physical as well as a musical pleasure. The range of emotion, atmosphere, sonority and structure in these eight pieces is enormous. What they have in common, with the partial exception of the two ‘virtuoso’ ones, is an almost continuous outpouring of lyricism. Most of them are in a straightforward ternary form, with a relatively turbulent middle section. In this and other respects they anticipate the nocturnes of Chopin and John Field. They constitute the first group of works by a major composer to break away from the dominance of the piano repertoire by sonata form; thus they have historical as well as artistic significance.

Impromptus Op. 90, D. 899

No. 1 in C minor,
Allegro molto moderato
No. 2 in E flat, Allegro
No. 3 in G flat,
N0. 4 in A flat,

Impromptus Op. 142, D. 935

No. 1 in F minor, Allegro moderato
No. 2 in A flat, Allegretto
No. 3 in B flat, Theme (Andante) with variations
No. 4 in F minor, Allegro scherzando

Listen to Impromptus Op. 90, D. 899

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