Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 899 (Op. 90)

The Four Impromptus, D. 899 (Op. 90), belong to that rare breed of true masterpieces that enjoy enormous, enduring popularity among students, performers, and audiences alike. Having composed them in the fall of 1827, all four were sent by Schubert, apparently as a set, to the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger.

Unfortunately, Haslinger published only the first two by December of that year. Impromptus Nos. 3 and 4 were not published until thirty years later by Tobias Haslinger’s son Karl. The word “Impromptu” is written at the top of the first page of the manuscript in what may be the publisher’s hand—not Schubert’s—possibly to promote the piece among amateurs. It is quite conceivable, however, that Schubert approved of the title. He used it himself a few months later when he sent his second set of Four Impromptus, D. 935 (Op. 142), to the publisher Schott in Mainz.

By the time he composed the Impromptus (D. 899), Schubert had already written both large-scale piano works, such as sonatas and the “Wanderer Fantasy,” and small-scale piano works, most notably several hundred dances. Similarly, he had written large-scale orchestral and chamber works, as well as hundreds of small-scale chamber works in his own unique genre, the lied (a song for solo voice and piano).

Schubert achieved a balance of form, style, and mood in the impromptus that often eluded him in his sonatas. That balance is apparent when each impromptu is played independently, and enhanced when performed as a complete set. Similarities between the four impromptus, and in particular between Nos. 2 and 4, are discussed below. However, despite these similarities each of the four has its own distinct character. Built upon a captivating melodic theme, No. 1 oscillates between lyricism and drama, struggle and resignation. No. 2 depicts extreme moods and is highly imaginative in its use of raw material, which consists mainly of diatonic and chromatic scales. The serene simplicity of the melody in No. 3 is set against a beautiful harmonic and textural backdrop. In No. 4, broken chords make up both the delicate sounds of part A and the contrasting melodic swells of part B, the Trio. Most students are drawn to the variety of the impromptus’ moods, the richness and beauty of their musical language, and their motivating technical challenges. From my own experience as a teacher I know that some students do well, even thrive, when presented with challenges. Inspired and motivated, they progress faster than they do without challenges. Others who shy away from serious challenges should first develop the basic skills necessary to tackle and benefit from the study of the impromptus.

There are enormous pedagogical and artistic benefits from playing the impromptus. Students will learn how to play repeated notes and chords, how to play fast passages evenly and lightly, how to produce a singing tone and shape a line, and how to voice chords. They will note the difference between legato, portato, and staccato playing; learn the careful use of the pedal; and explore subtle fluctuations in tempo. Perhaps most importantly, through the study of the impromptus, one becomes thoroughly conscious of the relevance and interconnection between the technical issues mentioned above and the musical, artistic challenges, a relationship that many études do not teach.

Each of the impromptus is long enough and challenging enough to qualify as an independent Romantic work for late-intermediate- and advanced-level students (and performers), and short enough to fit into various recital and competition programs. Unlike sonata movements, these can be presented in recitals singly, in any combination of two or three, or as a complete set. While they can be played and enjoyed by teenagers, their beauty, charm, inventiveness, and uniqueness tempt one to revisit them continually to discover hidden treasures.

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Richard Walters
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Brian Ganz