The Schubert Impromptus — Opus (Op) 90, D.899


The Impromptus by Franz Schubert come in 2 sets of four, the Opus (Op) 90, D.899, and the Op 142, D.935. When referring to Schubert’s work you will often see written «D.» after the work. The «D» corresponds to the referencing of the work rather than something that Schubert wrote. Both sets of Impromptus are pieces composed for solo piano and were composed by Schubert in 1827. Especially when recorded, Schubert’s Impromptus are often played alongside his six pieces for solo piano called «Moments Musicaux».

The definition of Impromptu is offhand and is often a piece for solo instrument. It is essentially performed, and ultimately composed, with the intention of improvisation and was referred to describe a piano composition by Jan Václav VoÅ™íšek, and it is considered by many that Franz Schubert may have been influenced to compose his Impromptus by Jan Václav VoÅ™íšek.

The Schubert Impromptus are a good example of Schubert’s piano writing, and are typically in the Romantic era of music. Within each set of the Impromptu’s the pieces all appear to have their own varying elements. The Schubert Impromptus vary in skill and technical ability, ranging from intermediate to advanced and are probably out of the scope for many beginner pianists. However, although essentially pieces in their own right, the inclusion of at least one of the Schubert Impromptus in a pianists repertoire, if not at least one set of the Schubert Impromptus, should be encouraged due to the prominence of the pieces in Romantic piano.

Impromptus Op.90 (D.899)
The first Impromptu is written in C minor, starting with a chord in the dominant, and carries an almost military atmosphere. Carrying a main them throughout, the melody of the Impromptu varies between major and minor and chordal accompaniment, sounding typically Schubertian with song like characteristics. The opening theme is the dominant melody throughout the Impromptu and the Impromptu sees it varying constantly from major to minor and varying with heavy to light accompaniment. The tension of the Impromptu eventually turns almost tranquil, resolving into C major. This Impromptu is the longest Impromptu of this set of four.

The second Impromptu is in E-flat major and like the first, there is essentially one theme, or in this instance, an idea, which is the essence of the Impromptu, that being the constant flowing of the melody in the right hand, which descends and ascends constantly in triplets. References to the E-flat minor section in the opening part of the Impromptu have been made to the chord sequence found in the song «Fly Me To The Moon», and it is quite uncanny how similar the sound and pattern is. A middle section in the key of B minor sees the triplets still in the right hand acting as an accompaniment to the melodic line which appears to be constantly wanting to resolve and almost jumpy and slightly aggressive. The Impromptu repeats the opening section before returning to a modified Coda of the middle section, eventually ending in E-flat minor. The required performance of this Impromptu has been regularly debated, particularly with regard to the constant triplets in the right hand. Many believe that emphasis has to be played on the first of every triplet whilst others, including myself believe that the triplets should not carry any emphasis at all but rather all being equal as they form the complete melodic line.

The third Impromptu is in G-flat major and this Impromptu is one of the best examples of Schubert’s melodic and lyrical mastery which is why this is one of the most loved of all the Impromptus. The melody is quite simply beautiful, well rounded and literally perfect. The right hand carries most of the melody throughout the Impromptu often with the left hand answering or carrying some of the dialogue, and throughout the Impromptu, the right hand has an underlying fluttering broken chord pattern played extremely softly, which assists the listener, adding atmosphere and depth to the overall sound. Similarities to this Impromptu have been made to those of Felix Mendelssohn’s piano pieces, «Songs Without Words». It is difficult to ascertain if Schubert intended this Impromptu to be played in G major, as this is the key the Impromptu was apparently first published in, but the general consensus is that the Impromptu was probably composed and should be played in G-flat major.

Finally, the last Impromptu in this set Op. 90 is written in A-flat major, even though the Impromptu opens in the minor. Similar to the second Impromptu in this set, it follows the pattern ABA and is made up of descending arpeggios as the melodic line, apart from the middle section in which chords are dominant. Again, the Impromptu constantly varies between minor and major keys, even those not related to the root, yet their combination maintains the melodic line adding interest with an almost natural anticipated progression which eventually resolves back to the root, A-flat major.

Chris Gilmour