In today’s episode, we’re going to take a look at Chopin’s very famous Fantaisie-Impromptu, op. 66, for solo piano (like the vast majority of Chopin’s works).
It’s approximately five minutes long, so it’s a nice and digestible length – and it also isn’t wildly difficult, though it’s still a very high-level piece.
In today’s video, we’re going to talk about the backstory of this composition, and get nerdy into musical analysis. But don’t worry if you aren’t well-versed in music theory – I like to make these videos so that even the most casual of music listeners can understand most of it.
Let’s get started!
This Fantaisie-Impromptu was written in 1834, but Chopin didn’t publish it in his lifetime. In fact, he specifically requested that none of his unpublished works be published after his death – though this was completely ignored and there are quite a few posthumous compositions of his that we now enjoy.
Fantaisie-Impromptu is one of Chopin’s most famous and most performed compositions, and it’s been all over popular media – you’ve likely heard it at least once in your life.
This composition is the fourth in a series of four Impromptus written by Chopin – the other three were published in his lifetime.
Why Chopin didn’t publish it
So why did Chopin leave this one unpublished?
Well, Chopin dedicated it to his close friend Julian Fontana, and Julian was the one who published it in 1855 after Chopin’s death. It’s thought that, since it bore so many similarities to Moonlight Sonata, Chopin might not have wanted to publish it.
Another version of the impromptu was discovered by Arthur Barenboim, a version that Chopin had seemingly updated – perhaps he didn’t want to publish it because he was still working out details.
Similarity to Moonlight Sonata
Both Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata are in the key of C sharp minor, and they have a lot in common tonally and harmonically (especially the third movement of the sonata). They both have a middle section in Db major (the B section in the impromptu, and the second movement in the sonata). They both have similar runs and a driving sense of urgency. Beethoven’s is marked “presto agitato”, and Chopin’s is marked “allegro agitato”. (Presto=very fast, allegro=fast).
Ernst Oster, a musicologist, wrote,
“Chopin understood Beethoven to a degree that no one who has written on the C♯ minor Sonata or the Fantaisie-Impromptu has ever understood him. … The Fantaisie-Impromptu is perhaps the only instance where one genius discloses to us—if only by means of a composition of his own—what he actually hears in the work of another genius.”
We’re going to take a listen to the introduction of Beethoven’s third movement from his Moonlight Sonata, and then we’re going to dive into the intro of Fantaisie-Impromptu. Listen for a similar vibe – Beethoven’s is more intense, Chopin’s a little more nocturnal.
Credit: Paul Pitman
Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0
Scene 06 screen Musical features
So now that we’ve talked about Chopin’s musical inspiration for his impromptu, let’s start discussing its musical features.
In this composition, you’ll find:
- Polyrhythm (two different rhythms in each hand – 16th notes in the right hand with left hand triplets)
- Cut time (2/2) in the A section/part 1, and 4/4 time in the B section (cut time tends to have more energy, whereas 4/4 has more flow)
- Key change from C# minor to Db major (the parallel major – Db/C# are the same note on the piano)
- An interesting decision to end on a major chord (tierce de picardie)
- Ternary form (A-B-A, three-part form)
Fantaisie-Impromptu Song form
Let’s talk about what a fantasie-impromptu is before we dig into this piece a little further. Just like waltzes, nocturnes, scherzos and other genres Chopin wrote in, an impromptu is a specific type of musical composition.
Put simply, an impromptu has a freestyle improvised sound. Perhaps it was a composition that was born out of improvisation, or maybe it doesn’t have any formal structure – the end result is something that sounds spontaneous.
Impromptus are usually written for a solo instrument, and the genre came about in the Romantic era in the early 1800s. Fantasies are very similar, but it’s an older genre (Mozart, Bach and others wrote Fantasies centuries before Chopin).
Even though impromptus are written in the spirit of improvisation, they still tend to have some structure, such as the ternary (ABA) form you’ll find in this impromptu.
So here’s the structure you’ll find in this Fantaisie-Impromptu:
ABA + coda
Part 1 (A section) bars 1-40
Part 2 (B section, also called the trio) bars 41-82
Part 3 (A section again) bars 83-118
Coda (ending) bars 119-138
Let’s look at the first section, part A. This section has a very stormy and restless feel – “agitated”, like the tempo marking suggests at the beginning.
The thing about the polyrhythm in this section is that it isn’t too hard to play either hand separately, but it’s very challenging to play both of them at the same time, since they’re different rhythms. The right hand is playing sixteenth notes and the left hand is playing eighth notes, which means the notes are only being pressed at the same time every third note.
We’ve already listened to the main theme of the A section – let’s now have a look at the second theme. These themes are simply musical ideas that will recur throughout the piece.
In this section, you’ll hear the melody in the middle register of the piano, indicated by the accented notes. The notes have accents to tell the performer that these must be louder than the surrounding notes, which ends up being a lot of work for the thumb – but essential if the audience is to hear the melody.
This part also sounds a little happier, since it moves to the relative major key of E major. Let’s have a listen!
The A section culminates in a big descending chromatic scale and a left hand octave melody that digs lower and lower. This gives us a feeling that things are looking very grim, like falling into a pit – but instead of crashing, we are taken into the much sunnier B section.
So now we’re in the middle Db major key section. We start off with a tempo marking of largo (slow), which is quickly followed by the marking Moderato Cantabile (moderate and in a singing style).
The right hand melody in this section really does sing – it’s very lovely. I always encourage my students to come up with their own “stories” for pieces like this, and for me, I’m reminded of a dream. In the A section, the dream is very scary – maybe you’re running from something – and then you’re free-falling through the sky. But instead of falling and crashing to your doom, you fall through a hole into another world, one that’s golden and serene.
It sounds a little silly to say it aloud, but those kinds of images and imaginings are what can really bring a composition to life in your mind. There are no words to tell you what the story is – you create the story yourself.
Let’s have a listen!
The golden, dreamy sequence carries on and repeats for a couple of minutes before transitioning back into the stormy A section. There isn’t a dramatic build-up to the transition – rather, the lovely major sound dissipates as though it was never there – like it was the dream, and now we’re back to a dark reality.
I like how the pianissimo volume at the end, and the small slow-down, gives it a feel of a pleasant dream evaporating. But again, those are just my images. Let’s have a listen!
Final A section
And that takes us to the final A section. This is marked “presto”, so it’s faster and more agitated than the original A section (though in some versions it’s marked “allegro” like the beginning). Whenever a part repeats, it’s a good idea to spice it up a bit so it’s different – some performers will go faster and more agitated here, while other performers will go the opposite direction and find a quieter sound.
The coda explodes with a fortissimo that slowly melts into a major key sound. The main climactic moment of the piece is here in the coda, but it’s followed by true peace in the last thirty seconds or so, ending with a tierce de Picardie (a minor key composition that ends in a major key). I love that Chopin gives us a happy ending here – the dream ends on a serene note.
Credit: Frank Levy
Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0