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Mr. Stojowski's Analytical Lesson on the Impromptu in A Flat

By SIGISMUND STOJOWSKI
 
Sigismund Stojowski's edition of Chopin' first Impromptu (the edition to which this article refers) can be downloaded as a PDF document. Click here for the download.
 
Here is a lovely and lovable instance of noble "play" as conceived by a genuine artist's fancy. Limpid, vaporous, supremely graceful in design, crystal-like in its clarity of structure, it scarcely suggests the deeper aspects of the "greater Chopin." It does not sound the "pathological" (?), or simply pathetic key-note, does not reflect the Polish soil or reveal the Polish soul. It is not one of those exotic products for the perfect understanding and rendition of which the insight and enthusiasm of racial affinity would seem necessary. Nor is it either the "perverse" and "objectionable" (!) Chopin with the complex psychology of his maturity, such as one would shrink from putting into young hands. Yet it is Chopin, young Chopin, too, but so true and complete, that Schumann could exclaim about it: "Chopin will soon be unable to write anything without making people cry out that it is by him." At the same time, Schumann, the generous, noble-spirited and only rival, stated with equal truthfulness that "the Impromptu so little resembles anything in the whole circle of his works that it cannot be compared with any other Chopin composition."
 
Dedicated to Mademoiselle la Comtesse de Lobau, published in 1837 and bearing the opus number 29, this "Impromptu"—his first—has not been commented upon by Chopin himself, as has been the second, evidently dearer to his heart as it also is deeper in tone and more artful in form. *
 
In none of Chopin's Impromptus does the character of the piece wholly correspond, to my mind, to the definition of the name, given in Grove's dictionary as that of an ex-tempore composition. Schubert's Impromptus have more "naivete"—as Mr. Huneker rightly contends—but even in those we meet with clear-cut forms and in one instance with a charming set of cleverly worked-out variations, hardly ever with free trend of extemporaneous thought. Spontaneous as Chopin's first Impromptu appears in conception, its perfect—though simple—structure scarcely suggests improvisation. The puzzle of titles in music, whether generically conventional or aiming at mysterious associations, ever remains a puzzle. Definiteness of word and elusiveness of sound can only be ill-mated. But the French say: "Qu'importe la fiole, pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse"— What does the bottle matter if one only has the ecstasy!
 
FORMAL STRUCTURE.
Two conceptions, contrasted in character and treatment, have supplied the material and form of this Impromptu, which—like a minuet—consists of three parts, the third being a repetition of the first, the main subject thus enclosing the middle-section. These parts are in turn divided into sections, the first in three (A, B, C) ; the second or middle part into two (D, E). It is to be noted that while C carries a reminder—not as would be usual a repetition—of A, out of which is evolved an extension and climax, the two segments of the middle, section (D, E) are quite distinct and lead straight on to the return of the beginning. This breaks the regularity of a conventional pattern in a happy way, distinctive of Chopin's resourcefulness in avoiding rigidity and monotony.
 
THE FIRST PART: CHARACTER AND INTERPRETATION.
Prof. Niecks, sometimes badly deficient in his characterizations of the more recondite aspects of Chopin's masterpieces, but obviously enamored with this gentle piece* aptly compares the first part, with its ever moving triplets, to the bubbling and sparkling of a fountain "on which the sunbeams that steal through the interstices of the overhanging foliage are playing." The melodic lines are skilfully wrapped up—"enclosed in charming figurations," as Schumann says. Their waves freely and swiftly rise and fall, the performer's expression has to follow the fancifully described curves with velvety fingers in naturally graded upward crescendos and downward diminuendos. The greater the length of the ascending wave, the greater must be the crescendo which once even rises to a powerful climax (II) when the melodic top-notes can be markedly brought out in their shifting, syncopated rhythm.
 
Some repetitions of bars and harmonic sequences offer instructive examples of coloristic possibilities in treatment. As this writer has previously insisted upon, repetition—and the kindred term of sequence, which is repetition on another degree of the scale—can either mean increased intensity or mere echoing. In each case the general character and context of the music should guide the performer's taste. Even if the composer's precise and authoritative directions should leave him no choice, these ought to be carried out intelligently. The duplication of the first bar may be played piano, without the crescendo.jpg indicated (I). But when that repetition recurs at (2) it seems opportune to enforce it, as it leads into the dominant-key with a crescendo towards the top note. Again the repetition of bar (5) lends itself to an echo-like treatment, and the removal of the pedal would seem advisable in view of the purpose. Chopin's disparaging remark about Thalberg that he played "forte and piano with the pedals, not with his hands," need not be taken too literally and would only affect misuse turned into mannerism. The conclusion at which a commentator has jumped, that "the pedals should of course only be employed with a view to the quality and not the-quantity of tone desired," § strikes indeed beyond the mark. Tone-quality at the piano is a largely quantitative affair and the damper-pedal is an important dynamic as well as coloristic factor, the importance of which has surely been fully recognized by Chopin, in whose music the use of the pedals, in every way, is of paramount importance.
 
The treatment of the beautiful sequences equally requires a capricious diversity, partly subject to individual taste, for instance: the reproduction in part B of the melodic device (4) can be effectively diminished instead of augmented toward a piano B flat on top. The sustained quarter notes in this section require, of course, a singing quality (3).
 
There is yet another way of shading repetitions and sequences. The chromatic chords at (6), which lead to section C, the editor suggests starting piano, coloring by a crescendo in the middle sequence (7) followed by a diminuendo in the last sequence (8). In the same way can be treated the harmonic repetitions before the close of section C (10), where it seems as if the wavering sunbeams were ever hesitating on the surface of the waters, broken up into a myriad of glittering pearls. The editor suggests a crescendo with slight hastening toward the middle, followed by a gradual diminuendo effect and slackening of tempo to melt finally into the pianissimo top note F (II).
 
Some of Chopin's most characteristic ways appear in the harmonic web, in the rich chromatics by which Chopin vivified—also sensualized—the austere German diatonic harmony of yore. Also what Dr. Bie calls Chopin's "Dreistimmigkeit"—a persistent sense of three superposed, freely flowing, rather harmonic than contrapuntal parts, constantly underlies the structure, imparting to it a peculiar wealth of euphony. This an adequate use of the pedal should enhance without excessive fear of ornamental passing notes, but with due-respect to the purity of line. The indicated sustaining of quarter notes in the chromatic sequences in treble and bass, also the slight, occasional overholding of melodic notes as indicated (10), serves to emphasize this peculiar kind of polyphony.
 
THE MIDDLE SECTION.
In the middle section a voice seems to rise from the depths of the playing waters. The change of the ever-flowing triplets into a broad rhythm and the shifting of tonality to the relative minor key adds to the contrasting value of a cantilena, which now as distinctly dominates the whole fabric as previously the melody had been concealed in figuration. It breathes nobility, tenderness, yearning; in its second section even rises to passion. The noble melody is apt to please German critics. It has what they so highly prize and call "Langathmigkeit," a long breath. Compared to the pregnantly short Beethovenian themes, or to the mostly fragmentary melodies of Schumann, Chopin's melody has indeed the longest swing and scope. Before Wagner, Chopin is the inventor of the "unendliche Melodie"— unending melody—but the melody under consideration differs from the Wagnerian mode in as much as it is an articulate phrase, consisting of two distinct sections, themselves sub-divided according to the regular patterns of phrase building.
 
The broad and noble initial bars of section D appear twice, leading through passing modulations to a cadence in the key of C major, reached in a roundabout enharmonic way, of truly Chopinesque character in its boldness and novelty. The haze of melancholy that seemed to veil the singing voice as it arose toward the sun is now dissolved in soft light (14)- The "fiorituras" which call upon our attention are a most characteristic feature of Chopin's style, derived both from the ornaments of the old masters, the so-called "agreements," and from the contemporary vocalises of the Italian opera; but they are distinctively Chopinesque, in as much as he has absolutely humanized their artificiality. "The dainty little notes which suddenly descend on the melody like a spray of dewdrops glistening in all the colors of the rainbow" are in fact an integral part of the melody, and should be treated in consequence without haste, with perfect repose and dignity. The holding back of the tempo is not only permissible in such cases, but necessary; and rhythmical divisions then may be read into the seemingly irregular and puzzlingly capricious arabesques. Thus, the editor would suggest playing the bar with ornament (13) in the following manner:
 
 
No. I.
impromptu_01.jpg
 
(This without conspicuously retarding, only insisting somewhat upon the pathetic repetition of the B flat.)
 
In the group of small notes at (14) the holding back of tempo actually implies holds upon the last two quarter notes of the bar and the division may be accomplished thus:
 
No. 2.
 
impromptu_02.jpg
 
Other irregular runs may be divided as suggested in the text (17, 19). The first of the grace-notes preceding a trill (18, 21)— or a chord (16, 20, 22)— should be struck with the bass-chord.
 
After two transitional bars of harmonic filling (15), the tonic C turns into the fundamental dominant of the second phrase of the F minor section (E). This episode consists of two main repetitions including that of the modulation to the relative major key; but a noteworthy feature of it is that various figurations are employed to enhance and enrich the several repetitions of the design of the initial bar. The differentiation in the shadings of these repetitions has been indicated by the editor according to his best understanding, which may be found somewhat different from other editions. Chopin's works have reached us in most casually corrected original editions, and the later ones have brought into the field a considerable amount of confusion, until one often feels the need of revising in turn what has been revised seemingly in an authoritative but not necessarily convincing manner.
 
The cadenza which concludes this part again calls for free but comprehensive treatment (23). Bülow rightly suggests that the first notes be held back "pathetically" before the run dashes downward; also that the value of the following trills be prolonged almost the double (24).
 
The first note of each trill should be marked by an accent, and a gradual diminuendo must precede and prepare the return of the first subject in its own lighter vein and graceful shape. It is interesting to note that the bridgings-over between the two sections are both homophonic, and that while in the first the tonic descends by a step to the tonic in the bass (12), in the second, the dominant chromatically moves up to the dominant in the treble (24).
 
The repetition of the first part (F) brings no new element, except a short extension in the coda (G) through the interpolation of some chords (25) between the repetitions of the closing section. These, by a sort of gradual elimination, waveringly, falteringly interspersed with silences, bring to an end the play of the bubbling fountain, as if large drops were falling slower and slower from the receding waters, until the whole vision vanishes and fades away into dreamland, whence it came. The "sotto-voce" indicated by the composer is thus explained—partly explained away—as one of those general directions applying to the spirit but not to the letter at the particular point where used. It is to be gradually reached through the shadings suggested. A syncopated pedal—the foot coming down after the chord having been struck—and a complete removal of the pedal during the rests, will greatly enchance (sic) the mysterious, waning effect desired.
 
 
 
[1] A Polish letter of Chopin, comparatively recently published and to which I do not remember any reference made in any foreign book or essay, bears out the assertion about Chopin's occasional descriptive tendencies, as it relates, almost down to details, the genesis and context of the F shairp major Impromptu.

§0. C. Ashton Johnson : A Handbook to Chopin's Works. A most valuable book of reference.

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