The art of the impromptu

Polish Pianist Tomasz Lis assesses the impact on the genre of Schubert, Chopin and Fauré

The art of the impromptu

Impromptu is an unusual, rare and fascinating genre. A short instrumental piece with an improvisatory feel, it first appeared in the music journal Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung as the title of piece by Bohemian composer Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek. This gifted young composer moved to Vienna in 1813 and soon became friends with Franz Schubert. It was Schubert whose two sets of impromptus would later become part of the standard repertoire and the first true masterpiece of this new musical form.

Exactly ten years after Schubert finished his two sets of impromptus, Fryderyk Chopin decided to tackle the genre himself, composing some of his most enchanting but rarely performed works. Some half a century later, Gabriel Fauré followed suit. For some reason, though, impromptus have lured very few of the great composers. Robert Schumann, Jean Sibelius and Alexander Scriabin have all tried their hand at writing in this most ephemeral form but their efforts have not transcribed into popularity among performers.

From whatever angle I look at the impromtus by Schubert, Chopin and Fauré, they all stand alone. These composers might have been surrounded by some of the most towering figures of the time and admired some great names from the past but they each created their own unique and inimitable soundworld. Beethoven's shadow was still looming in Vienna and yet, when Schubert wrote Gretchen am Spinnrade at the tender age of 17, he became the master of his own destiny. Chopin's faith in Bach and Mozart was unshakable and his love for bel canto opera had no bounds. That didn't stop him choosing the solitary piano as his means of expression and excelling in forms that were almost all entirely new. Fauré must have known every single important man of his day but his music had no imitators. Wagner’s overwhelming presence didn’t affect his oeuvre; instead we can sense traces of Chopin, whose extraordinary harmonic language seems to have influenced him substantially.

When I decided to record the impromptus of these three composers I realised that they had received a carte blanche on which to express themselves in this elusive form. Schubert's impromptus are a balancing act between structural solidity and an emotional walk on a tightrope. This music may sound as if written on the spot but his control of ideas is magisterial. Chopin's supreme gift for improvisation shines through every bar of his four impromptus and yet his inexhaustible imagination never damages the delicacy of line with which he paints these musical landscapes. Fauré – in the words of the legendary composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger – 'etches in even the most subtle of his modulations with the sharp, fine lines of a pen.’ She added: ‘The subtlety of Fauré's transitory modulations, the ease and naturalness with which he alludes to the most remote keys, are the mind's sheerest delight'. This harmonic adventurousness characterises the output of all three masters.

Their music strikes a perfect balance between the emotional and intellectual with not a note out of place. At the same time they all challenge any ears that are accustomed to a more predictable harmonic language. What we have here is music ripe with rewards by composers whose egos were far smaller than the incredible pieces they wrote.

– Tomasz Lis, pianist


Tomasz Lis’s recording of impromptus by Schubert, Chopin and Fauré is out now on the Klanglogo label. Visit: to find out more




Review: Chopin Nocturnes, Impromptus and Sonatas (Louis Lortie)

Review: Schubert Impromtus (Radu Lupu)

Christian Blackshaw plays Schubert


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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