Even though Chopin composed this famous work in 1834 it was not published in his lifetime. Much speculation surrounds the reasons behind this but perhaps the most probable if the least interesting is simply that Chopin saw it as the property of the commissioner of the work; Madame la Baronne d’Este.
Fantaisie Impromptu Difficulty
Another twist in the tale is that it was not until 1960 that the pianist Artur Rubenstein discovered a manuscript of the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ in an album owned by the renowned Baroness.
The manuscript was in Chopin’s handwriting but contained noticeable differences from the version published by Chopin’s executor, Julian Fontana. These differences are significant to the point that they to my mind, increase the already substantial challenges this work presents as well as a closer indication of Chopin’s intentions.
Fontana was a pianist, composer but made his contribution to musical history through his devotion to working as Chopin’s assistant. Fortunately for us, Fontana also published with the full blessing of Chopin’s surviving relatives, the collection of works now assigned the opus numbers 66 – 73 that have brought pianists and audiences across the world great delight.
Is this work one of the most difficult that the master composed? The answer from a significant number of pianists seems to be no. Chopin composed extensively for the piano and although the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ presents a number of challenges it does not rank amongst the most difficult of Chopin’s oeuvre.
Looking back a few years I seem to recall the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ being an option on the Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music Piano list at Grade VIII, not even at Diploma level. It is not a piece to be attempted by a beginner student although a confident and diligent intermediate player could make a credible performance of it given time.
The ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ is formed in a familiar A B A structure that Chopin exploited in many of his piano works. The ‘A’ sections are the technically challenging parts with a fiery tempo marking of ‘Allegro agitato’ and an ‘Alla breve’ time signature. The key is C# minor for the outer sections with the slower central section pitched in the tonic major (D flat major). This ‘B’ section takes on the lyrical, calm eye of the storm feeling, that Chopin handles so well. It offers a momentary respite from the busyness of the ‘A’ sections, highlighting Chopin’s unfaltering facility for melodic invention and beautiful harmonic color.
Let’s look in more depth at the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ to analyze in more detail what the perceived challenges are in the piece. We already know that the tempo marked by Chopin is in itself a challenge, but given focused, slow practice the speed of the piece can be achieved once the fingers can find their way confidently.
The next technical issue that is mentioned and indeed receives a lot of attention on many different web pages, is the rhythm of the opening section. What is happening in the whole of the opening section is a triplet rhythm that outlines the harmony and provides rhythmic momentum in the left-hand, but in the right-hand semi-quavers dominate the musical landscape. This essentially means playing groups of three notes with one hand and groups of four notes in the other.
The danger is that the left-hand can speed up to try and match the right-hand, or the triplets become uneven against the semi-quaver movement in the right-hand. Another hurdle is that the right-hand may slow to match the triplets, especially when further into the ‘A’ section Chopin marks the second semi-quaver with an accent, throwing the rhythmic feel even further off base.
What is suggested by some is the diligent, careful, meticulous learning of each hand separately. At the first stages of embarking on the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’, this makes a large degree of sense, and the attention can also be drawn towards avoiding over-pedaling and blurring the harmonic changes and melodic phrasing.
One interesting change between editions of this composition is in the ‘Coda’ passage. In the Rubenstein version, the quaver-triplets continue whereas in other editions the triplets are replaced with ordinary quavers. It just means that the technical considerations of the opening are present right through to the end if you elect to play from the Rubenstein version of the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’. (Incidentally, it is this edition on which ‘Urtext’ editions are now based).
The good news is that despite the liveliness of the piece and the polyrhythmic complexities, Chopin knew exactly what pianists were capable of playing. Yes, he was a pianist who possessed immense gifts when it came to playing the piano, but the way he composed the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ falls under the fingers quite easily. This is not to dismiss the fact that you still have to learn the notes and work out the best fingerings for the piece, but that once this process has been undertaken, the music has the potential to flow seamlessly.
In the central, ‘B’ section criticism is often leveled at pianists who ‘overly sentimentalize’ the music, making it as unpalatable as a chocolate cake heaped with extra sugar. Careful attention needs to be given over to melodic clarity, dynamic sensitivity, thoughtful pedaling, and balance between the hands. Whilst it is understandable to feel this is the ‘easier’ section of the ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ and therefore needs less work, this would be a huge oversight.
What you have with Chopin’s ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ is a work that he did not place great value in and one he did not intend to publish. Odd then that this has become one of the most performed of his pieces. To a certain extent, this can be explained by the fact that it is not actually one of Chopin’s most difficult pieces but sounds highly impressive and can be mastered in a relatively short time.
I have read many comments from pianists who express their dislike for the piece once they have played it a few times, some feel that it lacks the substance and depth of other Chopin piano pieces. This seems a little harsh to me, but the decision is yours to make.