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Analysis: Schubert D. 899 No. 1 ‘Impromptu in C Minor’

The first set of Impromptus (D.899) was written in the penultimate year of Schubert’s life, the summer of 1827. It was Schubert’s publisher, Haslinger, who titled this set of piano works. Initially, only the first two Impromptus were published in late 1827 (Fisk, 2001, p.115). Schubert wrote the two sets of Impromptus in the same year as the song cycle, Winterreise, and by the middle of that year his 9th symphony was to be put to rehearsal (Newbould, 1998, p.258). In Returning Cycles (2001, p.28), Fisk draws many parallels of the opening impromptu to the opening song of Winterreise – ‘Gute nacht’, “its walking tempo, its constant momentum, its repeated chords and melodic tones, its … dotted figures …, and its ambiguous turns to major at the end”.

There are many interpretations of the form of this first impromptu. There are: “incipient suggestions of sonata form” (Badura-Skoda, 2004), comparisons with the principal theme and a “Leitmotif”, “it is closer to a series of variations upon two alternating minor and major themes” (Song, 2012, p.6). I believe Porter (1980, p.117) to have the best descriptor, that of the piece being “monothematic” akin to that of the Gb major impromptu. This is due to a justification for all melodies within the piece to be derived from the principal theme; a topic I shall discuss more fully. Fisk (2001, p.278) best articulates the formal architecture by outlining it as “a doubled ternary” form, ABA’B’A’’. The sectional differences deal more with tonal, textural and characteristic shifts rather than thematic alterations.

Formal unitBarCharacter, texture, topicStructural Key Centres
A1-40Mysterious, homophonic. Regular, 4-bar antecedent, 4-bar consequent phrase groups. French Overture, Ombra.C-minor
B41-86Lyrical, triplet broken-chord accompaniment. Contains chordal, song-like episode derived from the principal theme. Predominantly 5-bar phrase groups. Singing style.Ab-major
A’87-123Echoes of ‘Erlkönig’ – triplet repeated Gs in the right-hand. Low left-hand theme. Ascending and descending chromatic accompaniment. Tempesta, Sturm und drang.C-minor
B’124-159Semiquaver broken chords with syncopated staccato accompaniment. Contrasting lyrical permutation in G major. Brilliant-style, Singing-style.G-minor to G-major
A’’160-204Minor-major polarity. Mostly quiet dynamic, subsiding. OmbraC-minor to  C-major
Figure 1: Showing the form, character and tonality of Schubert’s C Minor Impromptu D.899 No.1

The C-minor impromptu opens with a fortissimo G, played in double octaves. Fisk (2001, p.125) elaborates greatly on this opening call and its usage throughout the piece. He likens the initial strike of the dominant, prolonged by a fermata, to the conclusion of a “Classical introduction”. However, no introduction precedes the G, and no main theme articulating tonic harmony follows. Instead, the initial harmony underlying the antecedent (bars 2-5) of this motive is entirely dominant in function.

The highest point of the first phrase is an E-flat in bar 3, subsequently harmonised by a six-four C-minor triad in the consequent phrase (bars 6-9). It is a dotted crotchet that falls onto a quaver, an augmentation of the preceding dotted quaver – semiquaver rhythm. The principal theme is defined by dotted rhythms, repeated notes and narrow intervals.  The widest interval of the “claustrophobic theme” (Biss, 2017, 13:36) is a major second up to bar 8. This is where there is a small jump of a minor third up to E-flat, allowing the consequent phrase to cadence in C-minor. The double-dotted crotchets from bar 7 onwards along with the homophonic textural realisation of the theme evoke the French Overture topic explicated by Ratner (1980).

Fisk (2001, p.126) notes that the opening G compensates for the lack of an introduction, by “becoming the harmonic background, in place of the tonic, for virtually the entire theme”. He further likens the opening G in double octaves to an echo “of the mysterious, slow introductions of such Classical symphonic works as Beethoven’s Fourth and Haydn’s ‘Drum Roll’ symphony” (p.31). The G confines the piece to the C-minor tonality, rather than act as a starting point for departure (p.29). The principal theme undergoes various reharmonizations and attempts to depart from the C-minor tonality. Each attempt is unsuccessful as each phrase ends with alternating imperfect and perfect cadences in C-minor. It is until bar 39 with the introduction of the flatted supertonic, D-flat which allows the modulation to the submediant (a modulation used frequently by Beethoven). This modulation is aided by the C-minor triad being in first-inversion, the two E-flats undermining chord iii in Ab-major and suggesting chord V.

The following B section provides refreshing relief from the prevailing C-minor tonality and dominant pedal points. The textural change of melody and accompaniment from homophony produces a song-like quality, an idiom Schubert was well versed in. The triplet broken chord accompaniment is given interest by lower auxiliary notes and offers a doubled melody in bar 45 (see Figure 2). The principal theme is begun with the same dotted quaver to semiquaver anacrusis as the initial A theme, lending coherence and consistency to the theme’s development. B also offers an illustration of phrase extension. A had been characterised in part by four bar phrases paired into 8 bar periods. However, B contains three 5 bar phrases and a 4-bar phrase, each ending in a perfect cadence. This helps create “a further placidity” to the reworking of the theme (Porter, 1980, p.43). The first 5-bar phrase (bars 42-46) is obtained by extension of bar 3 through augmenting the rhythmic values to minims in bar 43 and 44. This slower harmonic rhythm maintains melodic interest through “the suggestion of a countermelody in the tenor” (Porter, 1980, p.43). This descending minim passage from the highest note of the phrase mirrors the Eb in bar 3. Fisk (2001, p.127) posits an interpretive solution to the meaning of this descent and its alteration in B. The motive (bar 3) “in its original form, suggests a longing for escape, then perhaps the new theme incorporates its transformation, whether imagined or remembered, in a state of freedom or fulfilment”. Thus, the A-flat modulation does not introduce a new theme, but acts “as a liberating metamorphosis of the opening theme”. Porter (1980, p.117) charmingly likens the reworking of the principal theme in B to “a winter and summer view of the same scene”.

Figure 2: Bars 43-46 (Gold – Minims showing phrase extension. Green – Tenor countermelody. Blue – Melody doubled in tenor. Red – Lower auxiliary notes.)

The intervening ‘episodes’ mentioned by some theorists (bars 74-82 and 152-159) also originate from the principal theme. Several characteristics of this ‘episode’ (which serves more as a codetta for section B) can be found in the principal theme, or in its reworkings in section B. In Figure 3 below I have made note of the ‘turn motif’ introduced in bar 54 and again at 73 which features heavily through this codetta. This is a simple melodic development using appoggiaturas either side of the chord-note. At a deeper level there is a diatonic descent (highlighted in red on Figure 3) of a major 6th from F to A-flat. This stems from the reworking of the principal theme in section B (bars 43-46). In green I have noted the dotted rhythm on the fourth beat of the bar, a clear derivative of the principal theme’s frequent metric position of a dotted rhythm.

Figure 3: Bars 73-38 (Blue – ‘Turn’ motif. Red – Descending line. Green – Dotted rhythm.)

This B codetta cadences with a dense, 6-note chord in the low register of the piano (bar 82). This shifts the lyrical tone colour to a darker, threatening one. The accompanimental triplet figure is maintained underneath a motivic cell from the principal theme, the dotted rhythm and repeated crotchets return. Both hands play double octaves in parallel motion at the beginning of each bar, evoking the nature of the bare octaves which begin the piece. The shift from A-flat to G in bars 83-84, “extinguishes … the aura of Ab-major” (Fisk, 2001, p.127). Fisk goes on to draw the parallel between the following G octave triplet ostinato with the left-hand melody and agitated repetition of the right-hand octaves in the ‘Erlkönig’. The minor 6th descent from Eb-G in bars 89-90 acts as a “grim parody” of the major 6th descent present in section B discussed above (Fisk, 2001, p.129). The parallel of the falling 6th could also be a symmetrical link to ‘Erlkönig’, where the left-hand begins with an ascent of a minor 6th, G-Eb. The introduction of Db at bar 39 summoned the timely modulation to Ab major. No such relief is provided in A’ as the D-flats merely act as a Neapolitan and drag the tonal centre back to C-minor.

B’ is approached through a homophonic triplet figure with bars 122-124 highlight a contrary-motion diatonic tetrachord in the outer voices. The texture in B’ changes to a melody over a semiquaver accompaniment, underpinned by syncopated staccato notes in the bass. B’ is this time heard in a G-minor utterance, the G has now gained tonal ground, being elevated from dominant to tonic. Even the song-like major key codetta (bars 152-159) succumbs to the “thrall of G” (Fisk, 2001, p.126). No transitionary section (bars 83-86) is required this time, instead, the modulation from G-major to C-minor occurs through the open octave G, evoking the ‘Erlkönig’ once more. The octave right-hand acts initially as an inverted tonic pedal-point (in G major), but through realisation of the previous tonal contexts in which these G octaves appear, the listener senses the true purpose of the G’s, to act as an inverted dominant pedal. It simultaneously prolongs the previous G-major tonality and prepares the C-minor tonality of A’’. At the beginning of this B’ codetta, Schubert changes key signature to C-major; however, the first sign of C-major doesn’t happen until bar 167. Perhaps Schubert is pre-empting the modal shift which characterises A’’. Despite the key signature chance to C major, A’’ battles with modal shifts of C-major and C-minor.

The tolling octave G reappears in bar 194 first in the left-hand then the right-hand, it is not heard simultaneously as in the beginning. It is further displaced by syncopation by sounding on the second beat of the bar. The accented G’s interrupt the principal theme which is played at a ppp dynamic, the softest dynamic of D.899. The marching principal theme takes on a funereal character, with the toll of the octave G and shifts of modality. B is in Ab-major and B’ in G-minor, A’’ struggles to be a resolved major key, indicating a tonal power struggle. These types of major-minor modal shifts permeate Schubert’s music. Of D.899 only the third impromptu in G-flat ends in the key it began in. The major eventually triumphs over the minor in the first impromptu, but it is not a complete victory. The final two chords contain two resonant G’s, an octave apart.

The impromptus were written at a time of a deterioration of Schubert’s physical health, which accentuated “his depressive state and unstable moods” (Newbould, 1998, p.258). Perhaps this sheds light on the modal shifts throughout the C-minor impromptu; the battle of illness over health, with the conclusion being acceptance. However, Newbould goes on to state how Schubert’s instrumental music composed in that year offers a great contrast from Winterreise, he suggests this demonstrates “Schubert’s fortitude in the face of his depression”. The 8 impromptus “show Schubert at the very peak of his mastery” (Bavura-Skoda, 2004, p.141). They combine a “populist facet” without a compromise of “his true self” and are “excellent ambassadors of his art” (Newbould, 1998, p.264) and continue to serve as testing pieces for amateurs and professionals alike. They display the value of Schubert’s experience working in different genres; from symphonies and sonatas to songs and incidental music. He combines the best from all to produce a set of independent piano works which appeal to the heart, mind and soul.


Bibliography

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Jonathan Biss [Carnegie Hall]. (2017, Sep 5). Piano master class with Jonathan Biss: Schubert four impromptus, D. 899, no. 1 in c minor [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5N2SXSHWSk

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Schiff, A. [Royal college of music]. (2016, May 5). Sir András Schiff piano masterclass at the RCM: Martin James Bartlett [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzTdpTHIgkc

Schubert, F., & Ferguson, H. (1983). Schubert: Impromptus D.899. London, England: The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

Song, J. K. (2012). Coherence and diversity in Schubert’s impromptus, D. 935 (Doctoral thesis). Available from Scholarworks. (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/14496/Song_JaeKyung_2012.pdf;sequence=1)

Todd, R. L. (Ed.) (2004). Nineteenth-century piano music (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.