A short piano lexicon

Etudes, Nocturne, Impromptu, Sonatas and Co.

Anyone attending a piano recital is often confronted with a plethora of work names, such as prélude, nocturne, sonata and étude. What do these names mean and what defines these pieces? In our short piano lexicon, we introduce you to the major genres of piano music one at a time. 

What is an impromptu?

Many children are magically attracted to a piano: they open the lid and plunge into the white and black keys with all ten fingers! The musical result, unless they are already learning the piano, usually sounds terrible – but this is exactly what the principle behind the “impromptu”. The term comes from the French and means “unprepared”, or “improvised”. Someone performs something quite spontaneously off the cuff. In the 18th century, it was mainly understood to mean a poem improvised by an actor or actress during a theatre performance. For example, an actor in Goethe’s Singspiel Lila refers to the forthcoming performance with the following words: “A beautiful impromptu will be concocted”.

Free improvisation on the piano

In the 19th century, the term was transferred to piano music. At that time, composers and pianists mastered the art of sitting down at the piano and creating a small piece of music without preparation or prolonged consideration. What was considered particularly successful was then written down and published. The pieces by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Alexander Scriabin are regarded as seminal for the genre of the impromptu. Chopin’s companion George Sand describes how narrow the line between improvisation and composition sometimes was: “Chopin’s creative work was spontaneous, admirable. His ideas came unexpectedly, without him looking for them. But then began the most excruciating labour I have ever experienced.” Chopin questioned every note, sought to improve – only to return to the first draft in the end.

Light, lyrical character

In the course of time, the term impromptu lost more and more of its improvisatory character. The distinction between it and other piano genres became blurred. The cheerful, song-like, playful character is typical. Together with similar musical miniatures such as moments musicaux, nocturnes and ballades, impromptus are among the many lyrical piano pieces that so enriched the genre of piano music in the 19th century.

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