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 a piano sonata?

Anyone who plays the piano – whether professional or amateur – cannot avoid it: the piano sonata. But what exactly is it? The term “sonata” comes from Italian and has been used since the Baroque period to describe a piece of music played purely instrumentally – as opposed to the sung “canzone”. The piano sonata as we know it today is a product of the First Viennese School. The invention and development of the fortepiano opened up completely new possibilities for composers when it came to solo music for keyboard instruments: dynamics and timbres could be created in a much more differentiated way than on the previously common harpsichord.

Model of success in three movements

In addition, there was a change in musical aesthetics during the period of the First Viennese School: a musical idea was no longer established and developed as it had been in the Baroque era. Rather, two contrasting themes collided in one piece of music, which were dissected, transformed and reassembled. This contrasting principle determines the large orchestral form of the symphony as well as that of the solo piano sonata. The latter was a model of success in three movements. The first, fast movement with its two contrasting themes is followed by a slow second movement of a song-like, lyrical character. To conclude, there is once again a fast, often dance-like final movement.

From easy to difficult

Almost every composer produced piano sonatas during the First Viennese School – and at every level of difficulty. The sonata was one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment. Leading the way were Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, who set standards in the genre. While Haydn’s piano sonatas comprised an average of 255 bars, Beethoven needed 560 bars for his sonatas, which became increasingly complex and virtuosic. In the Romantic period, the piano sonata became even more poetic in expression, rich in harmonic timbre and technically demanding – although its form was already considered outdated. Thus Robert Schumann wrote that the sonata “struggles against three powerful enemies [...]. The public, the publishers, and the composers themselves, who are deterred from writing such old-fashioned things for all kinds of reasons, perhaps also internal ones”. However, the piano sonata never went completely out of fashion, as is shown by sonatas written by composers such as Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček and Igor Stravinsky in the 20th century. And so it is still the case: anyone who plays the piano – whether professional or amateur – cannot avoid the piano sonata.

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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