VIII. IMPROMPTUS AND VALSES
To write of the four Impromptus in their own key of unrestrained
feeling and pondered intention would not be as easy as recapturing the
first "careless rapture" of the lark. With all the freedom of an
improvisation the Chopin impromptu has a well defined form. There is
structural impulse, although the patterns are free and original. The
mood-color is not much varied in three, the first, third and fourth,
but in the second there is a ballade-like quality that hints of the
tragic. The A flat Impromptu, op. 29, is, if one is pinned down to the
title, the happiest named of the set. Its seething, prankish, nimble,
bubbling quality is indicated from the start; the D natural in the
treble against the C and E flat—the dominant—in the bass is a most
original effect, and the flowing triplets of the first part of this
piece give a ductile, gracious, high-bred character to it. The
chromatic involutions are many and interesting. When the F minor part
is reached the ear experiences the relief of a strongly contrasted
rhythm. The simple duple measure, so naturally ornamented, is nobly,
broadly melodious. After the return of the first dimpling theme there
is a short coda, a chiaroscura, and then with a few chords the
composition goes to rest. A bird flew that way! Rubato should be
employed, for, as Kleczynski says, "Here everything totters from
foundation to summit, and everything is, nevertheless, so beautiful and
so clear." But only an artist with velvety fingers should play this
There is more limpidezza, more pure grace of line in the first
Impromptu than in the second in F sharp, op. 36. Here symmetry is
abandoned, as Kullak remarks, but the compensation of intenser
emotional issues is offered. There is something sphinx-like in the pose
of this work. Its nocturnal beginning with the carillon-like bass—a
bass that ever recalls to me the faint, buried tones of Hauptmann's
"Sunken Bell," the sweetly grave close of the section, the faint
hoof-beats of an approaching cavalcade, with the swelling thunders of
its passage, surely suggests a narrative, a programme. After the D
major episode there are two bars of anonymous modulation—these bars
creak on their hinges—and the first subject reappears in F, then
climbs to F sharp, thence merges into a glittering melodic organ-point,
exciting, brilliant, the whole subsiding into an echo of earlier
harmonies. The final octaves are marked fortissimo which always seems
brutal. Yet its logic lies in the scheme of the composer. Perhaps he
wished to arouse us harshly from his dreamland, as was his habit while
improvising for friends—a glissando would send them home shivering
after an evening of delicious reverie.
Niecks finds this Impromptu lacking the pith of the first. To me it is
of more moment than the other three. It is irregular and wavering in
outline, the moods are wandering and capricious, yet who dares deny its
power, its beauty? In its use of accessory figures it does not reveal
so much ingenuity, but just because the "figure in the carpet" is not
so varied in pattern, its passion is all the deeper. It is another
Ballade, sadder, more meditative of the tender grace of vanished days.
The third Impromptu in G flat, op. 51, is not often played. It may be
too difficult for the vandal with an average technique, but it is
neither so fresh in feeling nor so spontaneous in utterance as its
companions. There is a touch of the faded, blase, and it is hardly
healthy in sentiment. Here are some ophidian curves in triplets, as in
the first Impromptu, but with interludes of double notes, in coloring
tropical and rich to morbidity. The E flat minor trio is a fine bit of
melodic writing. The absence of simplicity is counterbalanced by
greater freedom of modulation and complexity of pattern. The impromptu
flavor is not missing, and there is allied to delicacy of design a
strangeness of sentiment—that strangeness which Edgar Poe declared
should be a constituent element of all great art.
The Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, op. 66, was published by
Fontana in 1855, and is one of the few posthumous works of Chopin
worthy of consideration. It was composed about 1834. A true Impromptu,
but the title of Fantaisie given by Fontana is superfluous. The piece
presents difficulties, chiefly rhythmical. Its involuted first phrases
suggest the Bellini-an fioriture so dear to Chopin, but the D flat part
is without nobility. Here is the same kind of saccharine melody that
makes mawkish the trio in the "Marche Funebre." There seems no danger
that this Fantaisie-Impromptu will suffer from neglect, for it is the
joy of the piano student, who turns its presto into a slow, blurred
mess of badly related rhythms, and its slower movement into a long
drawn sentimental agony; but in the hands of a master the C sharp minor
Impromptu is charming, though not of great depth.
The first Impromptu, dedicated to Mlle. la Comtesse de Lobau, was
published December, 1837; the second, May, 1840; the third, dedicated
to Madame la Comtesse Esterhazy, February, 1843. Not one of these four
Impromptus is as naive as Schubert's; they are more sophisticated and
do not smell of nature and her simplicities.
Of the Chopin Valses it has been said that they are dances of the soul
and not of the body. Their animated rhythms, insouciant airs and
brilliant, coquettish atmosphere, the true atmosphere of the ballroom,
seem to smile at Ehlert's poetic exaggeration. The valses are the most
objective of the Chopin works, and in few of them is there more than a
hint of the sullen, Sargasson seas of the nocturnes and scherzi.
Nietzsche's la Gaya Scienza—the Gay Science—is beautifully set forth
in the fifteen Chopin valses. They are less intimate, in the psychic
sense, but exquisite exemplars of social intimacy and aristocratic
abandon. As Schumann declared, the dancers of these valses should be at
least countesses. There is a high-bred reserve despite their
intoxication, and never a hint of the brawling peasants of Beethoven,
Grieg, Brahms, Tschaikowsky, and the rest. But little of Vienna is in
Chopin. Around the measures of this most popular of dances he has
thrown mystery, allurement, and in them secret whisperings and the
unconscious sigh. It is going too far not to dance to some of this
music, for it is putting Chopin away from the world he at times loved.
Certain of the valses may be danced: the first, second, fifth, sixth,
and a few others. The dancing would be of necessity more picturesque
and less conventional than required by the average valse, and there
must be fluctuations of tempo, sudden surprises and abrupt languors.
The mazurkas and polonaises are danced to-day in Poland, why not the
valses? Chopin's genius reveals itself in these dance forms, and their
presentation should be not solely a psychic one. Kullak, stern old
pedagogue, divides these dances into two groups, the first dedicated to
"Terpsichore," the second a frame for moods. Chopin admitted that he
was unable to play valses in the Viennese fashion, yet he has contrived
to rival Strauss in his own genre. Some of these valses are trivial,
artificial, most of them are bred of candlelight and the swish of
silken attire, and a few are poetically morbid and stray across the
border into the rhythms of the mazurka. All of them have been edited to
death, reduced to the commonplace by vulgar methods of performance, but
are altogether sprightly, delightful specimens of the composer's
careless, vagrant and happy moods.
Kullak utters words of warning to the "unquiet" sex regarding the
habitual neglect of the bass. It should mean something in valse tempo,
but it usually does not. Nor need it be brutally banged; the
fundamental tone must be cared for, the subsidiary harmonies lightly
indicated. The rubato in the valses need not obtrude itself as in the
Opus 18, in E flat, was published in June, 1834, and dedicated to Mile.
Laura Harsford. It is a true ballroom picture, spirited and infectious
in rhythms. Schumann wrote rhapsodically of it. The D flat section has
a tang of the later Chopin. There is bustle, even chatter, in this
valse, which in form and content is inferior to op. 34, No. I, A flat.
The three valses of this set were published December, 1838. There are
many editorial differences in the A flat Valse, owing to the careless
way it was copied and pirated. Klindworth and Kullak are the safest for
dynamic markings. This valse may be danced as far as its dithyrhambic
coda. Notice in this coda as in many other places the debt Schumann
owes Chopin for a certain passage in the Preambule of his "Carneval."
The next Valse in A minor has a tinge of Sarmatian melancholy, indeed,
it is one of Chopin's most desponding moods. The episode in C rings of
the mazurka, and the A major section is of exceeding loveliness; Its
coda is characteristic. This valse is a favorite, and who need wonder?
The F major Valse, the last of this series, is a whirling, wild dance
of atoms. It has the perpetuum mobile quality, and older masters would
have prolonged its giddy arabesques into pages of senseless spinning.
It is quite long enough as it is. The second theme is better, but the
appoggiatures are flippant. It buzzes to the finish. Of it is related
that Chopin's cat sprang upon his keyboard and in its feline flight
gave him the idea of the first measures. I suppose as there is a dog
valse, there had to be one for the cat.
But as Rossini would have said, "Ca sent de Scarlatti!"
The A minor Valse was, of the three, Chopin's favorite. When Stephen
Heller told him this too was his beloved valse, Chopin was greatly
pleased, inviting the Hungarian composer, Niecks relates, to luncheon
at the Cafe Riche.
Not improvised in the ballroom as the preceding, yet a marvellous
epitome is the A flat Valse, op. 42, published July, 1840. It is the
best rounded specimen of Chopin's experimenting with the form. The
prolonged trill on E flat, summoning us to the ballroom, the suggestive
intermingling of rhythms, duple and triple, the coquetry, hesitation,
passionate avowal and the superb coda, with its echoes of evening—have
not these episodes a charm beyond compare? Only Schumann in certain
pages of his "Carneval" seizes the secret of young life and love, but
his is not so finished, so glowing a tableau.
Regarding certain phrasing of this valse Moriz Rosenthal wrote to the
London "Musical Standard":
In Music there is Liberty and Fraternity, but seldom Equality,
and in music Social Democracy has no voice. Notes have a right
to the Aftertone (Nachton), and this right depends upon their
role in the key. The Vorhalt (accented passing note) will
always have an accent. On this point Riemann must without
question be considered right. Likewise the feeling player will
mark those notes that introduce the transition to another key.
We will consider now our example and set down my accents:
[Musical score excerpt]
In the first bar we have the tonic chord of its major key as
bass, and are thus not forced to any accent. In the second bar
we have the dominant harmony in the bass, and in the treble,
C, which falls upon the down beat as Vorhalt to the next tone
(B flat), so it must be accented. Also in the fourth bar the B
flat is Vorhalt to the B flat, and likewise requires an
accent. In bars 6, 7 and 8 the notes, A flat, B flat and C,
are without doubt the characteristic ones of the passage, and
the E flat has in each case only a secondary significance.
That a genius like Chopin did not indicate everything
accurately is quite explainable. He flew where we merely limp
after. Moreover, these accents must be felt rather than
executed, with softest touch, and as tenderly as possible.
The D flat Valse—"le valse du petit chien"—is of George Sand's own
prompting. One evening at her home in the Square d'Orleans, she was
amused by her little pet dog, chasing its tail. She begged Chopin, her
little pet pianist, to set the tail to music. He did so, and behold the
world is richer for this piece. I do not dispute the story. It seems
well grounded, but then it is so ineffably silly! The three valses of
this op. 64 were published September, 1847, and are respectively
dedicated to the Comtesse Delphine Potocka, the Baronne Nathaniel de
Rothschild and the Baronne Bronicka.
I shall not presume to speak of the execution of the D flat Valse; like
the rich, it is always with us. It is usually taken at a meaningless,
rapid gait. I have heard it played by a genuine Chopin pupil, M.
Georges Mathias, and he did not take it prestissimo. He ran up the D
flat scale, ending with a sforzato at the top, and gave a variety of
nuance to the composition. The cantabile is nearly always delivered
with sloppiness of sentiment. This valse has been served up in a highly
indigestible condition for concert purposes by Tausig, Joseffy—whose
arrangement was the first to be heard here—Theodore Ritter, Rosenthal
and Isidor Philipp.
The C sharp minor Valse is the most poetic of all. The first theme has
never been excelled by Chopin for a species of veiled melancholy. It is
a fascinating, lyrical sorrow, and what Kullak calls the psychologic
motivation of the first theme in the curving figure of the second does
not relax the spell. A space of clearer skies, warmer, more consoling
winds are in the D flat interlude, but the spirit of unrest, ennui
returns. The elegiac imprint is unmistakable in this soul dance. The A
flat Valse which follows is charming. It is for superior souls who
dance with intellectual joy, with the joy that comes of making
exquisite patterns and curves. Out of the salon and from its
brilliantly lighted spaces the dancers do not wander, do not dance into
the darkness and churchyard, as Ehlert imagines of certain other valses.
The two valses in op. 69, three valses, op. 70, and the two remaining
valses in E minor and E major, need not detain us. They are posthumous.
The first of op. 69 in F minor was composed in 1836; the B minor in
1829; G flat, op. 70, in 1835; F minor in 1843, and D flat major, 1830.
The E major and E minor were composed in 1829. Fontana gave these
compositions to the world. The F minor Valse, op. 69, No. 1, has a
charm of its own. Kullak prints the Fontana and Klindworth variants.
This valse is suavely melancholy, but not so melancholy as the B minor
of the same opus. It recalls in color the B minor mazurka. Very gay and
sprightly is the G flat Valse, op. 70, No. I. The next in F minor has
no special physiognomy, while the third in D flat contains, as Niecks
points out, germs of the op. 42 and the op. 34 Valses. It recalls to me
the D flat study in the supplementary series. The E minor Valse,
without opus, is beloved. It is very graceful and not without
sentiment. The major part is the early Chopin. The E major Valse is
published in the Mikuli edition. It is commonplace, hinting of its
composer only in places. Thus ends the collection of valses, not
Chopin's most signal success in art, but a success that has dignified
and given beauty to this conventional dance form.