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Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66 in C-sharp Minor

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Frédéric Chopin - Impromptus :
Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66
Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66  in C-sharp Minor by Chopin piano sheet music
Key: C-sharp Minor Year: 1834
Level: 8+ Period: Early Romantic
piano sheet music Piano score: PS Urtext (146 kB)
piano sheet music Piano score: Scanned score (1765 kB)

Sweeping brilliance, saved from the fire

Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu in c sharp minor is a technically difficult but also very fun piece to play, and it's easy to see why it's among Chopin's most famous and popular works. It is interesting to note that the middle section was used in the song I'm Always Chasing Rainbows, which was a very popular song in 1918.

Fantasie Impromptu was composed around 1834 but published only after the composer’s death, contrary to his express wish that all unpublished works and sketches should be burned. The version that is heard most often was prepared from Chopin’s sketches by his friend Julian Fontana.

It is a relatively short piece in ABA form. The A section has a sweeping melody of sixteenth notes running up and down the keyboard, accompanied by triplet arpeggios in the left hand. It's very fast and almost a little chaotic, while the softer middle section with its wonderful cantilena provides a good overall balance to the piece. The coda begins passionately, but calms down little by little, reintroducing the theme from the middle section in the left hand. The work ends peacefully.

The various versions of Fantaisie-Impromptu

It seems odd that the so called Fantaisie-Impromptu, one of Chopin’s most famous pieces, was not published during the composer’s lifetime, although it was composed as early as 1834-1835, some fifteen years before his death. Many would agree that it is a significant work. Why did Chopin not want it to be published? Some have pointed to the similarities between the main theme and that of Moscheles’ Impromptu in E flat Op.89 - perhaps Chopin just didn’t want to be accused of plagiarism?

Another view was held by Arthur Rubinstein, who in 1962 published a new edition of the piece, based on an autograph which he had sensationally found. Rubinstein’s theory was that Chopin had sold the work to its dedicatee Baroness d’Este, and therefore was not free to publish it.

Until Rubinstein found the autograph, Fantaisie-Impromptu was known only in the form of Julian Fontana’s 1855 edition. Fontana published a number of the composer’s posthumous works in 1855 and 1859, providing them with opus numbers from 66 to 72. This numbering has been abandoned, because it gives the misleading impression that these works were composed in Chopin’s later years. In many cases the opposite is true: ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’, still sometimes referred to as op. 66, was composed before any of the other Impromptus (Opp. 29, 56 and 51).

Fontana deserves credit for passing on Chopin’s posthumous works, but he didn’t always treat his sources with due respect. Although the autograph on which Fontana based his edition of ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ has been lost, there are handwritten copies of this earlier version of the piece, which make it clear that Fontana made significant alterations and additions to the composer’s text. The title Fantaisie-Impromptu was also invented by Fontana.

Many of the most important differences between the autograph found by Rubinstein and Fontana’s edition are found in the accompaniment. Although the chords have not been altered, the distribution of notes in the left hand is different in the autograph throughout the fast section. For example, in measures 5 and 6 of the autograph, the thumb of the left hand alternates between e’ and g sharp’, which adds richness to the sound but of course also demands a more flexible wrist than in the other versions. Another crucial difference right at the beginning between Fontana’s edition and the handwritten versions is that Fontana only writes sforzando on the first octave and piano in measure 5, while Chopin in both his versions has forte at the start and a diminuendo to measure 3, with a forzato on the first sextuplet note in the autograph. Note how Chopin has indicated the use of both hands for the octaves by the use of rests and stem directions.

Fontana also has several other questionable dynamic indications. In measure 13 he writes a forte, not found in any of the other versions and not very effective since it interrupts the long gradual buildup of intensity achieved if one continues at a moderate dynamic level here. The accents on the thumb in measures 13-16 and on the little finger in measures 17-21 also seem to be the result of Fontana’s misguided efforts to try to add variation to Chopin’s notation.

In measure 24 Fontana has moved the sharp sign on the left hand B to the third quarter note, thereby achieving a chromatic bass line A-A sharp-B-B sharp, again trying to add variation which Chopin surely not intended.

There are significant differences between Chopin’s two versions where the fast section culminates. On the first beats of measures 33-35 in the autograph, the right hand stubbornly returns to e’’, instead of alternating with g sharp’’ as in the earlier version, resulting in an even more intense feeling of hurried desperation. And the second left hand chord in measure 35 now arrives on the second quarter note instead of on the third, also increasing the sense of accelerated, overwhelming emotion.

In the slow section, Chopin made a number of substantial changes when writing down the final version. The rising eighth-notes of the main theme (measure 43) are varied from measure 55, where the first one becomes dotted. This seems to give the entire section a more improvisatory, rubato feel. Another rhythmic change is in measures 60 and 72, where the right hand c’’’ is moved from the second to the third quarter note. On the third quarter note of measures 59 and 71, the autograph introduces a d flat minor chord in the accompaniment.

Also note the subtle but very characteristic improvement that Chopin made in measure 49, where the left hand thumb plays f’ and e flat’ on the 10th and 12th sextuplet notes, echoing the f’’ and e flat’’ of the right hand.

Finally, Chopin altered the beginning of the coda, replacing the eighth notes of the left hand from measure 119 with triplets. He also slightly simplified measures 123-126, making it easier to achieve the requested diminuendo and accelerando.

So, all in all there are three versions of this piece to take into account. First, the Fontana edition, in which form Fantaisie-Impromptu presented itself to the world. Second, the more authentic early version of the piece, revealed by two handwritten copies by Auguste Franchomme (cellist, composer and close friend of Chopin´s) and reproduced in several modern Urtext editions. Third, the ‘Rubinstein version’, which we would like to encourage all Chopin players to study and perform. It may not be as well known as Fontana’s version, but it is certainly more authentic, complete and definitive. All modern Urtext editions, including the Polish National Chopin Edition, base their editions on Rubinstein’s find.

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Practice & Performance Tips:
The cross-rhythms (sixteenth-notes against triplets) and the incredibly fast right hand figurations in the first section of this piece may seem daunting, and this is certainly not a piece for the beginner or even intermediate player. However, the Fantaise-Impromptu is not one of Chopin's most difficult pieces. The piano writing makes amazing use of very natural movements, and there is no great awkwardness for anyone with a normal-sized hand. As for the coordination problem, it also more or less solves itself if each hand is mastered separately and the pianist keeps focusing on a flowing alla breve pulse.

Note that the Largo marking only applies to measures 41 and 42; the rest of the middle section is marked Moderato cantabile, which should mean a rather flowing tempo. Of course this lyrical and reflective section needs some time and flexibility, but take care to avoid a... Sign up for a Gold membership to read the practice tips.

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