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Franz Schubert – Impromptu in G-flat, D899/3

Understanding Schubert most famous Impromptu in the “black note key”

Franz Schubert

Schubert’s first set of Impromptus (D899) are amongst my most favourite pieces of piano music, ever since my mother, who admired the pianist Alfred Brendel, bought me the score of the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux after hearing Brendel perform them in concert. I was a young piano student at the time, about 11 or 12, and the pieces were really too advanced for me. Nevertheless, I attempted to play them, and was fortunate that my then piano teacher did not discourage me but helped me find my way through this beautiful and varied music.

When I returned to the piano as an adult, after some 20 years away from the instrument, it was to the Impromptus that I turned first. My original Editions Peters score was now too dog-eared to work from productively and so I replaced it with a smart Henle edition.

The G-flat Impromptu, the third of the D899 set, is perhaps the best known and most popular of all Schubert’s Impromptus. Composed in 1827, the year before Schubert’s death, around the same time as he wrote his great, searing song-cycle Winterreise, the third and fourth impromptus were not published until 1857. The G-flat Major Impromptu was originally published in G Major, the editor believing the music to be too difficult to play in G-flat, a “black note key”. In fact, the notes lie much more comfortably under the fingers and hand in G-flat, and this key lends a gorgeous, resonant warmth to the music.

Opening bars of Schubert's G flat impromptu

Opening bars of Schubert’s G-flat impromptu

Coming after the tumultuous E-flat Impromptu, the G-flat Impromptu feels like an oasis of calm with its serene, nocturne-like melody, redolent of Schubert’s own Ave Maria and a precursor to Mendelssohn’s most lyrical Songs Without Words, and it confirms Schubert’s penchant for long melodic lines.

The piece opens with a simple, tender melody accompanied by gentle, fluttering harp-like broken chords. The long notes in the bass are more than a series of chords; they provide the foundations and harmonic colour on which the treble rests. The right hand acts as both vocal line and accompaniment. The notes themselves are not that difficult, but this piece is deceptive, and the challenge for the pianist is in balancing the various voices to create the right balance and layering of sound.

It is not all serenity in this piece, however, and with no repeats the music grows increasingly shadowy and dramatic in a middle section marked by frequent modulations and rumbling bass trills. The opening section returns and the music subsides into its relaxed, lyrical flow, before coming to a hushed, gentle close.

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Here is Alfred Brendel.

Franz Schubert: 4 Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899 – No. 3 in G-Flat Major (Alfred Brendel, piano)

And Khatia Buniatishvili.

Schubert: 4 Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899 – No. 3 in G-Flat Major (Khatia Buniatishvili)

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