Spencer Myer on Chopin's Four Impromptus

2006 American Pianists Awards winner Spencer Myer recently recorded Frédéric Chopin's four Impromptus for Steinway Classics, and we paid him a visit at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music to discuss the project. Listen to why he thinks the other three Impromptus are underappreciated compared to the famous Fantaisie Impromptu, Chopin's love of bel canto opera and how, "Chopin's music is deeply emotionally connected and communicates the human spirit."

Following is a transcription of the video:

I recently recorded the four Chopin Impromptus for Steinway’s new digital series called Steinway Classics. I love the music of Chopin and his Impromptus, so this was a COVID project for me. The four Chopin Impromptus, as most of us know, include the very famous Fantaisie Impromptu, which I had never played in my life. So this was a completely new project for me.

But I want to talk about why I was drawn to the other three Chopin Impromptus as well. I think they're very underappreciated, underplayed, I think largely because the Fantaisie Impromptu gained so much popularity, because the middle section of it was turned into the very popular song called “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows,” which was used in a few Broadway shows. One of them was the Ziegfeld Girl with Judy Garland.

The piano composition was adapted in 1917, and made into this popular song, just a beautiful, beautiful melody, which we all know.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

It's just a gorgeous, sort of unending spinning, melodic display that I think really captures what is magic about the Chopin Impromptus in that for me, Chopin is one of the first composers that really made the piano talk and speak in such a human way.

He loved bel canto opera. So much of his music, especially the more melodic elements of his music really are aiming to imitate singers and the human voice, how we naturally speak and talk. It's just so incredibly communicative. And the Impromptus are examples of both his virtuoso writing because he was a great virtuoso pianist and also his melodic writing where again, he captures this very human aspect.

The definition of the impromptu is something that is basically improvised. It's a form of music that is sort of without form. It's aiming to give the illusion that it's being composed off the cuff. Chopin's Impromptus have somewhat of a form we generally call A-B-A, where you'll have two outer sections that are basically identical. And then there's a middle section, and it's these middle sections of the Chopin Impromptus where he just taps into his amazing skill of writing melody and capturing, again, the human voice and the human speech through sound.

Some of the virtuoso writing also is very engaging and melodic in nature. The first one (Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 29), for example, opens with this this kind of trill turn and just unfolds into this very sort of melodic but at the same time, virtuoso writing.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

The twists and turns are extremely vocal and melodic, but it's something that you could not actually sing as a singer. The second (Impromptu No. 2 in F-sharp Major, Op. 36) closes with a section that is just this spun out, incredible virtuoso writing, but again, so incredibly beautiful.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

It's very beautiful and very vocal, but it's not something that you could actually sing. These melodies lie in the middle sections of the impromptus. At the same time in the virtuoso writing, there's something so incredibly human and expressive about it. And that's what has always drawn me to the Impromptus and Chopin's music in general. The ballads, the waltzes, the Mazurkas, they're all so incredibly, deeply emotionally connected. He's communicating something so very human in this writing.

I want to give a couple of examples of some of the middle sections of the other impromptus as well. The first transitions out of the virtuoso writing into this beautiful kind of section that transitions from major to minor a lot.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

and then further in this section, he skips to this this beautiful melodic fragment that he brings back several times.

So that kind of embellishment on the melody is something very impromptu-like, capturing this idea of improvisation and embellishing something that he had already stated. And again, all revolving around the idea of human speech and singing and the sincerity of the human spirit being so beautifully communicated.

The third impromptu (Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 51) I think also in a way, sounds almost the most improvised of the four. It starts off very strange and kind of wandering and it's very chromatic. The idea of it being a very simply singable melody like the "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" from the Fantaisie Impromptu is not so prevalent in the third impromptu.  it's a bit more wandering is the word that comes to mind. It starts opens in the lower register of the piano like this.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

It's centered around a very established key. But what happens in the right hand is so wandering, kind of searching for something and it gives off a very improvised quality.

And then one of my favorite melodies is the opening of the second impromptu, which I think is just so very intimate and very touching. This is how the second opens.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

It just touches me so deeply. It's so beautiful. And sincere is a word that often comes to mind for me with Chopin, because it's just such honest music and it's so easy to connect with.

That's one of the things that has helped him stand the test of time among classical composers with audiences. Of course, he wrote almost exclusively piano music as well. He's so connected to the piano. He was a pianist himself. He just knew how to communicate what this piano could do and turn it into a human voice.

Of course, the Fantaisie Impromptu we all know and love. I demonstrated "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," but this is how the opening unfolds.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

This very virtuoso writing has such a vocal quality to it, and I'm always communicating this to my students as well, especially in the repertoire of Chopin. He writes little cadenzas, little embellishments that are little notes on the page, as opposed to the big notes. And I'm always telling them, this is just as vocal as everything else. Every note in Chopin is sung, nothing is unimportant. And nothing should be glossed over. It's all it's all to serve this idea of singing and melody, even the fast virtuoso stuff. I think the impromptus are such great examples of this.

Interestingly to note, this recording on the Steinway Classic series, which is Steinway newish series, which is online only was made in conjunction with me also recording for their Spirio catalog. I've done a lot of recordings for their new Spirio, the player piano mechanism, which they've developed so incredibly well to recreate and be able to play back the idiosyncrasies and very specific gradations of pedaling and sound and articulation that a pianist will do in a live performance. They can recreate that. It's played back just how the pianist played it.

It's remarkable to be in that process—to record something and then stand away from the piano and have it play back. And it really sounds just like you. It's stunning!

So that's all done. The Chopin Impromptus are available on the Spirio catalog. For those of you who might have a Spirio piano and can download the catalog. And then these are also available as a sound recording on their Steinway Classics series.

Now I would love to do a complete performance of one of the Impromptus, one of my favorites, the first, which demonstrates such a beautiful balance of his virtuoso writing and this this great, incredible, almost unmatched skill at writing melody.

This is the first impromptu of Chopin in A-flat, Major.

[ Spencer plays piano ]

So thanks to all of you for being here with me again in my studio in Indiana. Just loving it here so much! A link to the Chopin Impromptus is available, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and as much as I enjoyed making this recording.

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