Franz Schubert was one of the first to introduce the genre of the impromptu in piano music. The first was his friend Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek who died very young (his six impromptus, Op. 7, are a manifesto of his dazzling talent). The romantics understood the impromptu as a work that appeared without any prior preparation, emerging in one single burst of inspiration – something like a recorded improvisation. In terms of their definition, impromptus must have originality and freshness. These qualities are apparent in abundance in the impromptus, Op. 142, composed by Schubert in late 1827 and published posthumously in 1839. Robert Schumann suspected that the cycle of impromptus was a four-movement sonata. And in actual fact it is difficult to classify these pieces as miniatures, they are expansive and stern in terms of form; the first impromptu is in sonata form, the second a minuet, the third is variations and the fourth a rondo.
Images of Faust and Mephistopheles accompanied Franz Liszt (1811–1886) throughout his life. He composed the Faust-Symphony after Goethe’s tragedy, virtuoso adaptations of highlights from Gounod’s Faust and Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust, four original Mephisto Waltzes and a Mephisto Polka. The four waltzes were inspired not by Goethe’s masterpiece but by the poem Faust by the Hungarian Nikolaus Lenau (1836). The poem stands out for its exaggeratedly romantic interpretation of the theme and may rightly take its place in the assembly of “romantic devilry” – Lenau’s Mephistopheles is more vivid than Faust himself, which naturally did not escape Liszt’s attention.
Mephisto Waltz No 1 (with the secondary title The Dance in the Village Inn, an episode from Lenau’s Faust) was composed between 1856 and 1861 and was orchestrated immediately. The waltz deceptively opens with an imitation of a village orchestra tuning up and goes on to develop into an entire symphonic poem, a veritable apotheosis of the romantic waltz which appears languorous, fantastic and demonic... to conclude in phantasmagoria. Moreover, the first Mephisto Waltz, dedicated to virtuoso pianist Carl Tausig, is a staggeringly brilliant concert piece!
Musorgsky composed the piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 following and still impressed by the posthumous exhibition of paintings and architectural designs by Viktor Gartman (1834–1873). On the title sheet Musorgsky had written “Dedicated to Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov. Pictures at an Exhibition. A Recollection of Viktor Gartman.”
In looking for “the soul of things” Musorgsky was least of all interested in a “precise” musical illustration. His vast imagination as a composer found inspiration to take off independently through Gartman’s portraits, genre scenes and architectural compositions. This is also true of the painter’s landscapes, and his genre sketches made during his travels (The Old Castle, Les Tuileries, Cattle, Two Jews, Rich and Poor, Le Marché de Limoges, Les Catacombes), and his sketches for toys or theatre costumes (The Gnome, The Ballet of Un-hatched Fledglings). Images of Russian folklore – from fairytales, from legendary epos (The Peasant’s Hut on Chicken’s Legs, The Bogatyr Gates) – were, for the first time in piano music, developed with such absolute perfection. In the aforementioned letter to Stasov, Musorgsky gave a glimpse of the idea behind the series: “My imagination can be seen in the interludes.” This concerns the so-called Promenade – music that is not weighed down directly by the artist’s drawings and that brings together the various parts of different character in a united whole. The interludes Musorgsky speaks of, or promenades, which lead from one part of the exhibition to the next, are imbued with the spirit “of a magnificent jewel of Russian culture – the celebrated refrain” (M. Yudina). At the beginning, the Promenade sounds like an independent, finished introduction to the series, and later it expands broadly and diversely in its variations varies, preparing to introduce a new “picture” in order that it can be triumphant in the exultant bell ringing in the finale.