A little ray of Moonlight shining through Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu

I’ve had the great pleasure of working with a wonderful student through the retraining process over the last year or so. By wonderful, I mean positive, curious, interested, engaged, intelligent, and spent her energy keeping diligent and careful notes on her observations in between lessons rather than focussing on how long it’s all going to take. She continues to challenge herself by seeking out technical situations in new repertoire that used to cause her pain, to make sure every last little issue is stamped out. Needless to say, she’s been out of pain for some time, is playing more advanced repertoire than before, and we have both really enjoyed the process.

Recently, she brought the finale from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. True to form, if she was dissatisfied with how she was managing a passage that measure number was added to a careful list, anything she was wary may bring back old habits was left until the lesson to work through together. It’s so much easier working with someone who is a little cautious and wants to do everything perfectly, rather someone who is impatient to learn more advanced repertoire before they have mastered the necessary fundamental steps.

In this lesson, she hadn’t wanted to put the cadenza from the Moonlight finale into her hand until she had good fingering. She sightread using my score with John Bloomfield’s elegant fingering (below), and two fascinating things happened. The cadenza flew into her hand at a fast tempo, and I also saw problems in her hand which I hadn’t seen for a long time.  She HAD played this passage in the past, in another piece. I don’t know why or how, but the connection was immediately clear for me, and I understood why she had been reluctant to work on this alone. “You’ve played the Fantasie Impromptu before, haven’t you?”

She looked at me strangely for a second, then the lightning bolt hit her too. “Yes…and I know exactly where that bar is!”

Compare these two excerpts: Measure 187 from the Finale of the Moonlight Sonata,

and measure 7-8 of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu, starting from the A (last seven notes in measure 7) carrying through until the G# (third last sixteenth note in measure 8).

That whole run of sixteenths is exactly the same: same key, same register, similar tempo. No wonder her hand took to it so quickly, and also no wonder why problems from the past remerged.

Once we went more slowly through the Beethoven / Chopin excerpt, and took care to remove the stretching and twisting, her hand reverted back to the “new normal” of her retrained technique. Everything continues to be fine in this piece, and her playing generally.

Did Chopin steal from Beethoven? It’s unlikely that he consciously stole this cadenza. Would he have known the Moonlight sonata? One can only surmise that he probably did. That question we will never be answered, however it was another fascinating illustration of how deeply physical memories are embedded in every piece we have learned. It is indeed possible to return and relearn old repertoire with new, healthy movements, but those ghosts from the past can be lurking in unexpected places, in the memory of a memory. It pays to keep a sharp wit, keen eye, and take nothing for granted.

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