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The piano with a split personality

John’s Diner with John’s Chevelle, John Baeder (2007)


ome works of art are meant to deceive. Or at least, to evoke something else. Photorealism is like that, where a painting (like the one above) deliberately imitates a photograph, downplaying its own “painting-ness.”

Something similar happens in Franz Schubert’s Impromptu #3 in G-flat major. This is a work for solo piano, except the piano spends all its time masquerading as a singer.

Confused? Here’s what we mean. If you listen closely to the clip below, you will hear in the upper range a long, sweeping melodic line, like a silk thread flowing through the entire work. This seductive melody is really meant to represent the human voice – try to visualize a female singer in the back of your mind. It floats on top of a rippling, almost water-like figure and bass line, which together comprise the “true” piano accompaniment. In other words, our piano is wearing two hats, that of both singer and accompanist.

This raises an interesting question. Schubert wrote more than 600 exquisite songs for voice and piano in his short lifetime, often several in a day. Why didn’t he just write an actual vocal part like he did all those other times?

To answer this, we need to think back to the photorealists we mentioned earlier. Any of those artists could have ditched their canvas in favor of a camera, but they knew that using a paintbrush to conjure a photograph would create an effect that a real photograph cannot. Likewise, evoking the human voice without actually using one produces a result that cannot be realized in any other way.

As you listen to the clip below, see if you can make out the hidden voice we have been talking about.


Performer: Olga Jegunova
Composition: Franz Schubert, Impromptu in G-flat major, Op. 90 #3

View image license for “John’s Diner” painting

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