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Spur of the Moment

The performance of classical music at the end of the twentieth century leaves nothing to chance. A great conductor will prepare his orchestral forces in great detail and will encourage total faithfulness to the printed score. In recent years much attention has been given to original instruments and performance practices as well. The idea of introducing music not in the written parts is considered sacrilegious. But it was not always so. Conductors of the nineteenth century were much freer in their interpretations of the classics, even re-orchestrating or rearranging music to suit the taste of their audiences. The tradition of complete fealty to the score really begins in the early days of the twentieth century with Arturo Toscanini, but many of his contemporaries, notably Gustav Mahler and Willem Mengelberg, were very free interpreters of the pieces that they conducted. Particularly in the performance of works from the Classical period it is legitimate to alter this music to taste since the original composers and performers often played it with a sense of liberty unimaginable in present day musical thinking.

Before the Classical period the great composers were also known as great improvisers. Organ composers like Sweelinck, Buxtehude and Handel were able to sit down and construct elaborate preludes extemporaneously. Organ music to this day is dependent on improvisation and a good organist must be elementally trained as a composer in order to perform successfully since much of his printed music is marked ad libitum (at liberty). The greatest organist of his day, Johann Sebastian Bach, was also an accomplished improviser. Once on a visit to the court of Frederick the Great, Bach took a theme from this composer-king and extemporized a full fugue from it which he later used as one of the highlights of his A Musical Offering. It was expected of a keyboard performer that he could play variations on a theme at will and improvisation was as common then as it now is in jazz.

A convention of improvisation between 1600 and 1800 was the basso continuo. Here the bottom part of a piece was only sketched out by the composer. A keyboard player was expected to fill in the harmonies that he was supposed to play based on a strict system of convention. The notes written by the composer implied the harmonies that the performer should play but the actual notes used in performance were “composed” by the performer. Also the performer had often to decide what instruments to play and whether he should play alone or in ensemble. String players who specialized in the accompanying instruments, such as the harp, lute or guitar, also had to improvise the basso continuo. The reverse of the continuo was the Italian Baroque concept of partimento. Here a figured bass (continuo) was written down and the performer had to improvise an entire piece based upon it. Essentially the performer was playing an entirely improvised new piece of music which would only be heard the one time of actual performance. In 1753 C.P.E. Bach wrote a treatise entitled Versuch wherein the entire final chapter is a manual on how to improvise fantasias. The final fantasia exists in both a completely written out form and as a partimento. Bach further encourages free improvisation by eliminating the bar lines in the score.

In the Classical period composers began to struggle with the idea of improvisation. Haydn includes three different versions of an aria in his oratorio Il Ritorno di Tobia (1775): an unembellished version, an embellished one, and a different version for the repeat. Haydn wrote out the vocal embellishments in order to have more control over the performance of the aria, but singers of the period were judged on their own abilities in improvisation, so they would usually offer their own embellishments. Mozart allowed singers to compose their own ornamentation in his early works but wrote out all of the vocal filigree by the time he scored his mature operas. His Italian language masterpieces, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro were meant to be sung exactly as written, however many singers of the time still introduced their own trills and runs to please their individual public.

One place where vocal improvisation was encouraged was in the appoggiatura. Here a held note, or fermata, was used to make a transition from one section of music to another. In making “the turn” each singer needed to vocalize in a way that was comfortable to them so the individual notes used for ornamentation were left to the singer’s discretion. This device was widespread in the time of Mozart and Haydn and continued into the nineteenth century in the operas of Schubert and especially Rossini (a fine explication of this florid technique is central to the action of the film Farinelli). One of the reasons why the serious operas of Rossini were languishing in obscurity for so long (and the operas of Schubert still are) was that singers were not trained in the art of improvisatory ornamentation. The Rossini revival started by the remarkable Marilyn Horne has changed the modern conception of ornamentation and there are some singers at the end of the twentieth century, most notably Cecilia Bartoli, who are masters of this arcane form of vocal expression. It was customary at the beginning of the nineteenth century for audiences to attend the entire run of a new Italian opera and so the performance needed to be significantly different every night. This variety was accomplished through the manipulation of the vocal ornamentation and the singers of the period, particularly the castrati, were judged on their improvisatory abilities. These roles, for unnaturally high male voice, are now sung by women and these women must be able to flower their singing with the vocal pyrotechnics necessary to capture the audience. Sometimes all of the notes are written out but often a performer must rely on convention and their own creativity to pull it off.

In instrumental music the Classical period also relied heavily on improvisation. It is important to remember that in the late eighteenth century there were few, if any, familiar classic works of music that an audience would expect a performer to play. Rather, a performer was expected to play his own music and to be able to compose freely on the spot. The boy genius Mozart could improvise entire sets of variations or fugues on themes provided by his noble audiences. As a mature performer he could sit down at the piano and play an entire sonata impromptu. This feat was equaled by all of the great pianists of the period including Hummel, Clementi, C.P.E. Bach and the young Beethoven. Many of the fantasias or sets of variations of Mozart and Beethoven are actually only written out versions of improvised material. Mozart often improvised during the performances of his own piano concerti but he did not want other performers to alter them so he wrote out each concerto in great detail. This is the essence of the composer’s struggle with the contemporary practice of improvisation. It was expected that the creator, when performing himself, would leave some elements of a piece to free improvisation, but in the hands of another he would wish to control the musical material. Only in one Mozart piano concerto, the E Flat K482, does the he write only a skeleton in one section for the right hand. Two other concerti, K488 and 491, have some elements of improvisation. A comparison of the autograph scores of Mozart’s piano sonatas to their printed equivalents shows that some of the original autographs do not have all of the music written out while the printed scores do. Mozart felt free to improvise when performing his solo pieces but was hesitant to give others the same freedom.

Only in the cadenza did Mozart allow for freedom of expression. A cadenza is a standard part of an instrumental concerto where the soloist, without orchestral accompaniment, is free to improvise decorations on the dominant chord and variations on the main themes of the concerto. But very quickly in the nineteenth century this freedom was eroded. Beethoven himself composed the now standard cadenzas to the Mozart piano concertos and a performance with any other cadenza, either written out or freely composed, is now rare. Beethoven allowed performers to improvise the cadenzas in his own early piano concerti, but by the time of the Concerto #5 (“Emperor”) he had written out the entire cadenza and expected all performers to play only his composed music. In fact Beethoven resorted to writing music in a freer style to discourage extemporaneous creativity by other performers. His many pieces which include quasi-fantasia elements were specifically designed to mollify the creative instincts of his interpreters without relinquishing his control of the music. Like Mozart, Beethoven was a master improviser but he wanted to protect the integrity of his own music and so discouraged improvisatory tendencies in others. Carl Czerny wrote a manual for pianists on improvisation in which he warned not to alter the music of Beethoven since it was on such a high intellectual level.

However, pianists of the period were used to extemporizing preludes or short fantasias before the performance of a piano piece and they ignored Czerny’s warnings about altering the music of Beethoven. The practice of improvisation before a piece or between pieces at a piano recital became so widespread in the first half of the nineteenth century that many great teachers, including Hummel, Gretry, Moscheles, Kalkbrenner and even Czerny himself, wrote manuals on prelude composition and even composed collections of totally written out preludes for those pianists incapable of free improvisation. In a recital of the Chopin preludes, it became customary to improvise transitions between the preludes to ease in the aural adjustment of the perception of keys. Liszt admitted rather sheepishly in later life that he had always improvised during his early recitals of Beethoven sonatas

Even into the second half of the nineteenth century the practice of free improvisation was commonplace. Czerny had classified improvisation into six types: single subject, several subjects, potpourri, variations, chordal and fugal style, and capriccio. A great pianist like Liszt would improvise whole pieces on themes suggested on the spot by audience members. Teams of performers would tour Europe to show off their improvising skills. Hummel and the violinist Clement, the young Brahms and the violinist Remenyi and the two piano team of Chopin and Liszt were very successful in thrilling their audiences with music composed extemporaneously and then never heard again. It is enticing to think of all of this great music composed by masters which was only heard the one time that it was performed. An entire genre of piano music, the impromptu, was born of the improvisatory tradition. The great impromptus of Schubert and Chopin began their life as improvised pieces and, luckily for posterity, were written out by their composers after their spontaneous generation. The decline of the salon and the rise of the more formal concert hall slowly diminished the improvisatory tradition, but some twentieth century pianists, including d’Albert and Busoni, continued to improvise in public very successfully. As late as the 1940’s, Emil Sauer improvised transition pieces between major works in his recitals.

In organ music the tradition lives on. Anton Bruckner was the great improviser of the organ in the nineteenth century and once played extemporaneously a fantasia interweaving themes from his recent Symphony #8 with those of Siegfried’s Funeral from Wagner’s Goetterdaemmerung. Marcel Dupre wrote his Traite d’improvisation a l’orgue in 1925 and great twentieth century organists like Olivier Messiaen were famous for their flights of improvisation dedicated to the glory of God. Also in the twentieth century, instrumental soloists continued to write their own cadenzas to the classical concerti. Both Fritz Kreisler and Yehudi Menuhin (with help from his teacher Georges Enesco) dared to compose and perform new cadenzas to the sacrosanct Beethoven Violin Concerto (Menuhin, who once fell asleep on stage during a performance of this old warhorse in Boston under Koussevitsky, probably just wanted to infuse a little variety into the proceedings).

In the 1950’s a new type of improvisation was created with the birth of aleatory music. Charles Ives had earlier exhorted performers of his music to improvise and often wrote unrealizable notations which tacitly forced the performer to create his own music. In 1934 Ives’ friend Henry Cowell composed his String Quartet #3 (“Mosaic”) in fragments which could be played in any order. Cowell called this music “elastic”. Cowell’s pupil, John Cage, began to introduce chance elements in his music as early as 1951. His Music of Changes for piano was composed by relying on the I Ching and the tossing of coins to choose the individual notes. Cage was the one who christened this form of chance music aleatory. In Imaginary Landscape #4 he “composed” a piece where 12 radio receivers are switched on to different stations. Each performance of the piece is of course totally different. In 1952 Cage followed these pieces with the Williams Mix for prerecorded tape, which used chance in assembling the individual sections and then premiered his most famous piece, 4 Minutes 33 Seconds. In this work the performer comes out on the stage and makes no sound for the allotted time. The piece therefore consists only of the environmental sounds of the surroundings, and sounds much different in an outdoor venue than an indoor one.

Meanwhile other composers began to experiment with aleatoric techniques. Morton Feldman began to compose his pieces on graph paper. His series Intersection and Projection has no actual notes but rather boxes on the graph which only determine relative, not absolute, pitch. Earle Brown began to write only with rectangles. Karlheinz Stockhausen, in his Klavierstueck IX, and Pierre Boulez, in his Piano Sonata #3, allow the pianist to choose the order of the sections to be played. Using the Stephane Mallarme poem A Throw of the Dice Will Never Eliminate Chance as inspiration, Boulez and Stockhausen continued to write in mobile forms. Two works written in 1962, Boulez’ Pli selon pli and Stockhausen’s Momente, have aleatoric elements. Stockhausen wrote of his creation that “…It is not a closed work with unequivocally fixed beginning, unfolding, and end, but a multi-faceted, variable composition of independent events.” Each performance of this piece is very different from any other and each is compellingly original.

Cage continued to compose aleatoric music including Music for Piano (1956), where he wrote the notes on imperfections of music paper, Fontana Mix (1958), which uses transparent sheets of staff paper superimposed on one another, Atlas eclipticalis (1962), which uses templates from maps of the constellations (an interesting variant of the “augenmusik” tradition of 400 years earlier), and Winter Music (1967), where from one to twenty pianists can choose any quantity of the chance-inspired score. One of the most inventive pieces of the aleatory is Henri Pousseur’s opera Votre Faust (1960-67) which invites the audience to choose the music and dynamics of the performance (the recording invites the home listener to play with the volume and balance switches on their stereo). I can attest from personal experience that it was tremendously exciting to attend performances in the 1960’s of this revolutionary music and audiences became very involved in the emotional content of these musical “happenings”.

Brahms once remarked that it was easy to compose music. The hard part was deciding what notes to throw under the table. The creative process of composition by its very nature includes elements of improvisation. The Romantic image of the long-haired genius playing music that came to him in a moment of divine inspiration may no longer be in vogue, but many composers of the past were much more conversant with the art of improvisation than a modern conductor or musical “purist” would have us believe. Although they might not understand the idiom, a genius of the keyboard like Mozart or Beethoven would be able to appreciate the improvisatory abilities of a great jazz musician. Since musical styles go in cycles, it is conceivable that unyielding faithfulness to the printed score will again be replaced by a more interpretive style of performing and conducting in future. Music by its nature is the most transitory of arts; like a Tibetan sand painting, it is at the exact moment of creative fruition that the work of inspiration disappears before our very ears.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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