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LASALLE College of the Arts Classical Improvisation: A Form of Lost Art? Chua Tung Khng 14455 Contemporary Music Culture Natalie Alexandra Tse 13 November 2013

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Short essay on history and growth of classical improvisation

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Page 1: Classical Improvisation

LASALLE College of the Arts

Classical Improvisation: A Form of Lost Art?

Chua Tung Khng

14455

Contemporary Music Culture

Natalie Alexandra Tse

13 November 2013

Page 2: Classical Improvisation

Chua Tung Khng

14455 Classical

Natalie Alexandra Tse

Improvisation, also known as extemporisation, is defined in music as the spontaneous

invention, composition, embellishment or performance of music. It comes from the Latin

word improvisus meaning unforeseen or unexpected. Improvisation is usually done in a

manner stylistically similar to the piece, and yet not bound by conventions of the original

conventions of the music. Not only is this applied to music, but also to other forms of art like

acting, dancing, singing or artworks creation. Improvisation is an integral part of music, and

it has been around for as long as there has been music. When prehistoric man first struck on a

makeshift drum, or blew down a hollowed out bone with holes in it (Hanson), he was playing

based on instinct, without any form of notation or direction to follow. By doing so, he

became one of the first improvisers.

The term “Classical Music” in this essay includes but is not limited to art music composed

during the Baroque, Classical, Romantic era and beyond. This essay examines how different

compositional and notation techniques throughout the classical period led to the gradual

decline of improvisation, and discusses whether Classical Improvisation is a form of lost art

today.

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Ex.1 Kyrie of Machault’s Messe de Notre Dame (Abeele).

Plainchants rely on neumatic notation which developed into the notational forms that are in

use today. Gregorian Chants were preserved in plainsong notation, which assures that chants

would be sung the same way everywhere. The earliest substantial information about

improvisation appeared in treatises, instructing the singer how to add another line to a

liturgical chant as it was performed. The ability of improvising a counter melody to

harmonise with the original chant would require technical knowledge about vertical

consonance and dissonance and of melodic intervals available on the diatonic system. The

earlier improvising singers might have relied on melodic memory to recall the chant, and

eventually the chant would be notated so they could anticipate the notes (Collins 99). The

first manuals on improvisation were concerned with foundation of contrapuntal theory and

practice and with the development of staff notation. Notating the melodies would then ensure

the consistency of the chants. Thus, notation was both a result of the striving for uniformity

and a means of perpetuating that uniformity (Grout 38). The ability to improvise counterpoint

over a cantus firmus was observed as the most important kind of unwritten music, and was

incorporated into every musician’s studies during the Middle Ages.

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Modes of improvisation practised in Italy during the renaissance were brought over into the

Baroque period; the embellishment of an existing part and the creation of entirely new part(s)

were two principal types of improvisation. Composers would only write out the melody and

the bass, with the bass played on harpsichord, organ or lute and coupled by a sustaining

instrument like the cello or bassoon. Performers had to realise notated figured bass by

improvising from simple chords to passing tones to counterpoint, which completes the

harmony as well as produces a fuller sonority.

Sometimes active melodic lines are varied with consonants with longer note values and their

own melodic shape. The parts may be inverted with the hands shifting roles — a common

practice and a method of composition favoured by Scarlatti and Handel in the opening of

their compositions (Ex. 1).

Ex.1 Scarlatti Sonata in a minor, K.54

The example above is taken from one of Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas, which shows the piece

beginning with a single melodic line played with the right hand. The melody line is then

repeated in bar 3, but played with the left hand and slightly varied at the end, while right hand

harmonises the melody with thirds.

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Composers began to exercise control over ornamentation by writing out symbols or

abbreviations in some instances. Although they were indicated by ornamentation symbols,

they still retained certain spontaneity. Many modern musicians view ornaments as merely

decorative, and eventually brought about the term “melodic decoration”. Baroque musicians

believed that ornamentations were means of colouring the notated piece with dissonance

especially with trills and appoggiatura.

Ex.2 Embellished Opening of Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op.5 No.3, with ornamentation notated.

The figure above shows early examples of composers dictating performance of their piece.

Corelli published both the embellished and original parts, which may have influenced later

performers to depend on such performance directions given to them by the composers.

Another form of embellishment commonly found in opera and some of the instrumental

music of Arcangelo Corelli was an elaborated extension of the final cadential chord (Grout, A

History of Western Music, 362). Performers had the liberty to display their virtuosity freely

by adding, subtracting or changing the cadenzas in the written scores. Composers of

variations, suites and sonatas were well aware that selected movements from their

compositions could be excluded at the performer’s discretion.

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Ex.3 Cadenza in first movement of Corelli’s Violin Sonatas Op.5 No.3

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major, BWV 1050 was also notated with a lengthy

cadenza (Brandenburg Concertos 1-6). This is similar to compositional practices in later

periods when the orchestra stops playing during a portion of the concerto, which allows the

soloist to play alone ad libitum, with a flexible pulse.

From these examples we can see how Baroque composers integrated improvisational

techniques into their compositions. The organ improvisations of Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and

Buxtehude won the admiration of crowd, and Bach is known to have improvised a prelude

and fugue, an organ trio, a chorale prelude and a final fugue all on a single hymn tune

(Collins 111). An organist was scheduled to compete against Bach in improvising, but

promptly left town after hearing him improvise while warming up (Barnhill). The dictation of

their own compositions by adding ornamentation or actual florid notation for their passages

was a practice that became common in the 18th

century. It diminished the trend of leaving

embellishment to the performer. It was generally felt that with less specific notation, the

music served as something of a blueprint, and could be constantly refreshed and kept current

by the idiomatic addition of improvised graces (Collins 107).

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During the early 18th

century, a new style of music surfaced to succeed the older Baroque

styles. This new style sounded more songful and less contrapuntal, more natural and less

artificial, and more sentimental and less intensely emotional than its Baroque counterpart

(Hanning 249). During this period, composers started to give explicit directions on dynamics,

phrasing and tempi. They began to notate and dictate exactly how they wanted their

compositions to be played.

Performers and composers of the classical period preserved three types of Baroque

improvisation — embellishment, free fantasies and cadenzas. They were still frequent during

performances, with soloists likely improvising during orchestral ritornellos1 while performing

keyboard concertos.

Ornament directions began to appear soon after the beginning of the 18th

century. This was

the beginning of precise notation and performance of ornaments, which limits the performer’s

freedom. The standardisation of ornamentation signs and symbols was developed, as there

was no standard system yet. Composers also notated embellishments for the benefit of

amateurs or students who have not mastered the art of improvisation. This, to a certain extent

created a form of dependency on the composer’s absolute directions (Bach 203).

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Ex.4 Mozart Piano Sonata in F major, K332/330K, 2nd

movement

From Ex.4 we can see the differences between Mozart’s autograph edition and the published

first edition. By the 1790s composers were writing elaborate embellishments into thematic

reprises, having expropriated embellishments from the domain of improvisation (Collins 113).

Early dictations for cadenzas could be traced back to the late 16th

century, where Caccini

wrote a cadenza in Io che dal ciel cader (the fourth intermedio for Lapellegrina). Composers

were in a sense paranoid about their compositions being spoilt by eager performers of

questionable compositional talents. They thus included ornamented cadences, or condensed

embellishments at the end of the piece. Cadenzas occupy the penultimate position in the

musical structure (Sadie 785), where they precede the final tutti of the concerto movement or

aria, and are always indicated by a fermata over a 6-4 Chord followed by a perfect cadence.

Beethoven wrote out a complete cadenza for his Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat Major, Op.73,

and some composers have followed suit. However sometimes it is still up to the performer’s

discretion to ignore the notated cadenzas and give their personal renditions (Barber 110).

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Mozart and Beethoven were celebrated improvisers, with their solo concerts featuring solo

improvisation. To a great extent, the improvisations were metrical, giving the impression that

they were composed in advance. Beethoven’s Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77 (might have been a

revision of an improvisation at his Akademie at the Theater an der Wien) did contain several

ametrical passages. Walthur Dürr suggested that improvisations on Schubert’s songs would

be frequent due to the lack of piano introductions. Competitions were held during this period

by aristocratic families and nobles, where composers and performers were invited to compete

against each other. Mozart competed at least once in improvisation with Muzio Clementi

(Albert 624), and Beethoven won many improvisatory battles over contemporaries like

Hummel, Steibelt and Woelfl (Solomon 78).

A substantial rise in the popularity of improvisation was seen in the early 19th

century, which

then declined to near-extinction in 1840 after suffering an ‘apotheosis of bad taste’

(Wangermée, 1950). Improvisation progressively became mundane by pandering to a music-

consuming middle class that craved brilliance and sensation. Artistic originality which

distinguished improvisation during its 18th

century heyday became insignificant, encouraging

its rapid decline. Other factors that led to extirpation of public improvisation included the

rising importance of the performer as the interpreter of the composition, the separation of

composition from performance. The evolution of musical technique away from bass-

orientated, systematic structural outlines towards a more melodically, generically or

programmatically held frameworks, thus loosening the threads that held extemporised music

together.

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Ex. 5 Example of notated embellishment which is greatly improvisatory from Chopin’s

Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27 No.2

Cadenzas and embellishments lost their improvisatory characteristics as they were notated by

the composers in concertos, while improvised embellishments were scorned by Liszt as

‘sacrilegious violations of the spirit and letter’ of composed music. Following in the steps of

Beethoven’s 5th

Piano Concerto, pianist-composers usually notated cadenzas into their

compositions or transcriptions. Liszt rarely left the performer to improvise on a fermata sign,

and he supplied all improvisation materials himself. Even in his transcriptions of operatic

arias by Rossini and Bellini, Liszt wrote out cadenzas at points where fermatas indicate their

insertion (Sadie 789).

Beethoven’s music in the 18th

century was absolute: he indicated his intentions in notation,

dynamics, phrasing and even explanatory remarks. Romantic composers conformed, and later

into the 19th

century even the preference for certain individual strings, fingerings, number of

players, and seating arrangements were indicated in great detail. Composers aimed to make

their scores as self-explanatory and as safe from modification as possible; printed scores were

revised for the masses to become more explicit, inhibiting the performer’s creative freedom.

Brahms once said that the so-called instructive or practical editions are seldom concerned

with art.

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Improvisatory styles and procedures were incorporated into composers’ formal compositions

also influenced the decline of improvisation, as the emancipation and ‘stretched conventions’

grew into compositional practices, adversely affecting its distinction from composition.

Improvisation however, did not disappear altogether but became restricted to domains like

organ playing, often in the ‘strict fugal’ style described by Czerny and contemporaries

(Collins 121). 19th

century improvisation was still practiced, with Bruckner captivating

audiences with remarkable improvisation on the organ, Chopin and Liszt improvising

publicly on two pianos.

The early 20th

century added extempore piano accompaniment to silent films, and of course

the most prominent of new improvised music was jazz. The latter half of the 20th

century saw

passionate debates about issues as to whether trills ought to start with the upper note, or

whether grace notes should be played before or on the principal beat. A new form of classical

music also placed certain importance on improvisation, by using ambiguous notation, and

rules instead of scores, placing fewer restrictions on the performer. 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 (Kirshnit).

With the dawn of electronic music, new-age composers tried to exercise near-total control

over performance by including a plethora of detailed indications for dynamics, manner of

attack and tempo. Composers who did not follow the common practices like John Cage and

Harry Partch which requires both the composer performer to improvise might have

contributed to the restoration of improvisation, albeit different from before — other factors

includes the growth of live electronic music, the evolution of jazz to a point where it

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enveloped everything in the contemporary classical tradition and the emergence of aleatory

music. Improvisation was soon acknowledged as second to composition.

In a sense, the idea of classical improvisation that has been in practice until the late 19th

century has taken a whole new direction, in accordance to the compositional styles and

harmonic language that has evolved from the medieval modes to aleatoric or atonal music.

‘Contemporary classical music’ generally deals with the deconstruction of everything that has

been done before, in the name of creating something that is thoroughly ‘new’ (Harris). In

recent musical cultures, without the elements of common practice on which improvisation

depends, the idea of extemporising cadenzas to an atonal piece (e.g. Schoenberg’s Violin

Concerto) would be senseless.

The birth of the music business, the dwarfing of classical music by popular music and the

obsession of creating the ‘perfect recording’ might have led to the penultimate chapter of

classical music. Music education is provided in public school curriculum, but it has been

rendered almost worthless by a politically correct tendency to treat all music as equal — the

primitive and the refined, the commercial with the spiritual (Lebrecht xiv).

From ‘When the Music Stops’ by Norman Lebrecht:

For this state of impotence, music had only itself to blame. An art that once paid its

own way had, through ambition and greed, fallen upon the charity of politicians and

businessmen. This dependency culture, created by the avarice of millionaire

conductors, singers and their agents, reached a point where it was no longer

sustainable by public and corporate funds. In the final years of the twentieth century,

orchestras and opera houses that upheld the traditions of Bach and Beethoven were

facing a daily threat of foreclosure.

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Composers were among the most famous improvisers of their time. Great composers we

know today earned their reputation first as an improviser, then a composer. From the 19th

century, composers dictated over previously improvised elements of their compositions,

which clouded the distinction between composition and improvisation even further. With the

focus of creativity and originality demands slowly shifting towards technical perfection and

the technical revolution of 20th

century which encouraged musicians to record and perfect

their performances, classical improvisation gradually dwindled in the Classical realm.

Compared to improvisation in non-Western and native music, improvisation plays a small

role in Western art music. Today, classical artists who put spontaneity in their art are rare, as

are those who give improvisatory performances as part of their concert.

(2,549 Words)

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UP, 2007. 624-25. Print.

Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and William J. Mitchell. Essay on the True Art of Playing

Keyboard Instruments. New York: Norton, 1948. 203. Print.

Barnhill, Eric. "The Daily Improvisation." The Daily Improvisation. N.p., Mar. 2006. Web.

09 Nov. 2013.

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