Classical Improvisation

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Short essay on history and growth of classical improvisation

Transcript of Classical Improvisation

  • LASALLE College of the Arts

    Classical Improvisation: A Form of Lost Art?

    Chua Tung Khng


    Contemporary Music Culture

    Natalie Alexandra Tse

    13 November 2013

  • 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


  • Chua Tung Khng 2

    Ex.1 Kyrie of Machaults 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 musicians studies during the Middle Ages.

  • Chua Tung Khng 3

    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 Scarlattis 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.

  • Chua Tung Khng 4

    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 Corellis 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 performers discretion.

  • Chua Tung Khng 5

    Ex.3 Cadenza in first movement of Corellis Violin Sonatas Op.5 No.3

    Bachs 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).

  • Chua Tung Khng 6

    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 performers

    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 composers absolute directions (Bach 203).

  • Chua Tung Khng 7

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


    From Ex.4 we can see the differences between Mozarts 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 fol