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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
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
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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.
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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 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.
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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 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.
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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).
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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
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).
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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