An improvisational approach to a musical score

During a private piano recital in March, 2015, I put the idea of improvising with and within a score to a test for the first time. Though I have always preferred performances that sound like improvised, this was the first time I consciously attempted to approach the music in an improvisatory way, drawing upon the notion of loci communes.

The programme entirely consisted of piano works by Johannes Brahms. During the first half, a choice of short pieces was played: the third and fourth Balladen from opus 10, the first Heft of Klavierstücke op. 76 (nos. 1 – 4), the Drei Intermezzi op. 117 and the Rhapsodie op. 79 no. 2. From these pieces, each of the Balladen, the Klavierstücke and the first Intermezzo were preceded by an improvised prelude, highlighting one of the loci communes of the following piece. Brahms’s compositions were carried along in the same improvisational flow. A recording of the first half of this recital can be accessed here:

It is by no means perfect: the acoustical situation was not favourable, the instrument (a Grotrian Steinweg grand piano) hard to handle, and there are certainly more mistakes than normally. Nonetheless, or even: because of the imperfections, the recording forms a valuable illustration of the consequences – positive and negative - of an improvisational approach.

I would like to mention a few aspects:

1. The flow. It became clear to me that, by playing a prelude before every piece, it was easier to ‘step into’ an improvisational mode when playing the composed pieces. The preludes, by the way, were avoiding the themes and home keys of the following pieces, in order to have a full focus on the chosen locus communis. It was indeed not so difficult to connect the improvisations with the compositions. I found this remarkable, since my experiences with earlier organ recitals including one or two improvisations were very different: at that time, improvising felt like an almost dangerously different activity. I believe now, that the difference between those organ recitals and this piano recital is in my attitude towards te composed music. Deliberately approaching it like an improvisation obviously helped.

2. This improvisational attitude consisted in giving different loci communes a more central position, giving way to their respective characters. This resulted in a rather flexible treatment of tempo, but also of dynamics and tone colour. During playing, this gave a very pleasant feeling of freedom and aliveness. Listening to the recording, the flexibility doesn’t sound at all excessive to me. Also, I was reminded of a well-known experience of improvising organists: that the sound of the instrument feeds back into the improvised music, in other words: what one plays not only may flow from the imagination, but is at the same time influenced by the sound. Playing Brahms in an improvisatory way, I noticed that the properties of the piano and the room influenced my treatment of Brahms’s score. In different circumstances, the music would have sounded very different as well.

3. Many improvisers mention the ‘being in the moment’. When playing from a score, and especially when playing by heart, this ‘being in the moment’ may lead towards real moments of surprise. By deliberately putting the score in a new light, one can really be confused about the text! In this recording, there are several of such slips of memory. Another cause of imperfections is in the flexibility of tempo: when one plays a difficult passage much faster than practised, it actually becomes harder – maybe too hard…

Surely, there is a tension between the last aspect and the modern need for perfection in the technical sense. If we believe it is important to play composed music in an improvisatory, ‘risk taking’ way, and at the same time want fulfil the general demands for perfection, we have to find a way of preparation that allows for both. Our training would not strive for getting as close as we can to an idealised and very specific performance (regardless the instrument, room, audience and other circumstances), like a sportsman preparing for the Olympic Games, but rather prepare us for flexibility.

There is one interesting side to playing by heart, that has become almost obligatory for at least classical pianists. This habit was introduced by Franz Liszt; before him, it was usual to play from a score. Combining this fact with the experience that at the same time playing by heart and playing in an improvisatory way easily lead to confusion, one wonders whether the modern, ‘sportsmanlike’ approach to music was at least stimulated by Liszt’s innovation.