4. Ornamental patterns and instrumental technique
One of the loci communes in early 19th-century piano music is what I would like to label the ‘ornamental style’: the elegant and dazzling virtuosic style from, roughly, 1810 – 1850, that features ornamental passage work, usually on a standing chord. This style seems to be well-known: even though many of the then famous pianist-composers have been forgotten, it is still very vivid in the works of e.g. Frédéric Chopin. Recognizing this locus communis in a score therefore seems to be unproblematic; however, using it actively and creatively in an improvisation turns out to be a very different matter. Many pianists, trying to follow Carl Czerny’s advices about improvising a simple prelude , find out soon enough that actually improvising such passage work is not easy at all.
One would expect that the reason for this is in the fact that it is difficult to improvise fast music. However, this chapter sets off from the experience that it is in principle possible to improvise technically demanding music. This, and the improviser’s desire to expand his skills in this field on one hand, and Carl Czerny assuming such skills in his Anleitung on the other hand, lead to using the first chapter of Czerny’s book as a source of inspiration for the development of a new approach to piano technique. This newness is found in the attempt to turn the hitherto often musically passive character of purely technical exercises into an approach that wants to use technique as a stylistic tool for creating music. By extracting from the works of Czerny and contemporaries a collection of ornamental patterns, an important locus communis of the style of the early nineteenth-century virtuosi is analysed and extrapolated. The study of these patterns not only makes it possible to imitate improvised preludes in the style of Czerny; it also serves a higher goal by compelling the pianist to use his musical imagination actively and to become very flexible in bringing his imagination to the keyboard. The patterns themselves being trans-idiomatic, they are expected to be useful for other instrumentalists and singers as well, though this still has to be researched in practice.
A condition for the effectiveness of the suggested approach seems to be the preliminary acquisition of a sufficient fluency on the keyboard. Therefore, this approach is not meant to replace the first stages of instrumental technique; rather, it should be seen as a follow-up for the accomplished player.
There are similarities between creating music and playing chess. In both ‘games’ different levels of organization play a role: on one hand a general, overarching plan that can roughly indicate the general direction (‘form’, in music) without determining in detail the level of the individual moves; on the other hand there is the ground level of the individual choices that have to be made from moment to moment, and where both in chess and in music similar mechanisms apply: a move prompts a range of possibilities, choosing one of them narrows down this number but at the same time creates new ones, etcetera. If an ordinary chess game, or even more a game of correspondence chess, resembles in this way creating a musical score, leaving time to think things over and to compare different consequences (and, usually, notating the game), a musical improvisation is more like playing fast chess, in which all decisions have to be made on the spot. Indeed, to many players musical improvisation feels like very fast thinking, without any time for reflection upon one’s decisions – let alone for correcting them.
On basis of this phenomenon, one would expect (free) musical improvisations to be less complex than notated compositions, like fast chess games tend to be less balanced and usually contain more mistakes. Indeed, experience seems to confirm that improvised music is often simpler than its notated counterpart. Recordings of Olivier Messiaen’s improvisations definitely show a lesser complexity in the treatment of harmony and modality than his compositions. Now, complexity can obviously be of many kinds: apart from harmony and tonal organization it can relate to form, syntax or texture, but also to instrumental or vocal virtuosity. Given the fact that a performer needs to spend many hours of practising to master technical difficulties in a piece of composed music, it seems to be obvious that such virtuosic passages cannot be improvised. Interestingly, experience shows that this is not always true. It turns out to be possible to include in an improvisation passage work that, when occurring in a composition that one wants to perform, would need thorough and time consuming practising. An example can be found in my recording of an improvised sonata: in the slow movement, a passage occurs in which the right hand plays quick scales and scale-derived runs across many octaves that would normally certainly be considered a technical difficulty.
The level of technical perfection here is, I believe, satisfactory. How is this actually possible ?
It makes one think about what is actually happening when a musician is practising such passages in a composed piece. Is it maybe in reality a process of automation? Is a player in fact ‘waiting’ until the difficult passages ‘play themselves’? The influential Austrian – Dutch violin teacher Oskar Back (1879-1963) is reported to have said that a performer only really masters a musical work when he is able to play it five times in a row without a single mistake . Indeed, being a performer of classical music also means being patient for the mind and the body to get ready for the performance. Or is it true that one can play almost whatever one likes, as long as the music can be thought (imagined) in detail? In that case the process of practising a composition would be essentially a process of appropriation, of making somebody else’s score to one’s own music. This perspective seems to be confirmed by the
well-known phenomenon of mental practising, in which somebody learns a piece or even masters a complex technical difficulty by imagining the music only, without touching the instrument . Interestingly, also here a parallel with the chess game exists in the so-called blindfold chess.
4.3 Practising technique
In this connection, it should be mentioned that musicians usually not only practise the compositions they want to perform, but also separate technical exercises. This habit seems to be connected historically with the upcoming of more elaborate passage work in pieces of music from the Viennese classical period on. Surely it cannot be maintained that virtuosity, in the sense of being able to play very fast passages, didn’t occur in earlier music – on the contrary, startling examples like Sylvestro Ganassi’s La Fontegara (1535) or written out ornamentation in 17th-century instrumental and vocal music can be amplified easily. What changed during the second half of the eighteenth century, however, was a drastic simplification of the harmonic language, which focused much more on the three principal harmonic degrees. This resulted in a much slower harmonic rhythm, leaving space (and also creating the desire) for virtuosic passage work to ‘fill’ the sustained harmonies. Connected with this tendency we see an increase of range for many musical instruments, especially the newly developed pianoforte, of which the keyboard compass grew from five octaves around 1780 to more than seven at the end of the 19th century.
The new aesthetic gave rise to a new kind of virtuosity, based upon regularity and fluency (rather than the baroque ideal of a rhetorical understanding of music); also, this passage work showed a much larger degree of standardization than can be found in earlier music. Soon books with technical exercises started to be published, and practising exercises like scales and arpeggios became a standard issue for the virtuoso. The habit to practise technical exercises next to ‘pieces’ endured until our times. A book like Charles-Louis Hanon’s Le Pianiste Virtuose en 60 Exercises (Boulogne sur Mer, 1873), which is still used today, is based upon the assumption that the fingers should be trained to perfect evenness, which will eventually enable the pianist to play pieces of any difficulty (‘Si les cinq doigts de chacune de nos mains étaient tout à fait également exercés, ils seraient aptes à exécuter tout ce que l’on a ecrit pour cet instrument, et l’on n’aurait plus devant soi qu’une question de doigté dont on trouverait bien vite la solution’ . The idea is that the pianist, simply by repeating again and again the exercises from this book, will develop the fingers individually to equal strength and independence from each other. (It has to be said that already Chopin strongly opposed against this view .) In the 20th century, more developed and subtle (some would say: intelligent) views on the learning process became common property. An important book by Marguerite Long, Le Piano (1959), is organized around specific technical difficulties, and in this way offers a fairly complete overview of the possibilities of traditional classical piano virtuosity up to, say, Ravel. The material presented in her book pretty much corresponds with what most modern pianists think of when they speak about practicing ‘technique’: scales, arpeggios, double notes, octaves.
A brief and unofficial inquiry among conservatoire piano students and teachers showed that opinions about the value of practising separate technical exercises (at least at this level of pianism) differ . Some teachers abandoned them altogether, others expect the students to do such exercises by themselves. The prevailing impression is that, if such exercises are used by more or less developed pianists at all, they are seen as a kind of gymnastics. The goal remains the performance of the masterworks, written by (usually dead) composers.
One striking thing about technical piano exercises is their uniformity. Scales and arpeggios are usually practised in the same rhythmic form, starting and finishing on a tonic, in a square meter, every day again. Surely in this way certain important issues are being developed, e.g. evenness of tone, contact with the instrument, and indeed: gymnastics. One extremely important faculty however will hardly be used in this way of practising: the musical imagination. For other instruments other factors apply as well, like intonation and tone production. For singers the situation is different again, since they develop their instrument itself by means of technical exercises. Despite such differences, a common property is the fact that the exercises serve a goal that is connected with performing a score, not with inventing new music. Already in the performance of classical masterworks the limitations of this approach become obvious: as every pianist knows, one can diligently practice his scales, but in a Beethoven sonata inevitably the same scales will be used just a tiny bit differently – which will make them suddenly twice as hard. The classical musician who practises technique in this traditional way is like a swimmer doing movement exercises on dry land: undoubtedly useful in a certain way, but hardly an equivalent to practising the swimming itself. Just as a swimmer needs water to improve, the musician needs to awake his imaginative faculty.
4.4 Czerny as a source of inspiration
Returning to the experience, that improvised virtuosic passage work is very well possible in the heat of the moment: of course, as an improviser I am curious how this skill can be improved. As argued above, the traditional technical exercises will not be of much help here. Interestingly, some inspiration might be found in Carl Czerny’s Anleitung zum Fantasieren auf dem Pianoforte , of which the first three chapters are dedicated to improvising preludes and cadenzas.
The first chapter of the Anleitung deals with the improvisation of simple preludes, about which Czerny writes that they should be played before a composed piece as a matter of course, to warm up, to try the instrument, and to prepare the listeners for what will follow:
‘Es gehört zu den Zierden eines Klavieristen, wenn er, besonders in Privatzirkeln beim Vortrag von Solostücken, nicht gleich mit der Composition selbst anfängt, sondern durch ein passendes Vorspiel die Zuhörer vorzubereiten, zu stimmen, und auch dabei die Eigenschaften des ihm vielleicht fremden Fortepianos auf schickliche Art kennen zu lernen, im Stande ist.ʼ
Only before a very serious composition like Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, he writes, a prelude would be ill at place . Also when the pianist is playing a solo concerto with orchestra, which has a long orchestral introduction, it would be strange when the pianist would prelude before the orchestra starts to play .
Playing a prelude before starting ‘the real thing’ was already an old tradition in Czerny’s days: in fact it is one of the clearest find-spots of improvisation in music. From the earliest notated organ music to the Northern German baroque Praeludia, from the French Préludes non mesurés to Hotteterre’s advices on how to improvise a prelude on the flute: preludes were everywhere.
The above mentioned Préludes non mesurés served as opening movements to the early French baroque harpsichord suites. In these pieces, composers like Louis Couperin and Jean-Henry d’Anglebert notated only the pitch, not the rhythm. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Freie Fantasien could be seen as late representatives of this genre. Compared to such preludes, the simple preludes in the first chapter of Czerny’s book are structurally remarkably basic. The starting point is always an authentic cadence – be it just the progression V – I, or a more elaborate form like I – VI - #IVdim7 – I 6/4 – V – I. The following example is taken from the beginning of chapter 1 of the Anleitung: