Improvised sonata

The attached soundfile (low volume!) contains a recording of a three movement sonata, improvised by the author on February 18th, 2013. The occasion was a teachers' concert during the second Erasmus Intensive Project that took place in the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague. The recording was made from the audience by organ student Jaap-Jan de Rooij.

My initial idea was to create a sonata with three connected movements, based upon one single theme, to be provided by the audience. The theme that was suggested to me (immediately before my playing) was the 'Harry Potter theme'. On the recording, the theme is played at first; at 0:32, a slow introduction starts, followed by the first movement at 1:33, which connects to the slow second movement starting at 12:06; at 19:06, the last movement begins, consisting of a short fugue, followed by a 'finale' at 21:19. 

Deconstructing, analysing and commenting upon a recording like this will be one of the starting points of the research, described in the accompaning texts.   

Improvisation in 19th century music


Improvisation is a buzzword. The partly negative connotation it sometimes had in common parlance seems to have given way for a considerably more favourable valuation where it became a general term for any activities which are based upon spontaneity and creativity. More specifically, musical improvisation became an increasingly important topic in the last 20 years or so. Gone are the days when only jazz musicians and organists were supposed to improvise; like penetrating oil, improvisation is spreading through all areas of music, even, most recently, the (some might say, indeed: somewhat rusty) bastion of mainstream classical music.

The Royal Conservatoire of The Hague (Netherlands) is currently offering many different improvisation courses, not only for jazz students, but also in the Early Music and Classical departments. It may be an elective for bachelor students, an obligatory subject for classical pianists, part of a class on basso continuo or baroque ornamentation – every student who is interested has the possibility to get in touch with it. The importance which the management of this institute attaches to improvisation shows in the fact that the Royal Conservatoire hosted three times in a row a European Erasmus Intensive Project on improvisation (with teachers, students and guests from 10 different European countries and the United States), and that improvisation is seen as an important ingredient for the new Music Theory curriculum which will start in the academic year 2014 – 2015.

This text is the preliminary result of a research which took place within the compass of a research project for teachers at the Royal Conservatoire during the academic year 2012 – 2013. The ambitious goal of this very research was the development of didactics in the field of free improvisation in 19th century musical styles on the basis of historical sources. Because of the limited amount of available time the research topic was narrowed down to the period from roughly 1820 to 1850, with a strong emphasis on the music for piano. The main reason to choose for this period lies in the fact that one of the most important source texts about 19th century improvisation, and maybe about improvisation in general, was published in 1829: the Systematische Anleitung zum Fantasieren auf dem Pianoforte (opus 200) by Carl Czerny (1791-1857).

The  Anleitung zum Fantasieren is built up like a course, with each chapter tackling a genre of improvisation, put in a progressive order. It is important to stress that Czerny does not analyse the difficulties of the act of improvising as such, and does not offer exercises, designed to address such difficulties (like textbooks from the 20th and 21st centuries often do). This might seem remarkable from a modern point of view, but it matches the modus operandi of many pedagogical works of that time, which very often teach by giving examples of the desired result. The different chapters in the Anleitung each raise a compositional / improvisational genre, like a prelude, a cadenza, or a potpourri. Every chapter gives a brief explanation in text, followed by many examples in score, which can take the dimensions of complete pieces of music.

The initial aim of my research was to use Czerny’s remarkably detailed book, amplified by additional source texts, to come to a teaching method which would enable piano students to become like active speakers of Czerny’s musical language. Not surprisingly, this idea turned out to be rather idealistic, or even naïve. The underlying tacit assumption – partly caused by the treacherous detailedness of Czerny’s book – was, in fact, that the Anleitung could serve as a time machine. In reality, even an elaborate manual like Carl Czerny’s Anleitung cannot be read like a book with musical recipes which only we have to follow to become like a musician from 1829. Reality is more complex – and more interesting. Czeny turns out to draw upon skills which are no longer self-evident to the students of today, while on the other hand many issues that are nowadays important are not addressed in his text at all. 

As a result of this insight, and of a growing enthusiasm for the topic, I decided to scale up this research to a PhD project which would focus on the role of improvisation in 19th century music making. For this project I am very happy to have been awarded a 4-year grant from NWO, the Dutch governmental organization for the funding of scientific research. The project will officially start in August, 2014, under the supervision of Prof Frans de Ruiter (Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University), Dr Marcel Cobussen (idem) and Prof Dr Hans Fidom (VU University, Amsterdam).

Summary of the PhD research proposal

This research investigates the role which improvisation played in 19th century music. It also examines its consequences for the interpretation and performance of musical scores from this period, and for improvisation as a (possible) part of today's concert life.

Improvisation seems to have disappeared completely from the world of Western classical music. Outside this area, like in folk music or jazz, improvisation is still usual, and in some contemporary music elements of improvisation are used as well. Furthermore, an important exception is the organ music, where improvisation never ceased to exist. However, for most mainstream classical musicians, the performers of the vast repertoire which we call ‘classical music’, making music is synonymous with performing as exactly as possible a notated score, without ever making up a single note (tone) themselves. More and more musicians regret this situation.

We can be sure that also in this tradition musicians used to improvise. The general assumption is that this practice gradually vanished after the year 1800. There are good reasons to believe so: indeed, after 1850 hardly any textbooks on this subject were published, and after Liszt improvisation  disappeared as an item on concert programmes. We could suppose this tendency to be connected with the rise of the ‘work concept’ (L. Goehr). On the other hand, also from the later 19th century documents exist that stress the improvisational skills of musicians who are still well-known as composers (for instance Franck, Bruckner, Brahms). We know that some pianists used to improvise preludes during piano recitals until in the early 20th century. And as for the earlier 19th century,  there is a wealth of material showing an elaborate improvisation practice. An important source text for this research is Carl Czerny’s Systematische Anleitung zum Fantasieren auf dem Pianoforte (1829).

An important reason to research the role of improvisation in the music of the 19th century is the fact that this information can influence deeply our understanding and interpretation of scores from this period. Most modern musicians live by what I call the ‘Urtext Paradigm’: the score, as notated by the composer, is the one and only form which a composition can take, and is almost sacred. The musician’s task is to turn this score into sound, as faithfully as he can. If it is true that improvisation was much more important in the 19th century then most people think, this would affect the untouchable character of the score, and threaten the Urtext Paradigm.

This will be a research in between musicology, music philosophy and music theory. Very important though will be the artistic component: the questions which led to this research plan came from my own practices as a player and a teacher, and the answers most likely will influence both practices.

Research questions: Which was the role of improvisation in 19th century music? How does this influence the way how repertoire from this period is performed and interpreted today? Is it desirable to revive such a supposed improvisational practice, and, when yes: how to do this?



  1. Study of modern literature on improvisation and the understanding of music in the 19th century. It turns out to be important to problematize the term ‘improvisation’ since this is not at all used in a clearly defined way. What exactly counts as improvisation? How to deal with the views of authors like Christopher Small (for whom ‘music’ doesn’t exist) or Bruce Ellis Benson (for whom almost the whole life can be ‘improvisation’)? Is our modern way of seeing improvisation as a completely different category influencing our view on the role it played in earlier styles? And: what about authenticity?
  2. The inquiry of historical sources: 19th century books about improvisation like Grétry (1801), Hummel (1838), Kalkbrenner (1849), but also books like the Kompositionslehre by Marx (1868); newspaper reports and literary texts mentioning improvisation; compositions which imitate the style of an improvisation (Beethoven, preludes by Clara Schumann, written cadenzas, also from Italian belcanto); very early recordings of (assumed) improvisations.
  3. Through an ongoing dialogue between musical practice and theory, hopefully a more and more clear picture of 19th century music making will appear. My own improvisations will serve as a starting point, raising questions which will lead towards theoretical hypotheses, which will on their turn prompt new improvisations, etcetera. A similar dialogue will be initiated by using theoretical results in classroom situations.