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).