This chapter presents a general overview of improvisation in the first half of the nineteenth century, first by tracing the Austro-Germanic tradition of performer-improviser-composers from Johann Sebastian Bach to Schumann, and then by explaining where improvisation was practiced (in the courts and homes of court musicians, in the church, in the salons of the aristocracy, in the newly emerging sphere of public concerts, and – not to be forgotten – at home alone) and how improvisation was taught. After a brief discussion of the history of improvisation as part of Western classical musical practice in Europe before the nineteenth century, certain examples of improvisational musical practice in all of the above-mentioned contexts will be presented, followed by a discussion of documents produced in order to teach musicians how to improvise and to whom they were intended to serve. To conclude the chapter, the decline of improvisation that took place around the middle of the nineteenth century will be addressed.
The Austro-Germanic tradition of performer-improviser-composers
In the Introduction I formulated the main research question guiding this project, which can be summarized as follows: How can one learn to improvise convincingly within the context of the nineteenth-century piano repertoire? An important justification for posing this question at all comes from the fact that improvisation was commonly practiced in the nineteenth century in Europe until around the middle of the century. In this chapter I will show that improvisation was an integral part of musical practice in the first half of the nineteenth century and that Schumann was no exception. The main reason for this chapter is to substantiate my plea for the need to revitalize and reintroduce improvisation to our twenty-first century performance practice, because this would not create an anomaly but in a sense would represent a simple continuation of a practice that has been very common in the music-making of previous centuries.
Improvisation permeated the classical musical tradition from its onset until around the middle of the nineteenth century when it gradually came to disappear, or at least as was seen from public view. Studies such as Hungarian musicologist Ernst Ferand's Die Improvisation in der Musik, published in 1938, have exposed how pervasively improvisation was practiced and how it crucially influenced the development of different musical styles over the course of the history of this particular musical tradition. Both vocal and instrumental music exhibited many degrees of improvisation, and these various practices influenced each other in many ways. The more florid vocal styles of liturgical music began to influence early instrumental music, and practitioners at the keyboard engaged heavily in improvisation in order to create moments of music-making that were given names that still resonate in our vocabulary today, such as fantasias and toccatas. Medieval and baroque virtuoso keyboardists listened to and learned from each other and developed a tradition that spanned generations and came to include Johann Sebastian Bach.1 His son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach remarks about his father that his organ compositions were "full of [...] expression of devotion, solemnity, and dignity, [...] but his unpremeditated organ-playing, in which nothing was lost in the process of writing down but everything came directly to life out of his imagination, is said to have been still more devout, solemn, dignified, and sublime" (quoted in Ferand 1961, 20). Bach's musical practice exemplifies the high Baroque tradition of keyboard improvisation, a tradition that remained more intact for a longer period of time at the organ than at other keyboard instruments (as will be discussed below), and as such Bach certainly did not witness the end of such a tradition.
The disappearance of improvisation coincided neither with the end of the Baroque period, nor with the many changes music and culture underwent at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Rather, it continued to be an important aspect of musical practice well into the Romantic period when much of today's standard repertoire had already been composed. In fact, improvisation not only continued to be practiced in the nineteenth century, but [...] it [also] embodied central aesthetic ideals of Romanticism. (Sancho-Velázquez 2001, 31)
In her dissertation “The Legacy of Genius: Improvisation, Romantic Imagination, and the Western Musical Canon,” Angeles Sancho-Velázquez disputes the widespread myth present in the literature that improvisation generally died out at the end of the Baroque era thanks to a full-fledged notational system present in the early Classical period that no longer includes figured-bass notation. The discussion of the Classical and Romantic eras here below will show that, indeed, improvisational practice was abundant and used in many ways during both these periods in music history; some examples should also show that the ever-presence of improvisation in musical practice actually played a crucial role in the composition of much of the repertoire that classically trained pianists commonly perform today.
In his book The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, philosopher Bruce Ellis Benson asks whether or not it is possible to separate "Bach the improviser" from "Bach the composer." (His book will be discussed in more detail here in the chapter On Scales of Improvisation where it is used as the main text for the organization of different degrees of improvisation.)
Although it is well known that many composers – from Buxtehude and Bach through Mozart and Beethoven to Hummel and Liszt – were also famed improvisers, that fact has been generally seen as having little impact on their work as "composers." But is it really possible to separate Bach the improviser from Bach the composer? Indeed, there is every reason to think that many of his compositions began as improvisations at the keyboard – and were in turn improvised on. (Benson 2003, 55)
Benson's question brings the relationship between improvisation and composition to light, which simultaneously makes us aware of the (assumed) relationship between improvisation and performance already present in the discussion above. I will use Benson's question as a starting point to transition towards the Romantic era and to show how improvisation served many roles during this musical epoch by quoting some first-hand accounts that depict the lineage of Austro-Germanic composer-improviser-pianists in which Schumann found himself as he became a reputable musician in the 1830's. I will then return to Benson's question by showing how improvisation had significant effects on not just performance but also compositional practice during this period. Having just mentioned J.S. Bach, it is fitting to also acknowledge the highly experimental and improvisatory musical practice of his sons, especially Carl Philip Emanuel Bach who dedicated a chapter to improvisation in his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen published in the 1750's (part one) and 1760's (part two). The expressive and rhetorical empfindsamer Stil readily audible in C.P.E. Bach's music heavily influenced the work of Joseph Haydn, who himself avidly improvised: "Um acht Uhr nahm Haydn sein Frühmahl. Gleich nachher setzte er sich ans Klavier und phantasierte solange, bis er zu seiner Absicht dienende Gedanken fand, die er sogleich zu Papier brachte: so entstanden die ersten Skizzen von seinen Kompositionen" (Dies 1810, 211). As this quote makes clear, Haydn was not necessarily improvising great toccatas on the organ in church like J.S. Bach; nor was he playing free fantasias in the (not yet constructed) public concert halls in Europe; rather, he channeled his improvisatory zeal into his compositions by spending time at the piano alone and by wielding the results into musical notation. Haydn's approach to improvisation and composition, certainly influenced by the professional demands put upon him of producing large amounts of (notated) music in short periods of time, serves as an interesting prelude to Schumann's sentiments voiced later in life: "nicht zu viel zu fantasieren, weil zu viel ungenutzt abströme, was man besser anwenden könne. Sie möge sich immer vornehmen, alles gleich auf das Papier zu bringen" (quoted in Schramowski 1968, 173). This advice given to his wife Clara, often portrayed as a critique of improvisation in his later years, might make more sense when compared to Haydn's improvisational practice: Schumann was not necessarily discouraging Clara from improvising, but rather emphasizing the importance of harvesting the fruit of her improvisational practice by writing things down so as not to be forgotten.
Although the story of Beethoven improvising for Mozart was posthumously codified by the German writer Otto Jahn after Schumann's lifetime, it is more than plausible that this occurrence between his two pianist-improviser-composers predecessors was well-known to him:
Beethoven made his appearance in Vienna as a youthful musician of promise in the spring of 1787, but was only able to remain there a short time; he was introduced to Mozart, and played to him at his request. Mozart, considering the piece he performed to be a studied show-piece, was somewhat cold in his expressions of admiration. Beethoven, noticing this, begged for a theme for improvisation, and, inspired by the presence of the master he revered so highly, played in such a manner as gradually to engross Mozart's whole attention; turning quietly to the bystanders, he said emphatically, "Mark that young man; he will make himself a name in the world!" (Jahn 1856 , 346)
This story exemplifies the priority that was given to the ability to improvise at this point in the history of Western classical music. Mozart was uninterested in Beethoven's ability to perform this or that piece of music, but rather was interested in whether or not the young man could improvise. Beethoven was certainly a great improviser, and first made his reputation in Vienna as such (with such events as the piano duel in 1800 between fellow pianist-composer Daniel Steibelt and himself) before his compositions became well-known. Thankfully for us, who only have access to Beethoven's compositions and not to his extemporaneous performances, he also channeled his improvisations into his compositional output in the same way as the description of Haydn above portrays:
Tatsächlich hat die Improvisation für Beethoven manchmal die Bedeutung einer Vorstudie gehabt. So ist von Ferdinand Ries bezeugt, daß der Meister sich nach einem Spaziergange, bei welchem ihm das Thema zum Finale der Appassionata eingefallen war, zuhause gleich ans Klavier setzte und 'wenigstens eine Stunde lang über das neue, so schön dastehende Finale dieser Sonate' improvisierte. (Löw 1962, 8)
The act of composing the Appassionata Sonata comes as the aftermath of the time spent improvising on the themes of this sonata at the piano. The question of what Beethoven was able to create at the instrument during this time, and what he was then able to encapsulate in musical notation afterwards, remains unanswerable on the one hand. On the other hand, this inquisitiveness towards the relationship between improvisation and composition drives one to attempt to further understand the relationship between playing, notation, and improvisation that will guide the working process exposed here to answer the initial research question of how one can learn to improvise convincingly within the context of the nineteenth-century piano repertoire. This relationship will be pursued in later chapters of Playing Schumann Again for the First Time (specifically in the discussion of improvisation and composition in the chapter On Scales of Improvisation, and in the discussion of the musical results presented in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods).
Beethoven's death on March 26th, 1827 arrives at a time when the seventeen-year-old Schumann was showing many signs of developing artistically:
In 1827, he planned, directed, and played in a concert held at his home in the Amtgasse [in Zwickau, Germany], the ambitious program including choruses from Weber's Preciosa and Boieldieu's Jean de Paris, an aria from Mozart's Entführung, a piano concerto by Lecour, and a symphony by Ernst Eichner. [...] While at least some of the early songs are indeed extant, none of the piano works, among them the beginnings of an E minor piano concerto dated 1827 in the Projektenbuch, appears to have survived. (Daverio 1997, 30)
In this account of the young Schumann, the picture of a practicing musician who was engaged both in performance and composition emerges. Just a year later Schumann resettled in Leipzig and then in Heidelberg to study law, and early accounts of Schumann's improvisations began to emerge from these student years.2 Theodor Töpfken's written reminiscence of Schumann improvising at the piano in Heidelberg, which has already been quoted in the Introduction, describes how musical "Ideen strömten ihm zu in einer Fülle, die sich nie erschöpfte" (quoted in Eismann 1956, 55).
Of course, Schumann’s enthusiasm for improvisation was no exception; he practiced music in a milieu that was replete with improvisation, realized both in public concerts and by artists at home. Hearing the well-known pianist Ignaz Moscheles live in concert, who was famous for his ability to improvise and also a reputable composer, left Schumann intent on becoming a professional musician. As he worked towards artistic maturity in the 1830's, his colleague Felix Mendelssohn caused a "tremendous sensation among the Leipzigers" (Mendelssohn 1945, 255) by improvising a cadenza in the first movement of Mozart's D minor concerto, K. 466 in a performance in 1837. The German pianist, composer, and teacher Carl Ludwig Heinrich Berger (1777–1839) acknowledged Mendelssohn's talent specifically by referencing his ability to improvise: "Felix is certainly going to be one of the most significant composers and improvisers who have ever lived or improvised" (quoted in Siebenkäs 1963, 233—234). Like Schumann, Mendelssohn arrived at his abilities to improvise early in his musical career which offered him many occasions to impress audiences. The German musician Ferdinand Hiller was astounded by the sixteen-year-old Mendelssohn's improvisation at the piano in Frankfurt am Main in the spring of 1825:
He took some of the principal melodies – especially "Lo the Conquering Hero Comes" – and began to extemporize on them. I hardly know which was most wonderful – the skillful counterpoint, the flow and continuity of the thoughts or the fire, expression, and extraordinary execution that characterized his playing. He must have been very full of Handel at that time, for the figures which he used were thoroughly Handelian, and the power and clearness of his passages in thirds, sixths, and octaves, were really grand; and yet it all belonged to the subject-matter, with no pretension to display, and was thoroughly true, genuine, living music. It quite carried me away, and though I often heard his wonderful playing afterwards, I do not think that it ever produced such an overpowering effect on me as it did on that occasion, when he was but a boy of sixteen. (Hiller 1874, 4—5)
In my opinion, an especially interesting aspect of Hiller's description of Mendelssohn's improvisation is the use of the phrase "very full of" to describe Mendelssohn's Handelian figurations. The image of fullness – of consumption and saturation, inevitably followed by digestion – brings to mind concepts that will be discussed in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis in relation to how improvisation functions. Mendelssohn was able to mimic certain musical materials he was exposed to, but within the morphosic context of his extemporized performance where he turns the music into "true, genuine, living music" by enlivening it with his own sonic signature (a concept I will present in the chapter On Sonic Signature).
Schumann was certainly familiar with Mendelssohn and his work. They were collegial and admired each other, as Schumann's review of Mendelssohn's recital in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1840 attests:
Mendelssohn finished the concert with a fantasia of his own, when he displayed the fullest glory of his art; if I am not mistaken, it was based on the chorale "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden," into which he afterwards introduced the name of Bach and a fugal movement, rounded to such a clear and masterly whole that, if printed, it would have appeared a finished work of art. (Schumann 1840, NZfM 13; reprinted in Kreisig 1914, Vol. 1 492—493)
Schumann's awareness, based on personal experience, of how written music and music improvised during the course of performance have intertwined functions incites his comment that Mendelssohn's extemporization could have given the impression of a "finished work of art" if it had been somehow written down. I consider Schumann's words to be extremely well-chosen specifically because he does not say that Mendelssohn's extemporized performance sounded like a composition; rather, he says that the music, if engraved into a musical score, would make a masterful "work of art."3 This subtle but crucial differentiation brings at least two issues to light of which Schumann was very aware: the necessity for a work of art to have some sort of ontological infrastructure (like a musical score) in order to exist (see the discussion of Lydia Goehr's The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis), and the relative success rate of a notated composition versus an extemporized performance to fulfill the requirements of being masterful music or high art, or as Schumann says, "a clear and masterly whole." What I mean by relative success rate is the chance of an extemporized performance conveying the kind of wholeness and quality that a notated composition can, considering that an extemporized performance can by nature only happen once and all decision-making processes have to happen while it unfolds; whereas, in the process of composition, decision-making processes can happen over the course of any amount of time. To further problematize the discussion of composition versus extemporaneous performance, consider that
Mendelssohn fully appreciated the importance of his improvisation on this occasion, and his draft, presumably intended for it, provided a rough sketch of what he planned to do and the direction he intended it to take. Fortunately, the draft has survived and is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. (Little 2010, 93)
Mendelssohn therefore must have known that his extemporized performance during the Thomaskirche recital would have serious repercussions for his career and reputation, and made plans accordingly in order to ensure that he was able to improvise to his own satisfaction. The complex and tangled relationship between improvisation in performance, improvisation in composition, and the relationship between performance and composition constitutes one of the main themes of Playing Schumann Again for the First Time; the feedback loop that occurs while improvising will be presented as a concept in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis, discussed in terms of the degrees it affects both composition and performance in the chapter On Scales of Improvisation, and exposed through my own artistic practice(s) in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods.