What exactly is going on when such an improvisation takes place? And, insofar as one might not be satisfied with his or her ability to do so, what can be done? As I often found my attempts to convincingly extemporize within the context of classical piano repertoire very unequal in terms of their ability to sound convincing in performance, I embarked upon a long-term project to see how study and practice could improve these skills.1 The working process exposed here has maintained a focus on how that engenders my following main research question: how can one learn to improvise convincingly within the context of the nineteenth-century piano repertoire, specifically the music of Schumann and his milieu? And, subsequently, why is it relevant to improvise on/with/through this repertoire in the twenty-first century? Playing Schumann Again for the First Time exposes the many musical examples I have produced while keeping these questions in mind: first, experiments I undertook using materials from Schumann's compositions and sketchbooks that explore the initial spaces where layers of improvisation can start to take place; then, performed music that maintains more and more distance from Schumann's scores; and finally, my own compositions and performances of Schumann's works, which are presented in order to show how composition is crucial to the development of improvisation skills and, furthermore, how newfound improvisational skills affect the way one can approach the performance of a work from the standard repertoire.2 These examples will be exposed, evaluated, and presented here in relation to the historical documents that have inspired me alongside the music-making of other, currently active improvising pianists in order to contextualize my work.
Why does improvising in the context of the nineteenth-century piano repertoire – particularly in the context of Schumann's piano music – interest me? This question will be answered in two different ways, one that relates to the past and the other that relates to the present moment. Many of the composers representing the Austro-Germanic tradition of classical music, up to and including Schumann, were very skillful improvisers, and many (if not most) of the reputable performers in the first half of the nineteenth century improvised and composed as well. Furthermore, I see that the ability to improvise is experiencing a renaissance in the classical music community of the twenty-first century, and that there are a number of classical musicians today who are also very skilled improvisers. Integrating improvisation into the contemporary classical approach to this music’s performance practice can create (much-needed) diversity in the way this repertoire is experienced today.
The documents Schumann left behind offer a glimpse into the deep connection that existed between his penchant for improvising as a young man and the compositional efforts that he continued to produce through his life (see the Allerlei of written documents here to the right). This artistic research project desires to take a similarly multifaceted approach by engaging in a variety of musical practices – improvising, playing (with) scores, and composing – always with the main goals in mind of not only improving my abilities to improvise at the piano but also coming to a deeper understanding of what improvisation in classical musical practice can be, how it manifests itself, and how it can recontextualize the standard repertoire of the past for listeners and other performers today. The attitude towards musical practice exposed here is heavily reliant upon experimentation; on the one hand making use of repetition (but reworking it for different contexts), and on the other hand combining materials from different sources in order to produce music that does not have any specific background text. For this reason, this research project could serve as a practical method and inspirational guide for students and professionals who are striving to learn to improvise and create music not based (or only loosely based) on musical scores.
Because my artistic interests and professional work emphasize, although certainly not exclusively, a solid evaluation of the 'standard' classical piano repertoire, I have chosen Schumann's music as the focal departure point for the work exposed here. This is not only because of his tremendous contributions to the piano repertoire and to the classical music canon in general, but because his musical career also encompasses the point in music history when the "almost complete disappearance of all forms of improvisation" (Sancho-Velázquez 2001, 22) took place (at least in public), which affected his own opinions towards improvisation. This can be seen in how the journal entries written by the young Schumann in which he enthusiastically discusses his interest in improvising at the piano (see here to the right) stand in clear contrast to his later opinion that one should "not improvise too much – one should try to get everything immediately down on paper" (Schumann quoted in Schramowski 1968, 173). Furthermore, I have chosen Schumann’s music, as in my opinion it best embodies the delicate balance between traditional harmonic and contrapuntal practices and wanton, highly personal, quirky, and even avant-garde extremities of character that so define Romanticism. And it is exactly this individual character and even bizarreness that I would like to also capture in my own improvisations. However, I believe that these particular characteristics of Schumann's music lose their impact upon repeated exposure to a standardized performance practice that remains unnecessarily fixated on the musical work concept, which restricts the performer's options for pursuing certain degrees of improvisation. For this reason, Playing Schumann Again for the First Time is not only a strategic way to gain fluency in harmonic and contrapuntal practices of the Biedermeier classical music style; the project also activates a freer and more improvisatory approach to the performance practice of this music in order to foster the creation of innovative and unique musical moments.
In many significant ways, what the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno has said about Johann Sebastian Bach can perhaps also be applied to Schumann and even to the classical canon as a whole. Upon the arrival of Bach's centenary year, 1950, Adorno responds to the rise of many musicians' claims of pursuing “authentic” performances of his music, partially creating the so-called historically informed performance practice movement. In his article “Bach Defended Against His Devotees,” Adorno voices the following critique:
[Bach's] music is said to be elevated above the subject and its contingency; in it is expressed not so much the man and his inner life as the order of Being as such, in its most compelling musical form. The structure of this Being, understood to be immutable and inexorable, becomes a surrogate for meaning; that which cannot be other than its appearance is made the justification of itself. [...] The present function of his music resembles the current vogue of ontology, which promises to overcome the individualistic condition through the postulation of an abstract principle which is superior to and independent of human existence [. ...] His influence […] no longer results from the musical substance of his music but rather [...] from the mere gesture of recognition. (Adorno 1995, 135)
Adorno criticizes his contemporaries who claim to defend Bach’s music from overly excessive interpretation by refuting their position that the performance “should be left to the work itself [; …] interpretation […] serves only to unduly emphasize music which can be expressed simply” (ibid., 144). The main point Adorno uses for his dispute has to do with the objectivity of the musical score versus the subjectivity of the intention of the work in the first place – he stresses that the performer must concern him or herself with the original meaning behind the production of the work and that “devotion to the text means the constant effort to grasp that which it hides” (ibid., 144). He further describes what he considers to be a misreading of Bach’s music in which certain elements in the score as well as issues regarding performance practice are mistaken to be the actual content of the work; this historicist reading renders Bach’s music unchangeable and thus strips it of its historical context (its Zeitgeist) and the initial creative impulses that drove him to notate music in the first place. Adorno continues by blaming this approach towards Bach for inciting “a fanatical interest that no longer concerns even the work itself” (ibid., 142) but rather just specific details in the score (e.g. dynamics) and logistical issues of performance practice (e.g. historical instruments) that are irrelevant to the actual content that the work attempts to convey. He then summarizes his critique by claiming that devotion in the form of a performance of Bach’s work is best achieved by being “loyal to him in being disloyal,” by “call[ing] his music by name in producing it anew” (ibid., 144).
Adorno's critique inspires me because I believe that this way of conceiving Bach’s music is still common, that it also applies to Schumann and the classical music canon in general, and that it can limit the way classical music is generally practiced today. The issues that Adorno has pinpointed in “Bach Defended Against His Devotees” will therefore be addressed in this project, including: the way a certain understanding of the musical work-concept affects its performance practice; the role historicism has played in removing improvisation from public performance; and the strategies that one might use towards producing classical music “anew.” As with Bach, the general conception of Schumann today ignores the creative conditions in which his compositions were written by means of standardizations in performance practice that I consider synonymous with repetition, predictability, and sterilization. (The chapter On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century Music is dedicated to this subject and will discuss these standardizations in much more detail). With this project, I am, like in Adorno’s project in respect to Bach, trying to save Schumann from becoming a mere historical figure and I instead intend to show the topicality of his music for current classical musicians and audiences today. Playing Schumann Again for the First Time intends to circumvent the ontology of the musical work and to ignore the canonization of Schumann's oeuvre; it strives towards a multifaceted and experimental approach towards practice, the goal being the pursuit of more and more diverse results. Through improvisation, Schumann's legacy will find new space in a broader and more flexible musical practice.3
Will all of the musical results in this project sound like music that could have been written by Schumann? I need to emphasize that my artistic interests and professional engagements do not exclusively deal with his music, or even classical repertoire in general, and I have also spent time improvising outside the context of nineteenth-century music. I will provide one such example that I consider to be artistically successful, which was performed before having begun the work that is exposed in this project. This music has little or nothing to do with Schumann; rather, it happened in the context of performing USA-born pianist-improviser-composer Frederic Rzewski's War Song No. 10, composed in 2008.