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 placethen, 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a work from the standard repertoire.2 These examples will be exposed, evaluated, and presented here in relation to the historical documents that have inspired me alongside the music-making of other, currently active improvising pianists in order to contextualize my work.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 Zeitgeistand 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 musicI 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.

This page displayed here on the right (Schumann Tagebücher Vol. 1, 411), from Robert Schumann's journal outlining events from the 30th of April until the 3rd of May 1828, includes two items that expose his enthusiasm for improvisation:

- Schwankung am Clavier -
[- undulation at the piano -]


- Phantasie am Pianoforte -

[- fantasy at the pianoforte -]


As part of my own musical practice, I also enthusiastically improvise at the piano. Here is a brief example recorded in June 2015:

The confidence I felt while extemporizing in the context of Rzewski was significantly more present than while improvising in the context of Schumann. Whereas I felt able to find flow and develop music over the course of three to four minutes during the performance of Rzewski’s composition, there were moments in the context of Schumann’s Humoreske where I was unable to find the material I wanted to hear. A moment like [2:222:37] in the Schumann improvisation, for example, exposes how I am looking for the next material but cannot find it. And a moment like [3:003:05] contains harmonic material that I would have rejected in the compositional process had this music been thought out in musical notation instead of in the moment of performance. One could describe the language I am using in Rzewski's War Song No. 10 as one that I have "spoken" for a long time and in which I feel more or less fluent. The ambition to improve my improvising skills within the standard repertoire is thus to not only recite the great texts of the masters (often referred to as “realizing a precomposed musical work in performance” in this project), but “to speak their language.” Just as I have learned to speak the German language to a more or less functional degree of fluency, I hereby strive to "speak" Biedermeier Schumann at the piano.4 So will I have an accent? Will it be possible to extinguish or hide that accent completely? Or is it better to acknowledge that accents or dialects are in fact inevitable? Does it really sound like Schumann when I improvise? Speculative and concrete answers to these questions are found in the chapter On Sonic Signature where I will present this concept as a way of describing how music bears certain audible qualities that reflect the individual approach of a specific musical practitioner.

With this example I intend to show that I am in no way approaching Schumann within a musical vacuum, oblivious of other music and practices; I perform, compose, and improvise in multiple stylistic directions. To immediately provide a comparison, here is an example of an improvisation in the context of Schumann's piano music performed just a few months later, also before having embarked on this artistic research project.

Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938)  War Songs No. 10 (2008): The excerpt of this performance that departs from the score begins at circa [1:20] and ends at circa [4:27].

A cadenza performed during Schumann's Humoreske, Op. 20: The excerpt of this performance that departs from the score begins at circa [0:48] and ends at circa [5:25], and this music can also be heard here.

There are four general categories of musical results that can be found in the main chapter of Playing Schumann Again for the First Time, entitled On My Improvisation Methods. The initial category could be described as experiments I have undertaken using materials from Schumann's compositions and sketchbooks, where the sounding music remains relatively closely related to Schumann's work. The next category maintains more distance from any source material such as a score or sketch; there may be vague references to Schumann’s works, but the music generally departs from any specific material and in many cases there is no explicit reference to any kind of source material at all (Schumann or otherwise). My own compositions, notated and realized in performance, make up the third category; and there is one example of the fourth and final category, namely a performance of one of Schumann's compositions.

"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)

from a letter from Robert to Clara Schumann, written from Vienna on December 3rd, 1838

Wie lang u. wie uebervoll fantasirt ich gestern. Ein kleiner Stillstand macht Einen erst auf die vorhergehenden Fortschritte aufmerksam u. man staunt über die Stelle, an die man gekommen ist. In die Intermezzi mußt' ich mich förmlich wieder einspielen, ehe ich sie geistig wieder auffaßte!


How extensively and generously I improvised yesterday. During a brief pause I first became aware of the musical developments made until now, and how impressive to witness where I have arrived. I had to ceremoniously warm back up in the Intermezzi before I could grasp their content again!


Schumann wrote this in his diary on September 4th, 1832 (Tagebücher Vol. 1, 411; my translation).



Wenn ich an die Kindheit od. d. Jahr 1826 denke, so komme ich in A moll Tonarten u. ähnliche; wenn ich an den lezten September denken, so lößt es sich wie von selbst in harten Mißtönen auf pp. pp. Was einem gerade einfällt, sucht man mit den Tönen auszudrüken. Jeden Ton hat aber schon das Herz auf ihren Tasten gefühlt, wie die Tasten am Clavier erst berührt werden müßen, ehe sie klingen. In den Minuten, wo man an nichts oder Geringes denkt, wird auch die Fantasie matter u. das Spiel fader; wenn man an die Musik selbst denkt, so kommen leicht contrapunctische Sätze u. Fugen hervor.

When I think of my childhood or the year 1826 I fall upon A-minor tonalities etc.; when I think of last September harsh dissonances in pp. pp. are automatically unleashed. Whatever thoughts come in the moment will seek expression in tones. The heart has already felt each tone on its keys, just as the keys on the piano must first be touched before they sound. In the moments when one thinks of nothing or of trivial things, the fantasy becomes flatter and the playing paler; when one thinks of music itself, contrapuntal phrases and fugues come forth easily.


Schumann wrote this in his diary in August of 1828 (Tagebücher Vol. 1, 112; translation: Dana Gooley).


Aside from this one example, Rzewski’s compositions will be absent in this projectHowever, in the chapter Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing I will reflect on his contributions to the discussion of what is happening while improvising, as well as on his improvisations in “classical style” (in particular the extemporized cadenzas in Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106).

Verlieh dir der Himmel eine rege Phantasie, so wirst du in einsamen Stunden wohl oft wie festgebannt am Flügel sitzen, in Harmonieen dein Inneres aussprechen wollen, und um so geheimnißvoller wirst du dich wie in magische Kreise gezogen fühlen, je unklarer dir vielleicht das Harmonieenreich noch ist. Der Jugend glücklichste Stunden sind diese. Hüte dich indessen, dich zu oft einem Talent hinzugeben, das Kraft und Zeit gleichsam an Schattenbilder zu verschwenden dich verleitet. Die Beherrschung der Form, die Kraft klarer Gestaltung gewinnst du nur durch das feste Zeichen der Schrift. Schreibe also mehr, als du phantasirst.

If Heaven has bestowed on you a fine imagination, you will often be seated at your piano in solitary hours, as if attached to it; you will desire to express the feelings of your heart in harmony, and the more clouded the sphere of harmony may perhaps be to you, the more mysteriously you will feel as if drawn into magic circles. In youth these may be your happiest hours. Beware, however, of abandoning yourself too often to the influence of a talent that induces you to lavish powers and time, as it were, upon phantoms. Mastery over the forms of composition and a clear expression of your ideas can only be attained by constant writing. Write, therefore, more than you improvise.  


(from Schumann's Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln - translated as Advice to Young Musicians - published in Schumann's own Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Bd. XXXII, Nr. 36 on May 3rd, 1850; translation: Henry Hugo Pierson)

"[...] Nach der gemeinschaftlichen Unterhaltung folgten dann in der Regel von seiner Seite freie Phantasien auf dem Klaviere, in denen er alle Geister entfesselte.  Ich gestehe, dass dieses unmittelbaren musikalischen Ergüsse Schumanns mir immer einen Genuß gewährt haben, wie ich ihn später, so große Künstler ich auch hörte, nie wieder gehabt.  Die Ideen strömten ihm zu in einer Fülle, die sich nie erschöpfte.  Aus einem Gedanken, den er in allen Gestalten erscheinen ließ, quoll und sprudelte alles andere wie von selbst hervor und hindurch zog sich der eigentümliche Geist in seiner Tiefe und mit allem Zauber der Poesie, zugleich schon mit den deutlich erkennbaren Grundzügen seines musikalischen Wesens, sowohl nach der Seite der energischen urkräftigen, als auch der duftig zarten, sinnend träumerischen Gedanken" (quoted in Eismann 1956, 55)

Theodor Töpfken's written reminiscence of Schumann improvising at the piano in Heidelberg - "Schumann's local fame as a gentleman amateur of some accomplishment continued during a year and four months in Heidelberg (late May 1829 through late September 1830) - he was welcomed into the homes of music loving amateurs, accompanied Lieder, played piano solo (often improvisatory), four-hands [with Töpfken], and chamber music" (MacDonald 2002, 531).

To extend the skydiving analogy, here is footage of a jump of mine combined with what I consider to be one of the most successful extemporizations exposed in this project. This music can also be heard in the subchapter Lieder ohne Worte in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods.

To return to the issue of what roles Schumann and I are playing here, consider the idea that Schumann's musical tongue  a kind of Biedermeier melange heavily influenced by German folk music, the Viennese classical tradition, Germanic church music embodied by someone like Johann Sebastian Bach, etc.  can never become my native language.5 But finding a way to build sentences in Schumann's language using grammatical structures that resemble those that he himself used is one method to learn to speak his Biedermeier musical languageHowever, in order to really converse one must slowly be able to develop the usage of a language without a script. The transition through the four categories of musical examples exposethe process of increasing the space where improvisation can take place  gathering the right equipment and then jumping out of the airplane!

Chapter overview


The chapter On Improvisation in the Nineteenth Century presents a general overview of improvisation in the first half of the nineteenth century by tracing the practices of Austro-Germanic performer-improviser-composers from Bach to Schumann; 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 by discussing how improvisation was taught. Finally, the decline of improvisation that took place around the middle of the nineteenth-century will be addressed.


The chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis explains how the feedback loop between these two concepts guides improvisation in performance. A comparison will also be drawn between the mimetic and morphosic qualities of the musical work and current classical music performance practice in order to pinpoint how mimesis and morphosis function differently in my musical improvisations.


In the chapter On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century Music, the critique of classical music performance practice today that I have voiced here in the Introduction will be clarified and elaborated: performances of classical music maintain a general inability (or unwillingness) to depart from the musical score. However, this chapter will also address the increasing number of exceptions to this generalization, and an argument will be presented as to how improvisation can be a logical and strategic tool for adding new ideas and perspectives to current standards in performance practice. The question of why improvisation is important for contemporary classical music performance will then be answered in these three additional ways: the inclusion of improvisation in one's own music reflects the way music was made in the early nineteenth century when the repertoire in question was created, improvisation engages performers and audiences in different ways, and it develops a newly embedded knowledge in the improviser that expands his or her ability to engage with the repertoire.


In the chapter On Scales of Improvisation, the various degrees to which improvisation is inherent in music-making will be discussed in detail, drawing the picture of a continuum of musical activities ranging from those that don't involve very much improvisation to others that are very improvisatory in nature. This discussion is organized around a list of degrees of improvisatory activities presented in Bruce Ellis Benson's The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue (2003), and the examples he provides will be analyzed and contextualized using music by me as well as others. The goal of this chapter is to dispel the myth that improvisation is something created on the spur of the moment and to depict it rather as happening within a continuum of reworking and recontextualizing.


The core of this research project, On My Improvisation Methods, presents over 50 musical examplesmany of them exposing strategies I have learned from performer-improviser-composer Rudolf Lutz (Schola Cantorum Basiliensis). Reflections on the music in this chapter often relate to historical texts (like Czerny's Systematische Anleitung zum Fantasieren auf dem Pianoforte, Op. 200), and the four general categories of musical results described earlier can all be found here.


In the chapter On Sonic Signature, the roles that Schumann and I play in this project will be discussed in more detail by presenting the concept of sonic signature as a way of describing how music bears certain audible qualities that reflect the individual approach of a specific musical practitioner. The idea of a sonic signature will be compared to Peter Kivy's notion of "personal authenticity," whereby the pursuit and presence of one's own sonic signature ultimately determines which relation towards the past and the present certain music-making conveys.


In the final chapterentitled Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing, the viewpoints of two prominent pianist-improviser-composers, Frederic Rzewski and Robert Levin, as to what is happening during improvisation will be analyzed to present a continuum that exists between the listening, forgetting, and conceptualizing that happen while improvisingImprovisation in performance will be described as an activity that involves listening to what has just been played, forgetting knowledge that one has accumulated through practice except for that which is necessary in the current musical moment, and conceptualizing the constraints that always determine the field of possibilities of any improvisation. 


In the Conclusion, the knowledge gained from this project will be described as lying within the realm of improvisation as practice, a category of improvisational behavior that circumvents the need for practice to be presented as art and that it can rather be intended for the development of one’s own music-making.






On Improvisation in the Nineteenth Century 


On Mimesis and Morphosis


On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century Music


On Scales of Improvisation


On My Improvisation Methods


On Sonic Signature


Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing



Bibliography and Acknowledgements

According to pianist and musicologist Dana Gooley:


Any attempt to reconstruct Schumann's improvisational practice is essentially provisional due to the obvious shortage and uncertainty of documentation. […] Yet a consideration of Schumann's improvisations offers an opportunity to consider what attitudes and thought processes extemporaneous playing might have stimulated in Schumann as pianist and composer, and what influence his improvisations may have left in his works. (Gooley 2011, 130)


It is indeed impossible to recreate Schumann's improvisational practice, but I find the idea of provisionally constructing an improvisational practice through his scores a necessary step in order to continue to engage with his repertoire in a meaningful way. Engaging with Schumann in this manner has not only allowed me to learn to improvise more convincingly within the context of the nineteenth-century piano repertoire, but I have in turn become a composer myself and have ultimately gained a new perspective that has had an audible impact on my performances of his piano works. The contemporary classical music community at large can benefit from this perspective as well, not only because the inclusion of improvisation in one's own music reflects the way music was made in the early nineteenth century when the repertoire in question was created: improvisation engages performers and audiences in different ways, it develops newfound knowledge that expands the improviser's ability to engage with the repertoire, and is therefore a logical and strategic tool for adding new ideas and perspectives to current standards in performance practice.

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