In the old days — which I used to think meant the 18th and 19th centuries — pianists used to improvise introductions to pieces they played. This was called “preluding,” and gave rise to the short, freeform pieces we call “preludes” (like Chopin’s), which were written-out versions of the kind of music pianists might improvise.
But now I’ve learned that pianists preluded well into the 20th century. And that there are recorded examples, from old-time like Josef Hoffman and Wilhelm Backhaus! I guess I’m late in learning this, because many people seem to know about it — go http://www.pianophilia.com/forum/index.php?t=msg&th=1551&start=0&S=6c1d296c95162a8ee0fa527d295164d6 here, for instance. But still this is exactly the kind of thing that’s been forgotten in the classical music world today, since we’ve all been taught to believe we should play only what composers wrote. It’s heresy to add something of your own, like an improvised introduction.
And yet http://www.gregsandow.com/BackhausPreludeSchumann.m3u here’s a lovely example of Backhaus doing it, in a live performance as late as 1954. First you’ll hear an announcement, in German, saying that Backhaus is ill, and will end with concert with a short Schumann piece, instead of a Beethoven sonata. There’s a splatter of applause, and then Backhaus starts to improvise, leading into the Schumann, which grows easily out of the improvisation. It’s as if Backhaus had cleared his palate with a sip of water, before starting on a new course at a meal. Nothing could be more engaging. I’d even say that the Schumann sounds more welcome and more personal — and certainly more striking — than it would it if stood on its own.
Backhaus plays it beautifully, too. http://www.gregsandow.com/BackhausPreludeSchumann.m3u Listen for yourself, and see what happens when classical musicians take ownership both of the music they play, and of their performances.
(Many thanks to Anders Vinge, who’s been studying improvisation in classical music, and sent me the Backhaus performance, along with four by Josef Hoffman. It’s from a Carnegie Hall recital, recorded live, and currently available, or so I’ve read, on a Decca release in Japan. For preluding in the 18th and 19th centuries, see Valerie Woodring Goertzen,
“By Way of Introduction: Preluding by 18th- and Early 19th-Century Pianists.” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Summer, 1996), pp. 299-337.)