In my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, we’ve been looking at how classical music was in the past. Why? Because it was looser, more flexible, with the audience applauding during the music, and musicians improvising.
This can inspire us today. Not that everything from the past needs to come back, but studying the past can free us from preconceptions about classical music now. Nothing about our present tradition is written in stone. Things were very different when many of the great composers lived!
One discussion that we had showed the difference between the past and the present. First, about preluding. Pianists in the 19th century improvised preludes to pieces that they played, or else transitions from one piece to another.
Some did it even in the 20th century. There’s a lovely example from as late as 1969, when the great German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus improvised a prelude to a Schumann piece at what turned out to be the last recital he ever gave.
Here’s a recording, which my students listened to. You hear an announcer say (in German) that Backhaus isn’t feeling well, and will therefore not play the final piece on the program, Beethoven’s Op. 111 sonata. Instead he’ll play a Schumann piece.
So here’s the question. Does improvising this prelude enhance the piece, or detract from it?
Is it something added to a composer’s work, perhaps illegitimately? Or does it provide a lovely setting for the piece, the way a ring can be a lovely setting for a jewel?
I’d say the latter. And also that the preldue prepares the audiaence to listen, giving them time to take a breath or two before the composer’s music starts, which then helps them pay attention more closely.
One thing I’m certain of, though. We don’t need rules. We don’t all have to do the same thing. Inspired by the past, and also by the culture outside classical music, maybe some classical musicians will want to improvise preludes. While others won’t want to, preferring to play only what the composer wrote.
Both approaches, it seems to be, are legitimate. The first comes straight from classical music history. And the second comes from our more recent tradition, which has been with us for many decades, and is entirely honorable.
An important word for the future is freedom. Classical musicians should feel free to do music the way they want to do it, drawing on history, tradition, the wider culture, and their own instincts.
Of course some approaches will prove better than others — and some may be downright awful — but we shouldn’t prejudge. Freedom can only make us more individual, more communicative, and more deeply artistic.
To see some of what I taught about classical music in the past, go here to see the class schedule, and scroll to February 10 and February 17. You’ll see reading assignments, including a letter Mozart wrote, explaining how he structured a symphony to make the audience applaud (during the music).
You’ll also find links to some wonderfully personal (or so I think) performances from the first half of the last century. They charmed my students, who were fascinatede to see how great musicians of the past broke the rules for performance taught in music schools today.
Michael Robinson says
This is a beautifully conceived premise that touches upon the nature of classical music conceptions. Key to relatively recent classical music has been the influence of Indian raga forms upon the movement termed Minimalism, which largely adopted the modal tonality and rhythmic ostinati proclivities of Hindustani music almost exclusively. My personal preference has been to go beyond such beginnings, tapping into actual melodic and rhythmic through-composed development as opposed to relying solely upon repeated patterns. Thus, tamboura drones and percussion ostinati provide a setting for melodic and rhythmic elaboration deeply touched also by the expositional nature of modern jazz, which was also transformed by Hindustani music influences in the sixties, of course. Rain-Mist speaks for what I’m writing about here, combining perhaps the most ubiquitous instrument of classical music, the acoustic piano, with South Asian percussion timbres and elements of the dance music of our time too. https://youtu.be/vHVl4PXu-p0
John Borstlap says
There exists something like ‘Werktreue’: the loyalty to the work. Compositions of classical music are written as a whole, with a beginning, a mdidle and an end. Some freewheeling by the performer before and between works is like the scribbling of grafitti by visitors of a museum, next to the canvas, on the wall. The reason why this ‘preluding’ got out of fashion, is that it was not really professional, and yes, of course it detracts from the works.
To break through the ‘stiffness’ of the concert ritual, a much better way of creating a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere is someone who talks about the works, and if this does not belong to the talents of the performer(s), someone should be appointed to do this. It greatly contributes to the bonding between audiences and performers, and also stimulates committment of audiences to the venue.
Christopher Brooks says
I think one of the problems with classical music (I am a classical violinist) is the idea that the works somehow require explanation. There will be an exam, and you need to remember the birthdate of the composer (dead of course) who wrote it. This distracts from the vital function of the audience: to listen!
All music, including the most worked out, started out in some way as improvisation. Improvisation can be a means to create profound, and sometimes large-scale works. Listen to Keith Jarrett’s Vienna Concert for an example.
Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime) says
I agree that “loyalty to the work” can be a wonderful experience: we choose to let the work stand on its own merits, without embellishment and to the best of our performance and interpretive abilities, to maximize the potential of that work.
HOWEVER, there are other ways to maximize that potential, and we as a planet would be the poorer for not exploring alternative ways of presentation. Especially with works in the public domain, that supposedly belong to the whole world that we should be able to take the written notes and let it inspire more contrast, self-expression, non-musical values, and of course more music. Best of all, such derivative performances don’t have to REPLACE the generic tradition: they just have to be clearly labeled as “enhanced” or something so you won’t be misled. There are MANY ways to be excellent.
Elaine Mack says
I love improvisation, and would love to hear it done routinely in the concert hall, that is, if today’s artists even know how to do it. Concert organists routinely improvise during church services, and in a recital setting the improvisation is often the best part of the program. I once heard a recital by great French organist Olivier Latry in which he improvised on themes suggested by the audience on the spot. It was brilliant, and lots of fun to hear. Virtually any kind of improvisation enhances any program, but are concert organizers willing to leave room for it within a program? I would love to see a printed program with a listing of works before the intermission, then after the intermission, an announcement of improvisations by the artist. I would be intrigued enough to go to that concert, just to hear the improvisations! I could be wrong, but I suspect that few artist these days have the ability to do that.
Christopher Brooks says
I have been focusing on improvisation, from a classical perspective, for the last decade (I am a violinist), recently working with a group called project improv. We work by improvising at rehearsal, recording, then listening to what we have done. I post the work on soundcloud, and we listen. The concept is to work from intuition, and deepen that intuition by repeated, focused, listening.
Occasionally we will work from a prompt (all harmonics, timed for 3 minutes, impression of snow, etc.). Recently we gave a concert (in my living room) with violin, piano, french horn . We brought the audience into the process by discussing what we were going to do and even asking for suggestions. It was intimate, and we kept it short: an hour total.
Improvisation is artistically risky, but can offer serendipitous moments of real depth and beauty. It is the job of the audience to catch these fleeting moments on the fly.
I would be happy to share the soundcloud recordings with anyone interested.
Kery Felske says
Unfortunately so often we get stuck in a dispute about “Werktreue” and improvisation concerning “the right way”. And mostly we forget about the music itself over the discussion. “Werktreue” for sure has its unshakable quality in context of history and what is written in the score. And it´s wonderful to listen to a close interpretation adoring the composer and the idea of the work. I even expect this when the programme promises a conservative classical performance. But what is the problem to decide for an experimental approach as well? “Werktreue” has just as mentioned and existence, independent from any other way. It does not dissolve just because experimental musicians go for playing variations on the idea of the original. As I said the “Werk” keeps itself as it is ,unshakable, if interpretations are “treu” or not. What exactly is the problem? I also think that the analysis of motives which happens during improvisations can bring a deeper understanding of the original and can improve the closeness to the original as well. Maybe we consider this as a humble suggestion.