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Saturday morning quotes 7.3: Improv

April 7, 2018
chinese lute

Improvising on the lute

“…[T]he modern reconstructionist movement has produced many scrupulous realizers of musical notation but has yet to produce a single genuine master of improvisation, which we all know to be nine-tenths of the Renaissance and Baroque musical icebergs.”

– Richard Taruskin, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself: Some Reflections on Musicology and Performance”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), p. 347.

Today’s post revisits the topic of improvisation, an important theme we have touched upon in the past, plunging headlong into the discussion with a contextual quotation extracted from last week’s post.

If, as Taruskin writes, improvisation really was 9/10ths of music that would have been played and heard from 1500-1800, by merely reproducing the notes found in surviving scores most interpreters of early music are missing 90-percent of the point.  And if we read the many surviving early treatises on composition, we learn that composing was as natural as breathing to the educated musician, a small and elite group of professionals.

“Most singers, composers, and players were professionals, and amateur musicians were extremely rare…Musical notation was an arcane art, not to be revealed to all comers; musicians were reluctant, too, to tell all they knew, for the obvious and perhaps sordidly commercial reasons that their livelihood depended on their specialized knowledge and skill.”

– Thurston Dart, from the Foreword of Thomas Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music. 2nd Ed. (Norton Library). W.W. Norton: n.p., 1973, modern edition edited by Alec Harmon.

Today, many are educated in the skill of reading music, and interpreting early notation is now taught at a growing number of conservatories.  But the art of composing and improvising, particularly in the realm of sixteenth-century counterpoint, is not a skill most musicians possess, even early music specialists.  It is likely that the prevailing reason for this gap in knowledge is the misguided concept of a time-oriented linear progression in sophistication of the art of music that the intervening centuries have introduced, a conceptual travesty that is still taught to music students.  But a comparison may be drawn by looking back at the visual art of Michaelangelo and drawing a line to the art of Jackson Pollack, judging whether art has made a linear progression of sophistication.

We read about 17th-18th century figures like Nicola Matteis, Archangelo Corelli, and right up to C.P.E. Bach as masters of improvisation.  Silvius Leopold Weiss was said to have developed the skill of improvisation on the lute, and was described by Johann Friedrich Reichardt as approaching the level of skill of J. S. Bach in improvising fantasias and fugues—on the lute instead of Bach’s keyboard. Even in the 19th century, improvisation was basis for the music of keyboardists like Lizst and Chopin, who possessed the sprezzatura necessary to evoke a transporting divine frenzy in their listeners.

Perhaps today’s standard of virtuoso technique necessary for interpreting the composed music of past masters is responsible for the decline of improvisation.  Spending endless hours playing rapid passages may develop a deftness in the finger’s ends, but certainly will not develop one’s grasp of counterpoint.

We expand on the theme of improvisation in part II next week.

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