Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

An Improvisatory Approach to Nineteenth-Century Music

In the field of Western art music, improvisation has become a much discussed topic. In this interdisciplinary study I argue that in this context, improvisation is not to be seen as a quasi-autonomous skill or art form, but as an aspect of music-making in general.

Thus ‘the improvisatory’ (considered here as the quality of the unforeseen, the unpremeditated) potentially pervades many aspects of music; it can be detected in score-based music-making as well. On the other hand, even ‘historically inspired’ or idiomatic improvisation is never fully independent of already existing compositions.

In my study I offer a ‘panorama’ of nineteenth-century styles and situations of music-making that together sketch a picture of improvisatory aspects of nineteenth-century music. Music was generally experienced as a wordless language, and I argue that making music was understood as a rhetorical act: performers strove for musical persuasion.

Two ideas from classical rhetoric have a central role in this dissertation, both on a theoretical and a practical level. The first one is the principle of varietas (variety), which invited musicians to an improvisatory approach to scores. In my study, I focus on two nineteenth-century phenomena from score-based music-making that show such a search for variety: extemporised ornamentation in bel canto, and improvisatory timing. The second idea is that just like a speech, tonal music is based on loci communes (commonplaces). This principle forms the common thread through my discussions of ‘historically inspired’ or idiomatic improvisation.

This study focuses on the performer: it explores how performers in the nineteenth century might have thought during the real-time act of music-making, and how performers today might learn to use musical languages from the past actively again. For this last aspect, the area of music theory is relevant; I conclude my dissertation with a discussion of how traditional music theory is challenged by improvisatory music-making.


Prof. dr. Marcel Cobussen (Leiden University)

Prof. dr. Hans Fidom (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)


Dr. Michiel Schuijer (Amsterdam University of the Arts/Conservatorium van Amsterdam

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