Improvisation in 19th-century music
Which role did improvisation play in 19th-century music making?
The average modern classical musician, the performer of music from the common practice era, tends to perform from scores only, and to treat a score like a text that should be converted into sound as precisely as possible. This is usually a one way process: without a score there will be no music. As a result of this attitude the musical languages of the common practice period have become dead languages, more or less like Latin and Ancient Greek, which are (with very few exceptions) no longer spoken actively but only translated into modern languages. More and more musicians become aware of the artistic limitations of this approach. In order to become, like musicians from the past, creative performers who are able to enter into a living relationship with the music, learning how to improvise seems to be a valuable means.
Improvisation by classical musicians is often referred to as ‘classical improvisation’ or ‘improvisation in a classical style’. These terms are not without problems, though. I would like to propose the notion of ‘historically inspired improvisation’ instead, indicating improvisation which uses thorough knowledge about music making in the past as a source of inspiration. ‘H.I.I.’ doesn’t necessarily aim for style imitations; rather, it works the other way around: integrating what we can use from historical music practices into our own creative music making. In this way, improvisation has the potential to fertilize all our ‘musicking’ (Chr. Small) – even when we play from scores.
In this project, the approach is threefold: 1. by searching for examples of reported situations of 19th-century improvisation; 2. by imitating such improvisations: Historically Inspired Improvisation; 3. by having a fresh look at 19th-century scores on basis of the experiences gained from steps 1 and 2. The three steps show a constant interplay. A special area of interest is in the relation between interpretation and improvisation, with important consequences for the field of music analysis.