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    HENDRIK BOUMAN

        ON IMPROVISATION in HISTORICAL STYLES:  A Rebuttal



read and play and sing the old musical texts, we will sing and play our own phrases.


Based on the same principles, I have dedicated myself to composing in the historical styles of the baroque and classical era. The natural integration of, and overlapping between playing and creating was so natural and essential to the music culture of the past, in ornamentation, improvisation, basso continuo and in the performance of one's compositions, that we should not refrain from any effort to take part in similar experiences. A revival of these skills will permit us to increasingly identify with the very praxis of the masters of the past. By composing in historical musical languages, we additionally gain, experientially, insights into the divergent choices made by various composers during the composition-process which form a valid complement to our musicological analysis.


Grychtolik's objection to stylistic improvisation and composition is that it remains by definition restricted to the imitation of its 'models'. In his words, the 'style copy' which one encounters both in composition and improvisation, would be at best, a copy of historical elements, void of any personal creativity. Grychtolik affirms irrevokably that  it is not possible to reconstruct the mentality of the past and the individual creative will power of a Handel, Corelli or Josquin.4 Does he not recall that in centuries past imitation was the only means by which knowledge and skills were transmitted?


What better way to understand the hand, the heart and the mind of the master than by observation and imitation? Imitation has never stood in the way of innovation, originality or evolution; it is not in opposition thereof, as any professor can testify. No composer develops his art in isolation: wasn't Bach eager to absorb the concerto art of Vivaldi in his keyboard trancriptions? Did not Telemann wrote his "Corellisierende Sonaten"? Did not Georg Muffat give hommage to his two masters Lully and Corelli, each representative of distinct national styles by composing respectively his collections "Florilegium" and "Armonico Tributo"? Why would Louis Couperin have named one of his unmeasured preludes "à l'imitation de M. Froberger". And did not Mozart write his 6 "Haydn quartets", after having studied in depth his friend Haydn's string quartets Opus 33?6


Imitation, seen in that light, need not lead to making an identical copy. Style is not a rigid entity, but a fluid medium. By imitating a style the product receives a recognisable quality. Stylistic improvisation or composition is the adhesion to the principles and characteristics of a style, a school, as in an art movement. The style is known and recognisable, but each product is new and unique. The improviser thinks and feels in the idioms which he has fully absorbed and assimilated - his fingers execute the cadential gestures which crowd the music of the period, the ornaments, the sequences; he leans on his appoggiaturas, dwells on suspended dissonances, he experiences the diversified interval tension, differentiates the density of the textures, applies rhythmic variety and includes challenging syncopations, modulates away from his home key, alternates minor and major, while respecting a constant time pulse, even during the most rapid passages. In short, his musical inventions consist of a vast variety of recognisable style components without ever being identical to any specific historical example.


How then does the stylistic improviser, or composer, abdicate his personal creativity, as Grychtolik would make us believe? Quite the contrary: firstly, the improvising musician does express his own ideas, albeit through a conventional musical language, and secondly, there is no reason to assume that in the actual playing process he exerts less artistic will than when interpreting historical repertoire. The challenge of stylistic improvisation and composition does not lie in the identification with the œuvre and genius of this or that historical composer, however instructive and inspiring those masters may be, but in the judicious maintaining of a delicate balance between the idiomatic and the idiosyncratic, between that what typifies a style and one's personal originality; "keeping in character" as it is called in the acting world. It is certain that this complex process can impossibly be accomplished without a good dose of creativity, intuition, persistence and artistic willpower.


In conclusion, I wish to point out one more common misconception, notably, that improvisation in historical styles is a preoccupation with finding the right notes, as if one was dealing with the reconstruction of an invisible score. This concern is deeply rooted in our notational tradition of Western music, and in a wider context in a materialistic view on reality: as if truth was only in the writing. Improvisation leaves this notational principle expressly aside, it connects the player via his play movements directly to the sound of the music. The principle aim of the stylistic improviser is that of an instantaneous and spontaneous capturing of a style in its entirety, with all its intrinsic playing manners, vocal and instrumental idioms, sonorities, colours and other "je-ne-sais-quoi's" which escape any precise notation or description. In our days we still can find multiple parallels of this 'beyond-the-notes' aspect in other musical traditions - from early 20th Century salon music to jazz, from classical Indian to South-American, each of them so utterly recognisable in their respective sound world. Without that style-determining characteristic 'extra', no improvisation will ever convince, regardless of its structural solidity or melodic/harmonic correctness.


What counts in the end, and what gives improvisation such a contemporary appeal, is the actual event, the capacity of the musician to obtain a plausible and attractive product on the spot. Even J.S.Bach, after having improvised the prototypes of the two Ricercari (Fugues) in Potsdam on a theme Frederic the Great had given him, admitted that he could still improve on his improvisations by taking them home and transforming them into the compositions which have come down to us as the Musical Offering. Yet, do we have any doubt that his extempore fugues were impressive in their own right?


The stylistic improviser, once engaged in this fascinating time voyage, becomes then a bard or storyteller, vehiculing his ideas and moods through musical languages of the past. Paraphrasing a prominent 20th Century serialist composer, I will conclude in saying: there remains still an infinity of Baroque music to be sounded that has not yet been improvised, nor written down.


©HENDRIK BOUMAN, 2014

                                      


1 "Historische Improvisation und stilistische Improvisation" in the Newsletter of the German Netzwerk für Historische Improvisation, No 2 - 2012


2 " Historische Improvisation ist demnach das improvisieren im eigenen Personalstil mit den Mitteln eines Zeitstils."


3 "Der Improvisator bestätigt lediglich reanimierte historische Werte."


4 "… die Realisation einer "perfekten" Stilimprovisation (…) ist letzendlich wohl unmöglich"


5 "Die Stilkopie, die in Komposition und Improvisation gleichmassen anzutreffen ist, wäre im Idealfalle nichts anderes als eine Kopie historischer Werte, sofern sich das historische Wertbewusstsein und das subjektieve Kunstwollen eines Händels, Corelli oder Josquin natürlich dokumentieren bzw. rekonstruieren liesse."


" To my dear friend Haydn,

A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best friend. Here they are then, O great man and dearest friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavour, yet the hope inspired by me by several friends that it may be a least partly compensated encourage me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last visit to this capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend. From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a father's eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend,


Your most sincere friend,

W.A.Mozart


[Mozart's published dedication page 1 Sept.1785 to his 6 'Haydn Sonatas']

I have read with interest and anticipation the article of Alexander Grychtolik, "Historical Improvisation and Stylistic Improvisation"1, because, in my specialisation, that of improvisation and composition in historical styles, I see myself frequently faced with dilemmas regarding a fitting terminology. Yet, the argument the author brings forward is unsatisfactory, not so much because of the fact that he makes a distinction between the two concepts, that of historical and stylistic improvisation, but rather because he attaches a value judgment to each of them that is inappropriate, the first being positive and recommendable, and the second essentially impossible and therefore to be evaded in all serious Early Music practice.


I feel that I have to speak up for the second category because my main occupation is precisely with this 'forbidden' genre. Also, it strikes me as paradoxical for a promotor of improvisation in early music practice - Alexander Grychtolik, co-editor of the Newsletter of the German Netzwerk Historische Improvisation - to ban a practice which has been proven unequivocally to be inherent to the historical music culture with which Early Music occupies itself.


I assume that this negative evaluation is based on an all too common prejudice, and I wish hereby to clarify the issue on the basis of my own experience. The reader may bear in mind that as a keyboard player I approach improvisation principally through the keyboard medium, which is not to deny the validity of this practice on non-keyboard instruments. Let me begin for a better understanding, by resuming Grychtolik's definitions of historical and stylistic improvisation.


Grychtolik defines historical improvisation as today's activity of 'filling in the holes' in a historical piece of music. It takes the score as a skeleton, a framework which, according to historical evidence, needed and still needs a personalised completion by the performer. The composer from the past, writing primarily for his fellowmen who shared a common music culture could count on an appropriate understanding of the underlying invisibles in the interpretation of his scores. According to Grychtolik this kind of improvisatory completion has therefore its rightful place within today's historically informed performance practice of Early Music.


He elaborates by saying that in adding his improvisation, the modern performer blends his

artistic will and expression with truly historical musical elements; his improvisation is a creative act that "actualises historical values". Historical improvisation is therefore a form of improvisation which uses elements of a period style in a personalised manner.1


Stylistic improvisation, on the contrary, is in Grychtolik's definition an impromptu invention of an entirely new piece of music in historical style, not based on any concrete historical substance, such as an existing score, or even a fragment thereof. According to Grychtolik, stylistic improvisation thus lacking any tangible historical matter, remains only an imitation of a historical style and its elements. Moreover, the modern player in such free improvisation, hampered by his limited understanding, can only revalidate historical elements, his musical product consist purely of revived historical bits and pieces. Grychtolik concludes therefore that this activity can not possibly be part of historically informed music making, because the style is copied, borrowed, void of any artistic value. Stylistic improvisation falls in the same dubious category as art fake, forgery.2


It is most curious that Grychtolik conceptionalises these two types of improvisation as being so radically different, although he himself indicates that an application of historical style elements takes place in both cases. In one case historical style elements are creatively revived, whereas in the other the same elements are mechanically reproduced. Can then the capacity of the modern player for understanding stylistic elements and its ramifications, not to speak of his good judgment, alter so drastically when he improvises "stylistically" as opposed to improvising "historically"? 


I suppose the answer to this riddle lies in the fact that Grychtolik's judgment is not so much about the spontaneous application of historical style elements itself, as it is about its field of application, notably the explicit presence, or absence, of the (sacrosanct) historical score.


In my view however, both improvisation types, historical or stylistic, with or without score, may produce practical results that may range in quality from desastrous to ingenious: a historical score by itself does not enhance or endorse automatically the quality of an improvisation. If it is acceptable to Grychtolik, and even laudable, that a contemporary player blends his improvising creativity with historical style elements in the context of a given score, or score fragment, then there is no logical reason why this man, or woman, cannot apply that same improvising creativity by expressing him or herself through a truly historical music language in a newly invented Chaconne for instance, an Italian Toccata, a German Prelude and Fugue, or a traditional form principle such as a French dance Suite.


Grychtolik argues that in attempting to achieve a perfect 'product' of stylistic improvisation, the musician will always find himself in an insolvable dilemma - at best, he is a copy-cat, a clever imitator without artistic will, or if the musician uses any form of creativity or self-expression, he inevitably steps out of line, because the totality of values characterising a specific period style can no longer be mastered, because of the unbridgeable time-gap. Grychtolik affirms that "a perfect stylistic improvisation is in the end impossible".3


With such rigid logic one could fight any plausible performance of music from the past; if the problem of our modern mentality is that of an incompatibilty with that of the past, and therefore an inability to absorb and embrace fully the stylistic and cultural values of a distant period, not only would it apply to the practice of stylistic improvisation (and composition) but also to any interpretation of a historical score. With that attitude we can remove all Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Berlioz from our classical music programmes, and classical musicians should exclusively focus on the performance of contemporary works.


Happily, musicians do not have to be scientists, and unlike sculpture and painting, old music scores can never be enjoyed, appreciated, be realised in music, without their artistic mediation. Therefore, our present day revival of Early Music will always bear an inevitable contemporary stamp. The métier of the present day musician is and remains a contemporary skill, regardless of his historical orientation or purist intentions. But, in my view, this represents precisely the fertile tension field in which we musicians work, our constant artistic challenge. Has historical relativism prevented any Early Music singer from lending his or her (contemporary) voice to the interpretation of early repertoire?


If, however, Grychtolik's concern is not the principle, but the practical reality that musicians might do an embarrassing bad job with entirely new extempores, I urge him to lend today's pioneers the benefit of the doubt;  evolution is possible only by making a beginning. Had not the actual Early Music movement started with visionary and courageous forerunners whose work was full of blatant imperfections (I recall some old iconic recordings), and look whereto it has led!


The one constant in the Early Music movement has been its aim to meet the music of the past on its own terms. In that light, there are still worlds to be explored and skills to be mastered, and with the abundant historical evidence of ex-tempore improvisation (see: contemporary witness reports on Sweelinck, Frescobaldi, Froberger, Reincken, Buxtehude, Handel, Scarlatti, J.S.Bach, W.F.Bach, C.P.E.Bach, Mozart etc.), a ban on the revival of such activity as Grychtolik proposes, seems to my mind arbitrary and unjustified.


The essence of free improvisation in historical styles, which is also referred to as extempore

improvisation and which Grychtolik coins as stylistic improvisation, is indeed the 'historical' playing practice by itself, free from a literal text. The practice, 'the doing thereof’, comparable to traditional crafts and restoration techniques, also forms part of our historical heritage. Early music thereby is experienced more like a language than a tangible canon of extant repertoire - scores, treatises, witness reports and period instruments, all serve as a window to that wider reality. Having learned to