The Art of Musical Improvisation
NOT long ago, a famous Belgian pianist sat down at a concert grand piano in Guatemala City’s National Conservatory of Music. He was about to present the second half of his scheduled recital before a large audience. Rather than beginning with some recognizable selection from a standard repertoire, however, he invited those assembled to give him any group of five or six different tones, or less. Certain ones were asked to say in whose style they wished to hear him play the notes. Did they prefer that of Beethoven, Chopin or Debussy? And, in what tempo? How about a waltz? A march? Or, a minuet? The pianist responded by creating excellent impromptu music in the styles requested. It was obvious that he was a master of musical improvisation.
This art of extempore composition is not the exclusive possession of any single nation, people or tribe. Instead, mankind as a whole has enjoyed it through the centuries. In fact, the music of India and southeast Asia nearly always is improvisatory. It is “the creation of the performing musician in that moment and almost never the interpretive rendering of another’s recorded composition,” says Faubion Bowers in his book Theatre in the East. This music is different from that common in the West, for it is without harmony. The emphasis is on the melodic line and the ways it may be ornamented. Then, too, there is the highly rhythmic music of Africa, with its very complicated counterrhythms. Just listen. The element of improvisation unmistakably is present.
In Europe, especially during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, musical improvisation was highly developed in the hands of master composers. Take Beethoven as an example. Says the Oxford Companion to Music: “With paper before him he was one of the slowest and most laborious composers who ever lived, but with his fingers on the instrument he dashed away. His pupil Czerny says of him: ‘His improvisations were most beautiful and striking.’”
It is said that Handel “wrote as one speaks, he composed as one breathes. He never sketched out on paper in order to prepare his definite work. He wrote straight off as he improvised . . . He wrote his music with such impetuosity of feeling and such a wealth of ideas that his hand was constantly lagging behind his thoughts, and in order to keep apace with them at all he had to note them down in an abbreviated manner.” (Romain Rolland, in Essays on Music) Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Chopin also were among the ranks of composers having extraordinary improvisatory abilities.
The Elements of Music
Contributing greatly to the polished improvisations of these master musicians were the main musical elements. These appear to be six in number, that is, imagination, melody, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint and form. How do these features blend to round out an improvisation? To find out, suppose we enter the mind of an imaginary gifted musician. Let us say that he is about to improvise something special on the piano.
Imagination comes first. He decides to thumb through the pages of the Book of Creation. Ah! There it is! The tranquillity of a woodland scene. Colorful birds in flight, a murmuring brook, majestic trees—they are all there. Next comes element two—the melodic idea. Can you hear the tune? This little melody may be only two measures long, but it best describes what our musician envisions—and it may well transport us to that calm and peaceful forest.
But the music must have rhythm—element three. An underlying pulse of three beats to each measure seems appropriate in this first section of the music. The continuous, unchanging pulse of one-two-three, one-two-three is termed “meter” in musical studies. Yet, this count does not move so fast that we sense something akin to a Strauss waltz.
The various rhythms superimposed on this basic meter will change according to the scene the improviser decides to “paint.” He can combine notes of varying time values in his melodic line, seemingly in limitless ways. Our impromptu composer musically depicts sheep gamboling in a nearby meadow, perhaps a pony trotting near a stable, or he may depict a herd of cows moving slowly, listlessly, in a distant field.
The changing melodic patterns have suggested an interesting harmonic scheme that is very essential in developing this piece of music. Harmony—element four—basically is the simultaneous execution generally of three or more tones, resulting in a chord. Study of harmony also entails investigation of how to move from one chord to another in a way that further satisfies the musical appetite.
Our imaginary artist mentally hears how to combine harmony with melody, how to develop it smoothly into a flowing line that continues describing musically the picture established in his mind. Chirping birds suggest the use of trills (two adjacent notes played alternately at a very rapid speed). A cascading waterfall calls forth a series of arpeggios (the production of harmonic tones, not simultaneously, but one after the other). These start in the upper region of the keyboard, then descend to represent falling water. But what about those towering, majestic trees? They demand heavier chords played with both hands. And so our musician presses onward with his delightful improvisation.
Now it is time to return to the initial theme, to reestablish it. “How can I enhance the original melody, embellish it?” our composer asks himself. He decides to employ counterpoint (element five), weaving a secondary melodic line under the original one. This is not easy, especially when done impromptu. But the goal is achieved, treating the listener to a pleasant sensation he cannot quite describe, as he hears the original theme enhanced by the underlying movement of the contrapuntal line.
When our keyboard artist returns to the original melodic material, he introduces the sixth and final element—form. The form of music has to do with the overall structure of the composition, its shape. The piece may be divided into two sections, in “binary” form. The first part may last for four, eight or more measures and is followed by a second section of about equal length. With the end of this second part, the entire composition comes to a close. However, if our pianist returns to the first section, concluding with it, we have “ternary” form. Upon undertaking the study of musical form, a person enters a vast realm, of course, one reaching up to the contents of the mammoth symphonic structure.
To what extent will a musician call upon his imagination to supply ideas for an improvised or written-out composition? That varies considerably among artists. Sometimes a relatively large mental picture, as used in the improvisation just described, is not necessary. It may be sufficient for the composer to imagine or feel a mood, perhaps joy, sadness, frustration or love. This may enable him to present a very satisfactory improvisation.
So far we have described what some might call a “free” or “complete” improvisation. But musical history acquaints us with what may be termed “restricted improvisation.” For this type, certain elements are supplied beforehand. Improvisation of this sort flourished in the fourteenth century of the Common Era.
Let us take a closer look. Paul Henry Lang, a former professor of musicology at Columbia University, wrote: “The 14th century was an era of improvisation in which the written composition represented only the frame upon which the musical piece was built.” (Music in Western Civilization) So, the musician had before him an outline of the music. He knew, therefore, what its harmonic structure was to be. The player had knowledge of its rhythm and was given some indication as to dynamic levels, that is, how loud or soft a part was to be played. Nevertheless, it was left to him to build melody or inject it into this framework. Hence, he was improvising in a restricted way.
The same thing was true of the Baroque period of music history (especially in the seventeenth century). A composer gave only the outlines of his work. The score might contain just the solo part and thorough bass. It was up to the conductor, musicians and singers to Complete the tapestry, as it were. And that required at least some imagination.
While thinking about “restricted improvisation,” we cannot ignore twentieth-century American jazz. Jazz musicians generally perform in groups. They decide beforehand what they would like to play and develop improvisationally. Melody, harmony, rhythm and form are predetermined. It remains for the musician to build an improvisation around this—admittedly an art that requires thought, time and experience. This is a type of “restricted improvisation,” but, of course, it does not belong in the same category as the improvisational presentations of composers like Bach or Beethoven.
Doubtless the art of musical improvisation will continue to cheer the hearts of many in future days, even as it has in the past. For one thing, man will never cease to be moved by the marvelous Book of Creation. Whether the inspired psalmist David improvised with harp in hand as he viewed the starry heavens, we cannot be sure. But certainly proper motivation and gratitude were there when he began his thrilling melody with the words: “The heavens are declaring the glory of God; and of the work of his hands the expanse is telling.”—Ps. 19:1.