Monday, July 17, 2017

Extempore Music - A Precarious Survival (1920)

Earlier this year I came across this piece from the Times of London, written in 1920. Prompted by an upcoming visit by the great French organist Marcel Dupré, the anonymous author takes the opportunity to write a bit about improvisation, its similarities and differences to the creative process involved in composition, and its decline as a practical part of a musician's toolbox by the early 20th century. It was clearly written from a perspective of familiarity and sympathy with improvisation, and it's especially interesting that it was written before improvisation became a "hot topic" for composers, yet foreshadows some of the discussions which continue to this day.

 Here are some TL;DR highlights.

  • "Composition is one thing, extemporization another. The one is a man's considered thought independent of the circumstances of any given moment; the other is his comment on circumstances, is influenced by his environment and by the sympathy of his hearers."
  • "[T]he pleasure of real improvisation, like real conversation, is that it is not foreseen by the creator of it. It surprises him as much as the listen. It may develop in sonata form, or fugue, or any other strict style - that depends on how far the artist's mind has been disciplined by the externals of musical design. It will certainly have form of some sort, because form is the musician's means of communication with others."
  • "Improvisation [is] clearly carried on by an altogether different mental process from that by which the same man acts when he sits down to his music-paper to compose, although the initial impulse towards musical invention may be the same."
  • "Composers have their rights, and the first of them is that what is performed as being by them should be what they have really written. Yet there was something generous about the old plan of the concerto in which the composer, having developed his theme to his heart's content, said in effect to his interpreter, 'Now what do you think about it?'"
(Disclaimer: I mulled for a while about whether to make this available. Obviously I didn't write it, so I don't claim authorship. But I think its historical importance to the subject of improvised music, and organ improvisation in particular, make it worthy of sharing in cyberspace. To me, the internet is about sharing information with other interested parties. I don't, and never will, monetize this blog. If you claim a copyright and would like this content removed, feel free to contact me.)

(Also: The author, in keeping with the sexist parlance of his day, assumes that all people involved with music are "men", and exclusively uses the male-gendered pronouns. I transcribed the article as-is, but I do not condone this kind of speech.)


Extempore Music - A Precarious Survival

The Times - London - Saturday 4 December 1920

Author unknown

Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)
The report of M. Marcel Dupré's skill in improvisation on the organ, which London is to have the opportunity of appreciating at the Albert Hall next Thursday [9 Dec, 1920 - ME] naturally raises the question of extempore music, and its place, actual and possible, in the developed condition of modern music.

A correspondent writes to us to tell of an improvisation by Mr. Alfred Hollins, the well known blind organist, which was recorded on a mechanical instrument and subsequently transcribed and replayed by another organist, Mr. Arthur Sims, at a recent recital. We seem to remember that years ago, before the gramophone records were the commonplace they are to-day, the phonographic record of some improvisations by Mr. E. H. Lemare, then organist at St. Margaret's, Westminster, caused a similar sensation.
Edwin H. Lemare (1865-1934)
We do not know whether M. Dupré has ever submitted his art to the same ordeal, but no doubt it will be demanded of him sooner or later. It may be that mechanical reproduction is going to attack the last stronghold of improvisation by making it permanent. One can well understand why an artist of this kind will be shy of the recording room. 
Composition is one thing, extemporization another. The one is a man's considered thought independent of the circumstances of any given moment; the other is his comment on circumstances, is influenced by his environment and by the sympathy of his hearers. If it is recorded for future use it runs the risk of becoming inapt. A good improvisation may or may not stand the test of reproduction for permanent use, and the artist who improvises with the knowledge that whatever he says will be expected to stand this test is acting under a restraint which may be fatal to the spirit of his work.

The Royal Albert Hall, London. Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum.

We remember once hearing a learned musical professor improvise in strict sonata form before a class of students. As he did so he analysed his own work, calling out in a high-pitched voice, "This is the second subject," "Now the development begins," "Now the reprise," and so on. The result was something exactly like a great many sonatas; it was fluent, expected, apparently foreseen from first to last. But the pleasure of real improvisation, like real conversation, is that it is not foreseen by the creator of it. It surprises him as much as the listen. It may develop in sonata form, or fugue, or any other strict style - that depends on how far the artist's mind has been disciplined by the externals of musical design. It will certainly have form of some sort, because form is the musician's means of communication with others. Listening to M. Dupré and watching him at the organ, one is convinced that at the beginning of an improvisation he is as unconscious as anyone else of where the thought may lead him. He is starting out on an adventure.
Samuel Wesley (1766-1837)

The same was the case with S. S. Wesley, greatest of English church musicians in the last century. Those who remember him in the organ loft say that Wesley would extemporise the most unheard-of-things, harmonic progressions which he would never have written, but through which he groped his way almost as though he were under the control of some hypnotic influence. Whatever it is, in such an instance improvisation clearly carried on by an altogether different mental process from that by which the same man acts when he sits down to his music-paper to compose, although the initial impulse towards musical invention may be the same.

When the art of music was in a comparatively primitive condition, there was much more room for the exercise of this faculty [extemporization] than there is to-day. Even after notation had made it possible for composers to express themselves with fair accuracy, and printing had secured a wide distribution for their ideas, they were still loath to forgo the fascination of yielding to the impulse of the moment. The scores of Corelli's violin sonatas, for example, merely contain as much of the music as will keep the solo player and the accompanist in touch with one another. Both are free to improvise the details.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Corelli and other artists of his generation were generally their own interpreters, but even after the point when the process of specialization had separated composer from performer is was felt that a solo work of any size would not be complete in expression unless the latter was given an opportunity of giving rise to his own imagination at some point or other. Hence the cadenza. Brahms was the last of the great composers to leave this open door, but Joachim shut it by writing his own cadenza to the violin concerto and by his own frequent performance associating it with the work. It would be a bold fiddler indeed who would stand up in Queen's Hall today and improvise a cadenza before the coda of Brahms's first movement, or, indeed, in any other classical concerto, but it is the refusal to attempt it which has made that point in the concerto the futile thing it is. It places all the great virtuosi of the concert-room in the absurd position of pretending to improvise something which they have really learnt by heart beforehand. Of course, there is no actual deception; every one knows that they have learnt it by heart; sometimes they have written it themselves, sometimes it has been composed and published by somebody else, but in any case it is an effect carefully arranged to suggest a counterfeit spontaneity.


So it comes about that improvisation has been forced out of the concert-room altogether, as at an earlier stage it was forced out of the opera-house when autocratic composers insisted that singers should confine themselves strictly to the notes written down for them. Composers have their rights, and the first of them is that what is performed as being by them should be what they have really written. Yet there was something generous about the old plan of the concerto in which the composer, having developed his theme to his heart's content, said in effect to his interpreter, "Now what do you think about it?" The practical position is that the only class of executant who has any opporunity of using his powers in this direction is the organist, and the example of M. Dupré and others of the French school shows that it is a power which thrives on opportunity. If it is strangled by the conventions of modern music, it will be so much the worse for the art.

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