home | news | roster | MadAminA! | about maa | contact maa      

Performance Practice and All That Jazz

by Daniel N. Leeson

There is a staggering amount of material dealing with the subject of performance practice, a musicological domain that concerns itself with the problems of translating music notation into sound. The field of study exists because the way music is written down is not sufficiently precise to describe exact execution requirements. This is complicated by assumptions composers make when creating handwritten scores. Composers are explicit only with directions that are not absolutely obvious to an informed, contemporary performer. Yet, because these assumptions change with time, what requires no explicit direction in one age is not at all obvious to a later one. In music of Mozart's time, for example, "forte" was the default dynamic for the beginning of every movement of a composition, unless otherwise indicated. Thus, Mozart never specifies a dynamic in the first measure of any movement unless he wants the measure heard other than loudly. Today, musicians no longer make such an assumption so every opening dynamic must be explicitly given.

In performing Mozart's music, we are fortunate that a large body of tradition has passed directly and uninterruptedly from his time to the present. This is increasingly less true the earlier we trace music back in time. For example, with certain periods, we have lost even a knowledge of the instruments used. Yet, despite the continuity of Mozartean tradition, there are many ways in which today's performances of Mozart's music differ from those of his epoch. An obvious example is the change in character of instrumental sound through improvements in the technology of musical instruments as well as their manufacture. Those distinctions have been minimized by recent efforts to employ original or reconstructed instruments of the period. Contemporary instruments can also be subject to modification, such as eliminating chin rests on violins and violas.

The use of period instruments is slow to gain support in more conservative arenas, the principal problems being intonation and reticence from professionals about playing them. Yet recordings and live performances are making vast inroads. Recordings of Mozart's music that present a claim to instrumental authenticity are increasingly successful. Live performances using period instruments, unheard of a quarter century ago, are commonplace today. Even a festival as conservative as Glyndeboume employed period instruments for the first time in July, 1989 during performances of The Marriage of Figaro.

Definitions of symbols have also changed and the carrying out of Mozart's directions in an 18th-century manner is a challenge that contemporary players must deal with continuously. Common, everday symbols, for example "sf'and "calando," must be interpreted not in light of what they mean today, but what they meant ca. 1750-1800. Even the ubiquitous staccato has turned out to have two forms with separate execution rules.

Size and seating arrangements of performing ensembles have undergone dramatic reinterpretation. The contrast of today's Mozart orchestra of ca. 40 players with those of a few decades ago is illustrative. Bruno Walter's radio performance of the late Mozart symphonies during the 1940s, performances that employed an orchestra of 80-100 players including 12 string basses and doubled woodwinds, were typical for the time. This was also visually obvious during the early days of television when Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony used almost the same orchestra for the overture to The Magic Flute as it did for "The Ride of the Valkyries."

A few practices of Mozart's time have been deliberately and consciously abandoned, I hope never to be resurrected. For example, the cessation of the hideous custom of castrating vocally-gifted, pre-pubescent boys to create castrati has forever changed the way we hear Exsultate jubilate, countertenors notwithstanding. Other practices remain unclear despite scholarly investigation. This places performers in the position of not knowing precisely what to do in certain circumstances. An example is the role of the soloist in a concerto when not playing the solo line. What should he or she do, be silent or reverse roles by accompanying the orchestra?

A better example of a knowledge gap between ourselves and the 18th century has to do with the interpretation of repeat symbols in minuets. Minuets appear in almost every genre of Mozart's instrumental music: symphonies, chamber music, divertimenti, serenades, etc. All works with more than three movements have at least one minuet. Many have two. Several, for example the "Haffner" Serenade, have three. There are compositions by Mozart that contain nothing but minuets. K. 176, for example, is a single work consisting of 16 minuets in various keys. A standard characteristic of a minuet is that performers, by use of repeat symbols, are often directed to play each section twice. Additionally, at any of several false conclusions, other instructions direct the players to give the entire minuet another go-through. Therefore, depending on how these instructions are interpreted, the minuet's main themes can receive anywhere from two to eight executions.

Today, there exists a universal convention that all repeats are observed the first time the minuet is heard but no repeats are made later times. There is no need to state this convention to experienced performers. They play minuets this way automatically. But did Mozart and his contemporaries play minuets this way? Or did a different practice exist until, as the function of such repeats receded into obscurity, the tradition changed? Here is a hypothetical scenario to explain such an evolution.

As spontaneous improvisations fell out of fashion, players lost facility in the skill. As a result, they no longer viewed the repeated sections as implicit invitations to improvise. Without improvisatory material to create variety, the several literal repetitions of the main themes were considered boring for an audience. Thus, today's performance practice for minuets came about because of the extinction of another performance practice.

"Extinction" is, perhaps, too strong a word. The 18th-century practice of spontaneous improvisation is being revived by a few leading-edge avant-garde players (peculiar terms to use with Mozart). Spontaneous improvisations are not universally accepted either by the performing community or the listening public. On the contrary, strong objections to the practice may be found in many quarters. There is little agreement about where and when and how to improvise, or even which performers are involved. Even less agreement can be found for what constitutes good or stylistically correct improvisation. Few music schools in America or Europe train performers in the fundamentals of improvisation, which means that those instrumentalists and singers who attempt it have almost no guidance on how to execute it effectively. There are no practical books that deal comprehensively with the subject, and only a few deal with it at a theoretical level. In effect, little help exists in learning the craft. Thus, the potential inherent in improvisation has not been demonstrated on a broad scale since it ceased being a workaday performance practice in the early 19th century. Yet, because a few skilled practitioners have made an effort to revive spontaneous improvisation in performances — coupled with the fact that this dramatic tool has the capacity to be an important influence on Mozart performances in the next century — the balance of this essay is devoted to the subject and its suggested place in Mozart's music.

It is an article of faith that every musician wants his or her performance of any Mozart work to be fresh and original. The reviewer who describes an interpretation with the pejorative "stale and unoriginal" signs a death warrant to a career. Unfortunately, except for the eternal freshness and originality of the music itself, there are few practical tools that help a performer achieve that goal. Whatever the important abstractions of personality, presence, sensitivity, energy, and temperament are to getting freshness in performance, they are God-given and difficult to summon on demand. Even those fortunate enough to possess such evanescent qualities may find it impossible to invoke them on-demand. So what can one do: give each composition a periodic sabbatical so that it can get its batteries recharged? take a nap on the afternoon of a concert? enroll in a graduate seminar on "How to get fresh and original performances every time"? visit an astrologer? chant mantras?

But creating originality in Mozart performances is easy, so easy that the technique is often employed as a cheap substitute for genuine imagination: execute the bassoon concerto on a tenor saxophone; add a cymbal crash to the opening measure of the C major string quintet; have the title role of Don Giovanni executed by an Elvis Presley imitator; perform the Requiem with all the performers in drag. These things will surely result in original performances, but that's not really what we had in mind.

Most contemporary scholars accept as fact that Mozart and his colleagues improvised on an ongoing basis. The skill was a part of an 18th-century musician's kit-bag of tools, like reading music at sight or transposing. To such a player, the act of improvisation consisted of spontaneous changes to a melodic line at appropriate places in the composition.

Instantaneous invention of stylistically characteristic, high quality music is not an inborn skill even though innate talent is obligatory. Such skill must be developed through study and practice. (That's an interesting oxymoron: practicing spontaneous improvisations.) On-the-spot creativity was one of several standards by which the listening public measured performers, and limitations were placed on careers of 18th-century musicians without that skill. Each performance consisted of a synergism: a one-of-a-kind mixture of the composer's architecture and the spontaneous decorations of one or more performers. The resulting creation of an absolutely unique performance was an important reason for improvising, then as now.

The words "ornamentation" and "improvisation" are frequently used synonymously. But Frederick Neumann (Ornamentation and Improvisation in Mozart, Princeton University Press, 1986) provides welcome help in distinguishing between them. "Ornamentation" deals with a specific set of symbol — designated decorations — such as appoggiaturas and grace notes — created by the composer. As a field of scholarship, ornamentation attempts to establish an unambiguous interpretation for each symbol. That interpretation is based on the symbol's general meaning and its specific context, such as the conditions under which execution of a particular composer — created grace note precedes the beat.

"Improvisation" is used to describe performer-created changes to melodic lines. The listener's implicit assumption, though mostly inaccurate, is that improvisation is spontaneous.

Many who accept improvisation, even if only at a conceptual level, think of its execution as a thing reserved for a soloist in a concerto. A more aggressive opinion holds that improvisation is available to anyone who happens to own the principal melodic line at an improvisable point of the composition, for example, the three solo voices-oboe, clarinet, basset horn — in the slow movement of the "Gran Partita." An even more aggressive view would point out that, in Don Giovanni, for example, immediately before Don Ottavio's first entry in his aria "Il Mio Tesoro," the orchestral clarinetist has a significant opportunity for improvisation.

Singers have been improvising for years, though almost never spontaneously. Most fans of, for example, Barber of Seville, know that much sung by Rosina in the opera's principal arias is not by Rossini. The improvisations that occur are the product of two centuries of a tradition of prepackaged decorations. An aspiring singer has an extensive library of material from which to choose. Thus, most vocal improvisations are almost identical from performance to performance, singer to singer, generation to generation. Singers will proudly advertise that their decorations are those of a famous predecessor, Galli-Curci or Patti, for example. Instrumentalists are little different. There is a vast repertoire of solo literature requiring execution of a series of increasingly complex variations on atheme, for example the "Carnival of Venice Variations" or "Rigoletto Fantasy." Such works, heard for generations as cornet solos accompanied by military band, trace their genealogy to the era of spontaneous improvisation.

Improvisations of this kind have, as one of several objectives, a demonstration of the performer's virtuosity. The player and composer have undergone a Kafkaesque role reversal: instead of the player decorating the melody, the technical demands of the variations (that is, the written-out improvisations) are used to decorate the player! The current negative attitude about improvisation of music from the Classic period may be due in part to such excesses; that is, the use of decorative complexities as a substitute for musical substance.

Other reasons for the negative attitude also exist. One is the belief that no one, no matter how skillful, can improve on the music of Mozart, much less with a craft that requires instantaneous creativity. That is a respectful but very debatable position. It is also irrelevant since the main purpose of improvisation is not the improvement of melodic lines. Its purpose, one to which Mozart personally subscribed both as composer and performer, is to change the role of the player from a recreator of the music of others to a partner in the creative process. Thus, the perfomer's additions seek to intensify the expressive force and character of the work, not replace it.

The negative attitude about improvising on Mozart's music is so widespread that even Neumann speaks against it, a strange perspective in light of his persuasive evidence on the importance of the tool in Mozart's music. Neumann's view seems to accept only Mozart's improvisations, presumably because he did it well. But, continues Neumann, modern-day performers should not improvise because they will probably do it badly.

With this attitude, it can be guaranteed that the preponderance of performers will never improvise well, or at all. How could it be otherwise? We are not trained in how, where, or when to improvise. Most players are not even sure why improvisation has value. And Neumann, in this decade's most important book on the subject, says that we should avoid the practice because we won't do it well. In the face of this, it is astonishing that any player would try.

Improvising badly is no reason for not improvising. Instead, it is a reason for doing more of it! How else are we to learn to get it right? In addition to study and practice, quality improvisation requires enormous skill coupled with considerable imagination, great daring, and a special kind of courage. As such, it is almost certain that anyone trying to learn the craft is going to be clumsy and inelegant early-on, putting too much in any single improvisation, doing it in the wrong places, or committing grave stylistic errors. It is doubtful that the few masters who can and do bring it off today improvised effectively on their first go, either. Yet contemporary Mozart performances by pianists Friedrich Gulda and Robert Levin, clarinetists Larry Coombs and Anthony Pay, and oboists William Bennett, Heinz Holliger, and Harry Sargous, to name a few of those who walk the tightrope of spontaneous improvisation, give thrilling glimpses into what awaits the creative, imaginative, and well-trained performer willing to try.

Quality spontaneous improvisation does not come easily even to jazz players, for whom excellence in the skill is bread and butter. But at least they have the advantage of being able to study the craft with teachers who know something about it and its performance traditions. Conservatories and other music schools offer credit courses in jazz improvisation, clear evidence that improvisation is an acquirable skill. Interestingly, symphonic performers who played jazz early in their careers, but who stopped it for one reason or another-for example, conductor/pianist Andre Previn-find that they must work at it before achieving the same degree of improvisatory excellence that was once theirs. Like most things, improvisatory skills will atrophy if not used. Therefore, if the ability to improvise is an acquirable (and recoverable-if-lost) skill for the jazz player, it is also an acquirable skill for the Mozart performer. Oh what a century we have before us!!

This is the fourth in a series of five articles by Daniel N. Leeson to commemorate the Mozart jubilee. Daniel N. Leeson is a retired professional businessman who worked for the IBM Corporation for 30 years. He is also a leading Mozart scholar and coeditor of the volume of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe which contains the wind serenades. He plays bass clarinet with the San Jose Symphony Orchestra and is a busy basset hornist throughout California. He also teaches mathematics at De Anza College.

home  |  about maa  |  roster  |  MadAminA!  | news & events  |  contact us

© 2002-2005by Music Associates of America. All Rights Reserved
music associates of america // 224 king street // englewood // new jersey // 07631