Music improvisation in the Baroque Era (review)

Music written in the 17th and 18th centuries offers, and indeed demands, a lot of freedom from the performers.  But freedom demands responsibility; how do we know how far to go, what is good taste regarding such additions, and how do we learn to be creative within a stylistic context? To what extent is a score intended to be played as written, how do we choose between different versions of the same music, or do we make our own, and how do we use written music as a springboard for our own improvisations and compositions? Is there a difference between the activities of improvisation and composition in baroque practice? How are these questions related to methods of learning how to perform, improvise and compose music in the baroque period, and what might the benefits and possibilities be for recreating historical learning methods? 

The book, Music improvisation in the Baroque Era (edited by Fulvia Morabito) does not answer these questions, but explores them with references to many sources and models for improvisation.  It is a compilation of articles by different authors, on subjects ranging from practical applications of improvisation in ornamentation, cadenzas, and accompaniment, through ideas about musical education in the baroque period, partimento (improvising on bass patterns) and how to be creatively inspired by musical models, to more philosophical questions of style and freedom within music. Its diversity means it will be of interest to many musicians, performing and non-performing alike, but that also means that it can be hard to find a line of argument throughout the whole book. There are, however, a few themes which recur. 

One theme is the relation of the score with the composer and performer.  In On the Borderlines of Improvisation, Anthony Pryer discusses how the score can be a ‘strategy’ for the performer to make creative decisions, or an ‘archive’ recording fixed elements of the music. It can record either what was played, or what should be played. We have an idea today that the latest version of the composer reflects the ‘correct’ version. But, as new versions were often prepared for a particular performance, one can often see revision as an ‘improvisatory’ process, changing the music to suit the situation, rather than an improvement leading to a definitive version, and in the chapter Written outlines of Improvisation Procedures in Music Publications of the Early 17th Century, Marina Toffetti suggests  that all versions should be taken into account by performers.  David Chung discusses ways in which composers made variations (doubles) from existing pieces, but also, subtly different versions of pieces in some 18th Century editions.  Different ways of notating the same basic idea demonstrate the improvisational freedom possible in interpretation, even when playing seemingly ‘as written’.  Music was still primarily an aural practice; writing was a tool, but not the goal. 

A second theme is how the cello, gamba, or other melodic instrument might be used as a continuo instrument.  Sometimes, cellists add chords to amplify the harmony, but Giovanna Barbati suggests a more extreme practice, for cellists to realise the continuo in a way idiomatic to the instrument, amplifying the bass line with figuration, arpeggiation, or perhaps a second voice, especially if there are two bass players or if the line allows for double stops.  He refers to examples where the bass line is sometimes active, and sometimes left plain, or where there are occasional suggestions for the entry of another voice, and also to the practice of the cello being used to accompany recitatives in operas until the 19th century. He also sheds some light on teaching methods which exist for cellists to be able to do this, which can equally be applied to other melody instruments.  In On the origin of Partimento, Giorgio Sanguinetti discusses some examples of realising a bass line for string instruments. 

 A third theme relates to musical pedagogy in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Today, we tend to be obsessed with rules, or, descriptions of what we what should or should not do. On the other hand, many methods of the 18th Century were simply small pieces or examples to be played and learnt.  Some, such as the cello methods discussed by Giovanna Barbati – contain melodic figurations, which can then be applied to different contexts, a practical way of doing this is described in Re-creating Historical Improvisatory solo practices on the Cello by John Lutterman.  A more complex example relates to improvising counterpoint: Massimiliano discusses Pasquini ‘s counterpoint treatise as an example of ‘sounding theory’,  whereby the ‘theory’, or the method of improvising on the cantus firmus, is implicit in the examples themselves, without explanation in words.  Rather like learning a language, by memorising these examples, the student will learn to create his own similar realisations.  Listening and learning, and not being afraid to imitate others, is a path to which is often overlooked in today’s quest for originality. 

A fourth theme is the relation between improvisation and composition. In On the Borderlines of Improvisation, Anthony Pryer defines composition as ‘prepared’ and Improvisation as ‘unprepared’. But, partimento  was a way of learning in which composition, improvisation, and accompaniment were intertwined. Students would improvise at the keyboard, but also write out realisations as practice for composition. In this context, opposing ‘prepared’ and ‘unprepared’ is problematic.  It is true, one may discuss ‘improvisational’ and ‘compositional’ qualities, but that is a matter of style, sounding more ‘free’ or more ‘strict’, and this distinction exists also in composed music.  It is true that composer’s improvisations might sound very different from his compositions. Czerny claimed that one had not heard the ‘real’ Beethoven until have heard his improvisations.  Yet, Beethoven also claimed that improvisations should pass for written compositions, and wrote sketches for his cadenzas.  Is this turning an improvisation into a composition, as Anthony Pryer claims? But many aspects of an improvisation can be held in the memory of a performer, and if the performer is also the creator, then a distinction between what is prepared and what is spontaneous is hard, and perhaps unnecessary, to make.  There will always be structures or prexisting ideas (whether written or unwritten) on which an improvisation is based, and the art of the improviser is to compose (with or without paper) such a context that the music can happen, seemingly by itself, but in fact the result of years of work and preparation. 

The chapters relate to specific subjects and styles, and explore often neglected areas of improvisation or little known sources, such as Pisenel’s ornamentation annotations by Javier Lupianez, which makes the book a very valuable addition to the current literature on improvisation. The book offers a wealth of material available for those wishing to go deeper into historical improvisation, and shows the many directions in which historical improvisation can be taken. Although most chapters are in English, some of the chapters are in Spanish and Italian, which unfortunately limits the accessibility of the entire book for an international audience, and, in the English chapters, there are some minor spelling and grammatical mistakes. On the whole, most of the chapters are descriptive, and one might sometimes wish for more attention to be given to the writer’s own arguments, reflections or questions.  Yet although the writing itself is not always of the highest quality, this is more than made up for in the subjects and examples presented.