Classical Improvisation

Musical improvisation today is found extensively in jazz, free form, and rap, but it formerly held a more prominent role during the pre-classical era of music history.

Ernest Ferand states in his book titled Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music that “sections of polyphonic masses were as much subjected to improvisation as opera arias,” and evidence of it is found not only in hymns and dance music, but also in madrigals, chansons, chamber duets, motets, sonatas, sacred concertos, and secular songs. Unfortunately, improvisation became less popular through the eighteenth century, appearing primarily in classical works as free solo cadenzas and in concerts by featured composer-performers.

Authors, such as Derek Bailey, refer to “the petrifying effect of European classical music on improvisation,” calling today’s classical music “formal, precious, self-absorbed, pompous, harbouring rigid conventions and carefully preserved hierarchical distinctions.” From a philosophical perspective, many other authors have joined him in condemning the elitist snobbery that goes hand-in-hand with the reverence for geniuses and timeless masterpieces.

Thomas Turino discusses the presentational-versus-participatory nature of our society today. That is, we tend to do more watching than doing. North American society tends to embrace a Eurocentric view of arts and culture, placing an emphasis on both the quality of
the art and the quality of the performance, which tends to limit enthusiasm for creative participation if the individual feels that he or she is not good enough.

Richard Schechner discusses the tendency of Western culture to separate the entertainment component of performance from the ritual aspect of sharing, again a commentary on the importance of involvement in the arts as not just presentational, but as a communal part of society.

It is possible that a return to our historic roots of improvisation and participation would provide a welcome change to the exclusionary state of the arts in Western society today.

Aesthetic Formalism

It was the philosophical view of what became known as aesthetic formalism by nineteenth and twentieth century authors such as Eduard Hanslick, Guido Adler, and Theodore Adorno, that may have contributed to the demise of musical improvisation in Western society.

Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) was adamant that the beauty in music should not be conflated with the feelings it awakens. Aesthetic pleasure, he said, is the result of an intellectualized approach to the composer’s and performer’s efforts, and he dismissed the act of improvisation as a “coincidence of creation and performance.” This “uncensored discourse, this reckless abandonment of the self to the grip of a powerful spell” cannot be considered artistic because it is “contentless” and has no theme.

Guido Adler (1855-1941), successor to Hanslick at the University of Vienna and arguably the father of ethnomusicology, was a staunch supporter of the art-as-science model with a strict analytical approach to music that left no room for improvisation in his historical and systematic analysis of musicology.

Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) conflated his contempt for jazz with his view of popular music, which he saw as “pseudo-individualization,” a recurring symptom of the movement toward mass cultural capitalism. He suggests that “even though jazz musicians still improvise in practice, their improvisations have become so ‘normalized’ as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization.” While respecting what he referred to as actual improvisation, Adorno felt that jazz improvisation fell far short of this standard. Actual improvisation, he says, “would of necessity have to work down into and through the melodic and rhythmic structure itself rather than merely playing, no matter how adventurously, on the surface.”

Adorno died in 1969 and he had dismissed jazz early in his life choosing not to explore the new found improvisational style of bebop. But his views on both classical and jazz improvisation perpetuated the high expectations associated with the act itself.

Improvisation in the post-classical world was no longer a pleasurable experience accessible to the general population but rather a measurable and quantifiable artistic exercise. It is possible that this popular societal view, a component of aesthetic formalism, tended to discourage and impede participatory engagement in not just music, but in all of the arts.