By 1849, not even spontaneity could be “merely” spontaneous. Pianists trained in conservatories spent all their time (like Liszt in 1832) on “trills, sixths, octaves, tremolos, double notes and cadenzas” – but not on their own cadenzas. Improvisation was no longer part of the curriculum, and by the end of the century, for artists in the European literate tradition, in had become a lost art – which is to say, the literate tradition had become more truly and literally and exclusively literate. There are now probably hundreds if not thousands of conservatory-trained pianists in the world whose techniques at trills, octaves, and double notes are the equal of Liszt’s, but hardly a one who can end a concert with an extempore fantasia. Should we call this progress? (III, 288)
Improvisation is by definition ephemeral. The performer responds to a unique moment with unique sounds that die away immediately, leaving no trace but in the memory of those present to witness it. In the nineteenth century, this sort of music-making model was no formula for inclusion in the burgeoning historicism of the time. How could improvising a stunning fantasia last, earning its practitioner a place in history? Without a means of preserving these performances, we would be left only with first-hand accounts, “ear-witness” reports of virtuosity. There would be no musical documentation to prove it.
It’s admirable that RT takes up the question of improvisation here, but he doesn’t probe too deeply into this problem. It seems that, for many of the “Romantic generation,” the point was to appear off-hand and spontaneous while at the same time leaving behind a documentary trace that paradoxically proves one’s virtuosity by freezing it in time. They had figured out a way to have their cake (“improvisatory” virtuosity) and eat it too (preserve it for posterity).
It makes me think of the great jazz virtuosos of last century (and today). Minus recording technology, we would be left today to speculate on the genius of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker in much the same way that historians speculate on what the improvising Mozart must have sounded like. In other words, if improvisation has any shot at preservation, a technology is needed to serve as formaldehyde in the jar: virtuosi in the nineteenth century had notation, improvisers in our era have audio recordings. Both technologies halt in mid air the fleeting process of improvisation.
This passage brought to mind the famous (if scantily documented) meeting between Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum in the 1930s. Horowitz was mesmerized by Tatum’s unschooled virtuosity, even going as far as to call him the greatest pianist in the world. No performer of jazz or pop, Horowitz painstakingly transcribed and rehearsed the standard “Tea for Two” and played it for Tatum. (His transcription is preserved in the film “Horowitz: The Last Romantic”; apparently it’s somewhat cringe-inducing.) After this, Tatum sat down and played “Tea for Two” for Horowitz. The great conservatory-trained pianist was stunned, and immediately asked Tatum for the music.
“Oh, I was just improvising,” Tatum replied.