Virtuosity without spontaneity

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.



  1. Peter Funk says:

    It seems to me that Charles Rosen deals with this Romantic penchant for trying to appear spontaneous and ‘natural’ while in fact knowingly pulling the strings in a clearly ‘artificial’ manner. I recall this mainly with regard to visual art, and perhaps you were making reference to this with the formula ‘Romantic generation’.

    I’ve had the opportunity to do some study of John Coltrane outtakes, and it is instructive to hear how carefully he seemed to plan out his solos. Similarly, guitarist Neal Schon was famous for being able to reproduce, note-for-note with expressive bends, etc, ‘improvised’ solos, both during his time with Santana and with Journey.

    Thanks for this blog! I happen to be reading Taruskin right now and I welcome companions on the journey!

  2. Robin Wallace says:

    I have apparently reached the point where I can no longer play a Mozart slow movement without adding ornamentation. I don’t claim to be very good at it, so I’m not sure if this is a problem or not.

  3. beethoven complained of virtuosi in his day having mechanical virtuosity but no organic wholeness like the older masters. seems this is a complaint in every generation!

  4. Brenda Large says:

    What a treat to hear Art Tatum. You really made your point.
    All the best with the ongoing project. You must get tired or mundled – well don’t! Your work is most appreciated and valued.

  5. tatum, of course, was also criticized by some jazz men for not really improvising. 🙂

  6. Harold says:

    It’s a shame we missed out by a few years hearing the improvisations of the great German organists of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m thinking of Bruckner and Reger. However, there is still a very strong tradition of French organ improvisation. If you’re interested, I recommend watching videos of Olivier Messiaen improvising. There are today a number of excellent organists following in this tradition. I’ve seen Olivier Latry several times and never cease to be amazed. You can easily find videos of him as well. Now if we could only figure out a way of recreating Bach’s improvisations …

  7. Zach Wallmark says:

    Thanks for the comments, all! Yes, the “romantic generation” allusion was deliberate; Rosen really delves into the nuances of the Romantic aesthetic in that amazing book, and the concept of spontaneity keeps coming up.

    It is interesting how conceptions of what constitutes “real” spontaneity and improvisation are in a constant state of flux within various music communities. Tatum wasn’t improvisatory enough for some purists, and the core of the bebop/post-bop approach was deemed too formulaic and lacking in spontaneity by free jazz players. It seems that many of these debates come down to competing definitions of “spontaneity”: one man’s personal expression is another’s contrived lick.

    Messiaen’s improvisations at the organ are the stuff of legend, and fortunately they were captured before his passing. For all those who haven’t seen this extraordinary DVD, here are a couple samples from YouTube:

  8. Mark Samples says:

    Great discussion on this slippery subject. When discussing improvisation with students, I typically spend most of my time explaining that it is not so much a matter of conjuring music out of thin air as it is weaving together well-rehearsed possibilities.

  9. Mark Samples says:

    What a great Tatum recording. I love how at 0:47, his finger slips and he hits two adjacent notes instead of one (or at least this is my supposition). Not to worry though—he turns it into a motive in the next few bars, turning a mistake into an unexpected tasty lick. Wasn’t it Dizzy who said something like, play a wrong note once and it’s wrong. Play it again, louder, like you mean it, and it’s right.

    Thanks for the Messiaen video too.

  10. Peter Funk says:

    Mark, Miles Davis had a similar saying, to the effect that there are no absolute wrong notes in jazz; what you play after a note is what makes it wrong or right.

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