Improvising Mozart

by Robert Levin

Robert Levin
Classical musicians have become highly specialised. Most of today’s performers practise many hours a day painstakingly learning and perfecting texts written by others. Highly skilled at reproducing music, they often have little or no training in inventing it. An actor confronted by a missed entrance or a forgotten line can often rescue the situation by inventing dialogue to bridge the gap. A memory lapse, a sudden contradiction of pronunciation or dialect will shatter the illusion of identity between personage and actor and remind us painfully that what we are seeing is an artificial enactment of reality, not the theatrical alchemy that momentarily seems more intense than the life it imitates. While it is difficult to ad lib dialogue in iambic pentameter, every actor has daily experience improvising conversations in his/her native tongue. This is not so for musicians; and the task of inventing within the individual languages of the great composers is daunting if not impossible for a performer who has not had extensive training in composition and the grammar, syntax, rhetoric and texture of music (theory).
The young Mozart at the keyboard

In the 18th century all composers were performers and virtually all performers composed. Furthermore, virtually all the music performed was new. Today’s gap in popular and art music did not exist then: each involved spontaneity within a language idiomatic to the time.

Improvisation is a given in non-art music. Present in music of all cultures, it is the central challenge in jazz. The genius of Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Miles Davis and John Coltrane (an arbitrary sampling of past masters) has been captured on discs that document untrammelled flights of fanciful imagination.

Mozart’s performances were designed to display his talents as improviser, pianist and composer (that is the order his contemporaries assigned to his gifts). His piano concertos contain contrived chasms — pauses he bridged with impulsive audacity — the so-called cadenzas and lead-ins. Further, Mozart left many passages in sketched or schematic form, relying on the whims of live performance to fill in the specific expressive content anew at each performance.

The autograph score of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21, 1st movement. The final chord of this page was one of the ‘contrived chasms’ — a chord over which Mozart would improvise.

In the 20th century musicians have been trained to try piously to observe the written testament of the composer. If the will of the performer emerges, it is often through flamboyant disregard of those instructions in order to use the composition as a mere vehicle for self-aggrandising display. Every performer and listener of classical music has experienced the standard repertoire hundreds, even thousands of times more often than the composers who wrote these works, making it ever harder to bring to them the daring of the work’s initial effect. The standardisation of many of today’s performances reflects all these trends.

Improvisation in Mozart’s case requires an intensive character study of the entire work from within, for a spontaneous elaboration of the written text cannot be pasted on to the musical surface. The embellishments and improvised portions must heighten the portrayal of the work’s persona, not a mere series of commonplace, banal conventions (a trill here, a curlicue there). We possess a significant number of embellished versions of Mozart from him and his circle, showing unmistakably the type and amount of ornamentation he expected. In light of this evidence it must be said that many of today’s performances contain passages executed in a manner Mozart would have considered unacceptably incomplete. It will not matter how poetic, how sonically ravishing, the performance is if the utterance is not the expected ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’ but rather ‘’

The opening of the slow movement from the autograph score of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.26 (‘Coronation’). Only the right hand of the piano part has been written in — Mozart would have improvised the left hand as well as all the ornaments.

Apart from organists, few classical performers improvise any more, even though the training that would enable them to do so is available. Today’s performers, shaped in the crucible of competitions and recordings, learn early to avoid risk as a threat to consistency and accuracy. There is nothing more risky than improvisation, but there is nothing more devastating to music’s dramatic and emotional message than avoidance of risk. This is not to say, however, that any kind of improvisation is better than none. It is fascinating to hear an improvised performance, but surely it matters whether the utterance is idiomatic to the language of the piece. How strange that movie makers spend millions shooting on historically accurate locations with period appurtenances and costumes, with dialogue from the language of the period, but often are content to use music that betrays the venue at every turn. A performance of a Christopher Marlowe play in which suddenly the dialect and pronunciation of rural Alabama were interpolated for several exchanges would be perceived by an audience as grotesque or comical, yet we permit such linguistic incongruities without hesitation in music. If Mozart’s language is as worthy of respect as Marlowe’s, surely it is worth the time to learn it from the inside in order to invent it afresh as part of each performance.

That is the goal of every Mozart performance I give, and of the recordings in the concerto cycle with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music in particular.