All performing musicians, and especially conductors, must begin their study by keeping clearly in mind the fact that the score they are looking at is not the art work, unlike in the case of painting where what the eyes sees is the art work. In Music the art work is the composer’s mental creation. The score is only symbolic of the composer’s ideas and, in fact, is mostly symbolic of the grammar of music notation available to the composer for expressing his ideas.
Music notation is not and was never intended to be capable of precision. Early writers all make it clear that it was up to the performer to determine dynamics and tempi markings, regardless of what the composer wrote on paper. Frescobaldi extended this freedom even to form, writing that the performer can leave out entire sections of the music if he wished and even just stop the performance without going to the written end!
It is at the level of rhythm notation that early composers most trusted the performer to create the actual aural result of what was suggested on paper. A familiar example is the figure of the dotted eighth-note followed by a sixteenth-note. While to the eye these two notes have a precise mathematical relationship to each other, in actual performance this rhythmic figure is heard in numerous alterations, depending on tempo, style of music and feeling.
In addition, in the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical Periods when most music was created for use by individual courts, the court composer was often under great pressure to create new music in a very brief period of time. One thinks of the court of Frederick the Great in which he commanded his court composer to produce a new flute concert every week, in addition to his other musical duties. In such an environment the composer simply did not have time to “finish” his scores and, being familiar with his fellow court musicians, he could feel comfortable in allowing the players to “finish” their parts in notational detail and even expect the players to change some things. I have seen in European libraries many examples where on the original manuscript part a player has added all sorts of decorative additional notes, which reflect what he actually played.
In early music in particular it was left to the player to improvise in cases where a repeated harmony was needed several measures in a row. The most frequent example of this is the so-called “Alberti-bass,” a notated chord repeated on each beat. What the eye sees here is not music. I think of a familiar piccolo concerto by Vivaldi in which the first appearance of the solo piccolo has on paper two measures of Alberti-bass. Anything the flutist would play, even a simple scale, would be more musical than two measures of Alberti-bass! So here I lay down a rule: Never play Alberti-bass!!
In the music of the Classical Period this symbol for improvisation was often replaced to read simply repeated triads. I think of the great Mozart piano Concerti where in passages the orchestras has the music, the piano part has, distinctly musically in the background, repeated triads. Nearly all of these concerti were written for Mozart to perform himself, often only once. I will never believe that Mozart was sitting there playing background triads. Most likely, since in the meantime he had probably written several other compositions before he had to play this one in public, I would guess the triads were to remind him of the harmony and there is no telling what he added in public!
This practice is frequently found in 18th century music. A very clear example is found in the first movement of the Mozart Quintet for clarinet and strings. In the development Mozart has the various string instruments repeating several measures of legato sixteenth-note development. When it is the clarinet’s turn, one sees only single unconnected eighth-notes outlining the harmony. One can just imagine Mozart thinking, “here you are the soloist, here are the chords, do your thing,” meaning improvising a similar passage on clarinet in the style of the previous strings soli. And again, almost any diatonic passage the clarinetist might play would be automatically more musical than playing what is on paper. This is so obvious to the eye in the score that one can not possibly imagine any clarinetist playing what is on paper. But they all do! They all apparently are thinking, who I am to play something different than what the Master wrote!
In identical logic one sees in the final measures of Mozart horn concerti, long passages of repeated notes for the soloist, where I believe the implication is that here the soloist is expected to improvise his own dramatic cadence. There is an obvious precedence for this in the cadenzas of the Baroque Period, where the soloist was expect to improvise during the final written measure.
Similarly, in the Mozart horn concerti and in the Haydn trumpet concerto, there are places during which the soloist suddenly has two or three whole-notes. The composer’s intent was to provide a place to breathe, with the soloist filling in the rest of the measure as needed. In Los Angeles I once conducted the Haydn concerto with one of the world’s most distinguished trumpet players. I discussed this with him and pleaded for him to record an example for future students to hear. He accepted my explanation and promised to improvise in these specific places, but when the performance came his life-long habit of playing what the composer wrote overcame his intent and he played only what was on paper!
It was only in the second-half of the 19th century that the custom of allowing these little moments of improvisation for the player was replaced by the modern understanding that only the composer determines what is played. This change in tradition is wonderfully captured in a famous story about Berlioz. He was making a tour of Germany introducing his music and in Frankfurt he had programmed his Symphony Fantastique. In the slow movement, the music begins with a solo oboe and in the rehearsal the senior oboist, following his lifelong custom added improvisation to what Berlioz had written. Berlioz explained to the player that since he was the composer and he wanted to introduce his music to Germany and so he would really appreciate it if the player would just play only what he had written. The player, who was naturally very embarrassed, apologized and promised that in the concert to play only what was written. But, on the evening of the concert the oboist could not help himself and following his long experience, he improvised!
The fermata symbol, which appears as early as the fifteenth century in the music of Dufay, is another example of a performance practice which is not notated in the music. Most of us, when young musicians, were told that the familiar fermata “bird’s eye” symbol meant only a “stopping place.” And so it does today for ordinary citizens living in Milan, for the symbol appears on all bus stop signs. But this symbol can mean many other things in music notation. Mozart used it, for example, over the final double bar of a composition to make sure the copyist understood this was really the end of the composition. He also used it to signify both cadenzas and eingänge points, the difference being a matter of harmony. Bach, in his chorales, used it to designate where the singers breathe.
An alternative definition of fermata is to pause, but not stop. An example is found near the end of the final Rondo in Mozart’s Gran Partita, K. 361. The music, to the confusion of many conductors, just seems to hesitate, without a break in the progression of the music. In my experience, such a use of the fermata symbol associated with a pause seems to have an emotional connection, which is certainly relevant to my understanding in the Mozart example.
This use of the fermata symbol to create pause for an emotional reason is perfectly illustrated in the beginning of the Sixth Symphony of Beethoven. Here I must pause to remind those friends who have shared with me the mild winters of California and Texas that all of Europe is further North than our State of Maine. Having lived for three years in Vienna and Salzburg, I can understand the great experience of that day which arrives suddenly announcing Spring. The return of Spring was the most familiar subject, after love, of the Troubadours in their numerous original songs. And it was from this background of the joy of the sudden return of Spring, the return of color and the return of birds that Beethoven, in the very beginning of the symphony, runs from his house and in the fourth bar immediately stops, in awe of the beauty of Nature, takes a deep breath of the fresh new air and then continues on his way. That is what the fermata here is all about, a pause to express feeling. The note he wrote here, “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside” clearly includes his emotion, as did his often quoted description of the entire symphony, “more an expression of feeling than painting.”
One final comment: the fact that there was improvisation in early Church music is not only forgotten, but might appear to some to be a deep secret of musicology. It seems to us today almost a heresy to imagine improvising above Plainchant in the church. But, there are accounts that it happened by Bottrigari, Mersenne, Glarean and Mattheson. The great 15th-century theorist Tinctorius even had a special name for it, “cantus regalis.” Improvisation was not only a means of creativity for the performer, but the great Henry Purcell, in a rather extraordinary and interesting comment, complained that writing everything out robs music of the special quality of being performed in the present tense
How much improvisation did one hear in the earlier centuries? John Donne (1573–1631) found both listeners and players were more delighted with improvised music than notated music.