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Improvisation

 

 

Improvisation

Francine Renee Hall
wrote (May 22, 2003):
I've been going over some web material and was intrigued by the notion of Bach with improvisation, especially as pertains to ornamentation. Would this explain the da capo problem where a repeat would require ornamentation even though Bach would not have written it down? And Bach himself improvised on the spot for good 'ol Frederick! Musicians of the past and present use ornamentation (improvisation) for Bach's works all the time. If this has been discussed before, please forgive my questioning in this matter....


Walther on improvisation [BMML]

Charles Francis wrote (July 15, 2004):
Johann Gottfried Walther "Musicalishes Lexicon." [Leipzig, 1732]

"'Tastatura' (ital.) bedeutet überhaupt die Griff-Tafel, oder die Claviere aller Instrumenten, die dergleichen haben; insonderheit aber das Clavier oder die Griff-Tafel der Orgeln, 'Glavicymbel.' u.s.f. daher kommts, daß man auch diejenige Gattungen 'Praeludien' oder 'Phantasien,' so die Meister auf dergleichen Instrumenten aus dem Steg-Reiff machen, Tastatura' und ,Tastature' nennet; weil die gleichsam versuchen und probiren, ob das Clavier in gutem Stand, rein und richtig gestimmt sey."

Just to kick things off!

John Pike wrote (July 15, 2004):
[To Charles Francis] Oh dear!

I didnít know it would be like this!

Any chance of a translation?

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 16, 2004):
[To John Pike] John has asked about a translation: the passage, basically, is about preludes and fantasies being written or improvised to fool around with the keyboard, prefatory to playing something more serious or worked-out; the point being (among other things) to check the tuning of the instrument for any problems. This is not just for Bach, but it's common all the way through the 17th century, with preludes to suites, etc.

Some nicely written-out Bach examples of this practice are bars 108-130 of the f# minor toccata (BWV 910), the C# major prelude of WTC book 2 (BWV 872), and the opening movement of the e minor partita (BWV 830) which made an earlier appearance in Magdalena's book. Another one is the Allemande of the E-flat French suite (BWV 815) and the variant reading 815a whose opening movement merely has notated chords to be improvised upon (has anybody recorded this version?) And, of course, the various fantasias and/or fugues that start with or have inner sections of chords to be improvised upon; and the myriad 17th-century pieces that sound like improvisations all the way through. (Froberger and Frescobaldi toccatas, and the like.)

If the clavier doesn't sound decently tuned through the testing of such noodly stuff, and the improvisation of additional noodly stuff wherever one is in the mood to go, it's time to scrap the temperament and start over (whether the problem has arisen from humidity changes, carelessness, or the instrument having been tuned ineptly by someone else earlier).

There's a good point by Lindley about that first piece, the section of the f# toccata, as part of his argument about the possibilities of equal or quasi-equal temperaments. I won't say anything about it as one really has to see it in the context of the whole article; Musical Times December 1985.

Indeed, that's the same passage of the f# toccata that so baffled and bored Glenn Gould that he simply omitted part of it from his recording...not that he was all that interested in scholarly responsibility anyway. Bazzana remarked about that omission: "In so doing, he cut by about two-thirds a long sequential passage, excessive sequencing being one feature of improvisatory works that he deplored," and in his footnote refers back to Gould's own remarks about disliking Bach's music when it gets "interminably repetitious, rudimentarily sequential, desperately in need of an editor's red pencil...." (Bazzana, p26; Glenn Gould Reader, p16)

John Pike wrote (July 16, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < Another one is the Allemande of the E-flat French suite (BWV 815) and the variant reading 815a whose opening movement merely has notated chords to be improvised upon (has anybody recorded this version?) >
I don't know for certain, but the Hänssler Bachakademie recordings of Bach keyboard works are supposed to be complete. i will check this out at home when I get a chance to look at my latest acquisitions!

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 16, 2004):
[To Charles Francis] I should add here: the mere satisfaction of the set of test pieces mentioned below is also in itself not sufficient proof of any "Bach" temperament! This is just one small piece of the problem to be solved. If this were all of it, the Bendeler temperament I mentioned at: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachMusicology/message/9
would do very nicely, on its musical merits plus the provenance in c1690 by this friend and colleague of Werckmeister, plus its republication in Bach's Leipzig in 1739! But so would equal temperament and various quasi-equal schemes proposed by contemporaries of Bach, in Germany. All this stuff was being talked about and hashed and rehashed, with all sorts of conflicting opinions bashing around; and the charting of a course through it all takes years of work.

Musicians, meanwhile, choose any and all of these schemes (and more) as practical solutions; the immediate goal is to have each gig sound good, presenting the music in a convincing light. So, again, aesthetic favorites come into the discussion both then and now. As I've said, the problem is an extraordinarily complex one.

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Last update: żJuly 17, 2004 ż12:56:18