[Smt-talk] Pieces with improvisatory openings

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Sun Oct 23 16:19:56 PDT 2011

May I suggest that the first two of the pieces listed below by Bob  
Kosovsky are the best answers that have surfaced so far. Especially  
the Choral Fantasy, the opening few minutes of which sound like a  
written-out improvisation in C minor, whose connections with the  
following C major movement are subtle and perhaps even tenuous.

Many of the other suggestions seem more closely connected with the  
slow-introduction genre, which derives from the Baroque French- 
Overture genre (with its binary form, each part in a different tempo).  
Of course, there's overlap, especially as Beethoven begins to blur the  
boundaries between introduction and main body of the movement—so that,  
as in the “Tempest” Sonata, the combination of different tempi  
definitely begins to sound improvisatory, even if it wasn't really.  
But most slow introductions don't sound improvisatory at all, do they?  
Rather they establish a stable Tonic harmony in square meter, allowing  
the main body that follows to begin in mid-flight, as it were.

And, though recitatives are certainly rhythmically complex, with  
speech rhythms overriding more typically musical patterns, they're not  
really improvisatory, either, yes? Anything but, in fact.

A better source for such improvisatory openings might turn out to be  
the improvised modulatory connectives that a keyboardist might play  
between pieces in different keys. (A tradition that I believe Dinu  
Lipati continued to the end of his career as a pianist?) I don't  
remember the position occupied by the Choral Fantasy on its premiere  
concert; would it have been following a C minor piece, perhaps?  
(Probably too much to hope for...)

BTW another written out improvisatory opening, even better than the G  
minor Ballade, is found in Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie in Ab (Op. 61)...


>> I'm interested in studying the emergence of tempo from the  
>> perspective of the listener. One viable case study for this  
>> phenomenon is the class of pieces that begin with short,  
>> improvisatory passages that precede more temporally patterned  
>> movements proper...Do you know of other tonal examples like these?
> Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5, op. 73, "Emperor"
> Beethoven: Choral Fantasy, op. 80
> Brahms:  Double Concerto, op. 103
> I have a strong suspicion that this phenomenon stems from a  
> recitative-aria format (the recitative generally having the feeling  
> of overiding the notated tempo with speech patterns).  Of course,  
> there are many hundred of arias that begin with such recitatives.
> Bob Kosovsky, Ph.D. -- Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts,
> Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
> blog:  http://www.nypl.org/blog/author/44   Twitter: @kos2
>  Listowner: OPERA-L ; SMT-TALK ; SMT-ANNOUNCE ; SoundForge-users
> --- My opinions do not necessarily represent those of my  
> institutions ---


Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Chair of the Department
Department of Music, 220 Baird Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
716-645-0639 [direct line]
716-645-3824 [fax]
cjsmith at buffalo.edu

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