[Smt-talk] Pieces with improvisatory openings

David O'Dette dmodette at gmail.com
Sun Oct 23 19:59:06 PDT 2011

Michael and list,

Mitch's request for "pieces that begin with short, improvisatory passages
that precede more temporally patterned movements" certainly calls for a
definition, or at least an approximate working idea, of "improvisatory."  I
was about to ask Mitch if he has in mind a way to distinguish between what
he describes and any arbitrary slow introduction.  It hadn't occurred to me
to distinguish among "improvisatory," "rhapsodic" and "fantasia."  Do you
have distinctions in mind among these?

I think "improvisatory" can't be taken literally in the context of the
original question.  Taking it literally for 19th-century repertoire would
probably rule out almost everything written for ensembles larger than duos
(especially orchestral works, excepting the few concertos with introductory
solos, such as the Emperor).  For example: Mitch's example of Schumann's
quartet Op. 41 No. 3 plays with the harmonic possibilities of a short phrase
in a way that I think has an improvisatory feel, but I'd be surprised if any
quartet could have improvised these measures of carefully crafted
chromaticism.  "Stylistically evocative" of improvisation is probably a
useful idea, without concern for whether a given passage could actually have
been improvised.  But of what does "stylistically evocative of
improvisation" consist?  The imprecision of this notion can probably be
reduced by careful thought, but not eliminated.

Meanwhile, it seems useful (necessary?) to distinguish between "short,
improvisatory passages" and just any slow introduction to a fast movement.
 I hear the opening of the Pathetique Sonata as more extensive and developed
than a "short, improvisatory passage," which is also why I nominated
Beethoven's Op. 78 sonata but not Op. 111.  One could certainly argue that
the opening of Op. 78 doesn't sound improvisatory (although surely Beethoven
could have improvised it), but we need criteria.  I wouldn't construe the
opening of Beethoven's 7th Symphony as improvisatory, but I do think the 4th
movement of the 1st Symphony is a good example: it's easily construed as
(among other things) playing with different forms of scalar ascent until one
of them yields a good continuation.  I'm unearthing here my intuitive sense
that "improvisatory" has something to do with playing, in a relatively
unstructured way, with the possibilities of an underlying simpler idea.  (If
that's accepted as a criterion, I might withdraw the nomination of Op. 78.)

David O'Dette
Prime Form Music
Washington, DC

On Sun, Oct 23, 2011 at 2:09 PM, Michael Morse <mwmorse at bell.net> wrote:

>  I'm a bit confused by the terminology here. Are these Beethoven openings
> best described as "improvisatory"? Or are "rhapsodic" or "fantasia" more
> fitting? I'm not sure whether "improvisatory" is supposed to be literal or
> stylistically evocative..
> MW Morse
> Trent University
> Sent wirelessly from my BlackBerry device on the Bell network.
> Envoyé sans fil par mon terminal mobile BlackBerry sur le réseau de Bell.
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