MS. ED

Saturday, April 30, 2016


Mozart’s Ad-Libbing Ways


“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a latecomer to the nursery rhyme genre, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica.  It was first published by Ann and Jane Taylor in 1806, but the music associated with the nursery rhyme dates to 1740.  The French historian, Henri-Irénée Marrou, believed it pastoral and anonymous.  

Mozart apparently heard the music in France and created twelve variations in 1778.  There is no historical certainty to this conjecture, but the “ad-libitum” nature of the variation is unmistakable.  It is an ad lib.


A "cadenza ad libitum" is an improvised piece of music.  The term often refers to a portion of a concerto in which the orchestra stops playing, leaving the soloist to play alone in free time (without a strict, regular pulse) and can be written or improvised, depending on what the composer specifies.

In Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467,” for example, the cadenza occurs near the end of the first movement, and can begin with pouncing cords or gentle grace.  The lead-in depends on the pianist, as does what follows.

“Many of the great composers,” the Shine Music School said, “were not only excellent performers but also great improvisers.

"...J.S. Bach (1685-1750)," for example, "the greatest composer of the Baroque era….  (And) there are written accounts of other composers improvisational abilities,” as well, “including
Mozart (1756-1791), Beethoven (1770-1829), and Franz Liszt (1811-1886).

"Yet, as time went on, improvising gave way to the composer's desire to exert complete control over his music.  By the late 19th century, improvising was rare and not used at all in public performances of classical music.”

And yet there are improvisations still happening.  Alexander Lubyantsev’s cadenza, for example, leads with confidence and macho bravado.  His YouTube video can be seen at  https://youtu.be/PwY_tuftnrI.

“Mozart's performances were designed to display his talents as improviser, pianist and composer...,” Robert Levin wrote for the Australian Financial Review, July 28, 2000. “His piano concertos contain contrived chasms (and) 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.”

“Making it up (in the manner of Mozart),” requested a more jazz-liked classical approach.

“In the 18th century all composers were performers and virtually all performers composed.  Further more, virtually all the music performed was new. Today's gap in popular and art music did not exist: 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 untrammeled flights of fanciful imagination.…

"If Mozart's language is as worthy of respect..., surely it is worth the time to learn it from the inside in order to invent it afresh as part of each performance.”

Improvisation used to be an integral part of performing, Vivien Schweitzer wrote for The New York Times.  Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt were all virtuoso improvisers whose concerts often included ad-lib fantasies and spontaneous variations on themes called out by adoring audiences.

Yeol Eum Son’s performance, for example (shared below), is a masterful ad-lib performance.  Compared with Rudolph Serkin’s performance (the 1st Movement), which is solid, but traditional and rather “plain vanilla,” it becomes clear what the composer would have preferred.

Ad-libbing once flourished in classical music.  It still can.

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