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According to some, extemporization is a lost art, a relic of the past which we are neither able nor desirous of reviving in anything like its former glory. Of course, we do not now refer to the delightful vagaries of the average church organist, who has to kill time at certain points in the service, and runs the imminent risk of killing also any unhappy auditor who happens to be somewhat musical. On the whole, perhaps, we are inclined to blame the poor organist too much for what is rather his misfortune than his fault. Let any one who has not yet done so try the experiment of extemporizing on a given theme with his eyes and ears intent on the movements of the church wardens and sidesmen taking up the offertory, and then for ever after hold his peace on the subject of the weakness of the ordinary player’s productions on such occasions. That some of our organists can triumphantly stand the test is greatly to their honor.

We turn, however, to the wider field of extemporization unhampered by such restrictions. Full success in this field demands the combined qualities of the inspired composer and the accomplished executant, and requires, further, an extraordinary memory and power of mental concentration. Such qualities, it need scarcely be said, occur simultaneously in few musicians; but it is quite possible to develop latent gifts by judicious training, and there is little doubt that a larger number of our present- day composers and players might attain considerable facility in the art if they turned their attention seriously to it. In past generations it was expected of all composers that they should extemporize in public. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Hummel, Mendelssohn, and many other possessors of honored names in the musical Temple of Fame, delighted and astonished contemporary audiences both of the general public and of musical experts. It is recorded of Bach that the lengthy “Vorspiele” and “Zwischenspiele” on the chorales with which he was accustomed to edify the congregation of St. Thomas, Leipzig, on more than one occasion brought down on him the protests of the clergy, who considered the services interrupted thereby. Mozart extemporized in public at an early age. A programme, dated 1770, announces an improvised prelude and fugue, and sonata for harpsichord by the youthful genius. Sometimes two players competed in this way, as Bach and the Frenchman Marchand, at Dresden—in which case it is needless to say that Bach came off triumphant. Occasions are recorded also of two players extemporizing together, e.g., Clementi and Mozart, at Vienna, in 1781, Beethoven and Wolffl, in 1798, Mendelssohn and Moscheles, also Mendelssohn with his beloved sister Fanny. In such cases there was either a spirit of rivalry in which the weaker genius would, undoubtedly, play second fiddle to the stronger, or else an uncommon sympathy and “rapport” between the two players, as in the last two instances. As the greatest composers were almost invariably the most successful ex tempore performers, it is not surprising to learn, from those who had the invaluable privilege of hearing him, that Beethoven was unrivaled in this art. His own playing was described by contemporaries as being far finer when improvising than when playing a written composition, even of his own creation. Czerny wrote of Beethoven: “His improvisation, which created a very great sensation during the first few years after his arrival in Vienna, was of various kinds, whether he extemporized upon an original or a given theme. I. In the form of the first movement of a sonata, the first part being regularly formed, and including a second subject in a related key, while the second part gave freer scope to the inspiration of the moment, though with every possible application and employment of the principle themes. In allegro movements the whole would be enlivened by ‘bravura’ passages, for the most part more difficult than any in his published works. II. In the form of variations, etc., … . III. In mixed form after the fashion of a ‘pot-pourri,’ one melody following another … . . Sometimes two or three insignificant notes would serve as the material from which to improvise an entire composition.”

Although extemporizing has by no means been entirely neglected since Beethoven’s day, it no longer holds the important position it once did in the life of great composers and executants, and a public exhibition of this faculty is so comparatively rare now, that it is worthy of remark when it does take place. The world has probably realized, without exactly saying so, that improvisation is but a fleeting thing, however beautiful or inspired it may be. It is as though a great artist produced a picture in colors which would fade as soon as glanced at, or a sculptor carved a goddess from an ice block on which the sun’s rays would soon light. Doubtless we may get nearer to the real living genius of a musician by hearing his unpremeditated rhapsody; but, after all, the product of hours of labor has a far greater art value in itself—besides its virtue of permanence—than the most brilliant flash of momentary inspiration ever evolved from brain and fingers. In brief, clever improvisation is a telling proof of the existence of a fertile creative faculty and a facile power of development, both of which, however, may be exercised more profitably in the ordinary methods of composition and performance.


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