Week 2: Why did we ever stop improvising? And why we shouldn’t.
Welcome to the second week of "Imagination on the Piano: Improvising Classically with George Ko"!
This is the thread for posting the submissions and assignments for the second week. Watch the second Livestream to learn more about the Week Two Assignments!
Did you know that the great composers we admire all improvised? In fact, Beethoven was known as the greatest improviser in Europe. So why did we stop? Today we take a deep dive in the world of classical improvisation, and steal some tricks from Mozart and Chopin.
Week Two Assignment
What’s your favorite improvisation like passage from your favorite composers? Feel free to share a recording, or better yet, a quick clip of your performance of the piece! It could be a recitativo melody, a slow melodic 2nd movement, etc.
George Ko I went on a sailing holiday a couple of weeks ago, which meant I had to catch up on work when I returned so the piano received very little piano attention before I went to a family wedding, from which we returned yesterday. I shall now start to engage with this commmunity challenge by reviewing the responses to Week 1 and your previous posts. Loving your live streams!
So sorry, just found it! "Never mind".. User Error strikes again...
Here it is for those, like me (or am I the only one?) still learning how to navigate the site:
Thank you, Dominic!
Have included an attempted first slow part of Debussy’s Claire de Lune as my favorite improvisation-like passage…
This link will take you to my "Improv # III", which takes as its inspiration Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major, Op. 32 No. 5 ---- in particular the gentle rocking “vamp” on the I-VI chords that underlies his theme, and then the little riff on the scale steps that follow the main theme. These are not played literally here, but modified/adapted and then transposed into our F-E-D chord pattern.
This Improv is squarely centered in F Major. For my E chord I used diminished & half diminished qualities, which allow me to use it as dominant (sort of) to get in and out of F major and D minor. For the D chord I use mostly a d minor, which alternates with the F major tonality (the same I-VI alternation we see in Rach’s G Major Prelude).
In homage to the Master, I quote his closing cadence at the very end (but in F, not G of course), and try to fit in a couple of other quotes which are not as clear. Hope you like it. I’ll try to post separately something about the G Major Prelude if I get a chance.
What I think is Improvisational about the Rachmaninoff G Major Prelude
As a supplement to my video link in the post below, I had tried to dust off and relearn Rachmaninoff’s G Major Prelude, Op. 32 No. 5 (which I used to play several years ago) in order to post a performance here, but after a few days of practice, I can’t yet play it well enough to inflict on you, even as a practice take. I’ll try again this weekend.
So for now I'll share my thoughts as to what I think is improvisational about it. As I mentioned in last week's chat, I think that many of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes are based in his improvisations, which he then refined and distilled into very ‘composed’ pieces of music.
One feature here that lends itself to improvisation is the gently rocking LH arpeggiated chords underlying the theme in, among other places, mm 1-6 and mm 9-14 (which alternates between the I & VI chords, as articulated by the held notes of D (G chord) and E (e minor chord)). He uses this pattern as a unifying motif for the whole piece. The D-E note alternation also goes through some changes (e.g. briefly into the G minor mode in the middle) and then articulating a I-V pattern under the chromatic flourishes at the very end.
Jazz/pop players would call that pattern a ‘vamp’, which refers to a short repeating chord pattern, which you then improvise on top of. I believe his melody line, which is something less than a ‘theme’ and is repeated in different variations, provides a few examples of what could be improvised on top of this 'vamp''.
Another improvisational feature is the ‘riff’ in mm 6-8 and mm 14-18, which is simply a series of scale steps up and down, but beautifully decorated with an upper note (B in the first several iterations), followed by a sort of mordent – a little piece of a trill from above before settling on the scale step in question. So simple, and pure genius!
I use both the ‘vamp’ and the ‘riff’ in my Improv III, modified and adapted to a different kind of melody, played over our F-E-D pattern. Hopefully, I can supplement this text later with a performance of the Prelude if I can get it somewhat up to snuff, to illustrate these points a little more graphically.