Saturday, August 6, 2022

Liszt, childhood, and improvisation

I’ve been reading a fascinating book about improvisation in 19th century classical music, Dana Gooley, Fantasies of Improvisation: Free Playing in nineteenth-Century Music (Oxford 2018). Here’s a passage from a remarkable discussion of conceptions of childhood in relationship to prodigies and improvisation (pp. 204-205):

The prevailing response to both Liszt and Mozart as improvising prodigies was a feeling of wonder and uncanniness. Their mastery of the piano was extraordinary in itself, but their capacity to generate music off the cuff heightened the sense of awe. Improvisation manifested mental and inventive capacities that were thought to belong to adults alone. In his classic study Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Ariès argued that the conception of the child as a different type of being, distinct from adults, be- came more pronounced over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and took its modern form in the educated middle classes of the eighteenth century. The educational philosophy of Rousseau, in particular, promoted the idea that children lack knowledge and need prolonged tutelage to acquire it. Yet Rousseau’s ideas attained general dissemination only in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, after Mozart’s prodigy years, and there is a measurable shift of response between Mozart and Liszt.16 Responses to Mozart were dominated by a discourse of wonder that greeted extraordinary phenomena with assertions of absolute inscrutability. The Englishman Daines Barrington, in his famous 1769 anecdotes of Mozart, did not try to explain how the child prodigy did what he did. Bracketing causal explanations, he merely reiterated the “extraordinary facts” and “amazing and incredible” performances he witnessed, in which improvisations figured prominently: “his extemporary compositions also, of which I was a witness, prove his genius and invention to have been most astonishing.”

By the time of Liszt, however, the conceptual differentiation of children from adults had become more pronounced, and contemporary observers focused less on the “divine gift” than on the precocious maturity of Liszt’s mind. This shift of focus did not entirely kill off the discourse of wonder. A Toulouse paper, for example, reported that “the young virtuoso reawakens the memory of pagan mythology, and it is merely a child that has produced these marvels, this magic, these prodigious feats.” This same review, however, invoked more up-to-date psychological ideas, claiming that “this likeable child manifests a superior mental constitution [organisation].” The notion that a child might possess a mature, adult musical mind had a latent insurgent potential. It suggested that children were not only behavioral mimics, but might also possess independent cognitive-productive power. This was not only at odds with a general perception of children as “unformed,” but also with the way the professional music establishment upheld its authority. As discussed in Chapter 2, improvised free fantasies were often valued for the guild-like learning and professionalism they put on display. Liszt’s fantasies threw into doubt the cherished idea that deep study of harmony and counterpoint were really necessary to improvise well. Czerny, recalling Liszt’s audition to study with him, was struck by the boy’s intuitive grasp of musical rules: “at his father’s request I gave him a theme for improvisation. Without the slightest learned harmonic knowledge he nevertheless brought a certain intelligent sense [genialen Sinn] to his playing.” Critics responded similarly, making a categorical separation between the child’s technical and mental capacities:

Performance on the piano is little more than mechanical work. Thinking, so to speak, plays no role in it . . . but the faculty of improvising music, of pursuing a theme long enough to move from one key to another, of vigorously attacking the most difficult modulations without getting lost and without breaching the rule of composition, this talent is truly the effect of a mind quite particular to the young Liszt. (Pandore, 14 April 1824)20

The baffled responses to Liszt’s early improvisations belong to a more general uncertainty surrounding improvisation. The question of its origins, of how it is possible at all, returns perpetually among both insiders and lay spectators. Answers tend to fall into two polarized lines of explanation: a disenchanted one, according to which it is a “mechanical” reshuffling of learned and practiced patterns, and a quasi-theological one, according to which it channels some supernatural agent or spirit beyond human volition (in romantic discourse, “genius”). Even authors who recognize the binary terms of this debate rarely find a way to avoid them. This persistent undecidability about improvisation’s originating agency affected the discourse around the young Liszt. Any child who exhibited adult-like behavior seemed to cross a “natural” threshold. Paradoxically, though, “nature” also offered the best account of how a child prodigy could do what he did. Liszt, according to the writer just quoted, was “endowed by nature with the rarest capacities.” A conceptual conflict arose between the theory that children’s minds are shaped by conscientious education and the theory that these minds are formed by natural endowments. Liszt’s improvisations pressed this conflict to the fore, and the explanation by “nature” only reaffirmed the mystery of origination.

With the help of his free fantasies Liszt managed to escape the skepticism and suspicion critics increasingly expressed toward child prodigies. In the fifty or sixty years intervening between Mozart and Liszt there had emerged an entire world of keyboard pedagogy oriented specifically toward children—a world represented well enough by Czerny’s incessant stream of private lessons and published exercises. Consequently, musical prodigies and pseudo-prodigies cropped up more often than they had in previous eras. By the 1840s a musical observer could write that “musical child prodigies are shooting up from the ground like mushrooms after a night of warm rain.” It was becoming more difficult to resist the impression that an exceptionally talented child was not the product of a punishing educational regime or an overbearing, exploitative parent.

I’m struck by this sentence: “Any child who exhibited adult-like behavior seemed to cross a ‘natural’ threshold.” It’s interesting to think about that threshold in the context of, for example, Henry Lau’s presentation of young Korean prodigies [1]. He’s aware of both their musical abilities and the fact that they’re still children and is at ease with both roles. But there is also the remarkable performance of the Nakagurose Elementary School band [2]. There’s no reason to believe that any of these children are prodigies, nor is the composition they perform particularly difficult, though few middle-school bands in America could play so well. But, as they perform, they are neither children nor adults; rather, they are simply musicians, human beings engrossed in making music.


[1] See my posts:

[2] They are the third of three examples in this post: Born to Groove, Kids and Music 1: Three Examples. I would also call your attention to the second example, Colt Clark and the Quarantine Kids. This is a family band, father (Colt) and three children, Cash (bass), Beckett (drums), and Bellamy, who fronts the band in various ways. While both Cash and Beckett are capable enough, Cash is certainly not at good as Ellen Alaverdyan and Beckett is not as good as either Nandi Bushell or Yoyoka.

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