The Legacy of Genius: Improvisation, Romantic Imagination, and the Western Musical Canon

This dissertation addresses the question of the decline of improvisation in Western classical music, investigating both its disappearance from performance practice and the scholarly neglect of this phenomenon in music histories and theories. Music historians have traditionally situated the disappearance of improvisation at the end of the Baroque, but improvisation continued to be an important part of Western classical music until well into the nineteenth century. The failure to account for its importance in the Classical and Romantic periods raises questions concerning the methodological limitations of early music scholarship and the scholarly tradition that ensued.

The decline of the practice of improvisation coincides with the period around the middle of the nineteenth century when this musical tradition underwent a process of formalization and canonization. This process went hand in hand with a post-Romantic recontextualization of historicism, the aesthetics of genius, and music scholarship. The disappearance of improvisation was caused by the confluence of these developments and the impact each had on the others. The Classical musical tradition then became synonymous with the preservation, study, and reproduction of a body of fixed works conceived as the metaphysically-charged legacy of genius.

An underlying goal of this dissertation is to question some central aspects of the received concept of "Western Classical music." A reflection on the role played by improvisation in the history of this music makes it evident that this is a rich tradition of music-making and musical aesthetics that is not reducible to the narrow, formalist concept of work with which it is largely identified. This reflection opens up theoretical and practical possibilities that might help us to think about and experience Western Classical music from exciting new perspectives that are nevertheless firmly rooted in tradition.

To view the complete resource, download it as a PDF.

Resource Type: 
Additional Keywords: 
aesthetics, Baroque, dissertations, ehtnomusicology, Enlightenment, genius, improvisation, indeterminacy, metaphysics, musical canon, mysticism, neoromanticism, nineteenth centur, positivism, Romanticism, virtuosity, western classical music, Western music