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Szymon Jakubowski: "Partimento will make music much more understandable for you"

On August 21, 2021, Polish pianist and organist Szymon Jakubowski will perform an intimate concert at the Kompetenzzentrum Forst e.V., Gubener Straße 30A. What is unusual about this classical concert will be the fact that Jakubowski will improvise in the idiom of classical music on a number of German and Polish musical themes. Improvisation in classical music has generally been a rarity on the concert stage but with the advent of partimento and a resurgence of thoroughbass (figured bass), more and more classical musicians have begun improvising in their recital programs. I had the opportunity to interview Jakubowski about classical improvisation, partimento, and his upcoming concert.

Nikhil Hogan: what made you select your pieces/themes for the concert?

Szymon Jakubowski: It is influenced by art of the concert, place, instrument. I consider what musical themes I could use. I like to improvise in different styles, from baroque to contemporary. Whenever possible, I try to involve the audience, make them curious and ask them to give me themes to improvise spontaneously.

For example, in the concert I will give on August 21 this year, I will improvise to Polish and German themes. I want to create a dialogue, to show the musical similarities and differences between these two countries. This concert is in August, but one idea is already clear. I want to improvise on Polish and German folk themes using characteristic dance rhythms. I will refer to a concert given by Frederic Chopin in Vienna in August 1829 when he improvised on the Polish folk tune "Chmiel". I would also like to improvise to this melody.

Here is how he described the event in one of his letters:

Frederic Chopin to his family in Warsaw

Vienna, Wednesday, 12 August 1829

„(..)I improvised on a theme from ‚The White Lady‘[François-Adrien Boieldieu, La dame blanche]; and at the request of the director (who was uncommonly taken by my Rondo, such that, having squeezed my hand powerfully yesterday, he said: ‚ja, das Rondo muss hier gespielt werden‘ [German: ‚yes, the Rondo must be played here‘]) that I take a Polish theme, I chose Chmiel [Hops], which electrified an audience not used to such songs. My spies in the stalls vouch that they were even jumping on the benches.(…)“

From „Chopin’s Polish Letters“ Translated by David Frick, The Fryderyk Chopin Institute Warsaw 2016

Nikhil Hogan: What is the state of classical improvisation in Germany?

Szymon Jakubowski: Oh, that's a big question! If we are talking about teaching classical improvisation, many music universities in Germany offer the opportunity to study organ improvisation. In the early music departments, it is also possible to learn improvisation in old styles (solo and ensemble improvisation). I know that recently it is possible to study piano improvisation in Freiburg and Frankfurt. As far as the partimento method is concerned, Freiburg is the best place to learn it in Germany.

At primary and secondary school level (children and teenagers) there is a great lack of classical improvisation, especially as a 'bridge' between playing repertoire and the practical application of music theory skills.

When it comes to improvising at concerts, it's still very rare. Most often you can hear organ improvisation concerts, because here the tradition of playing extempore was never broken (in churches improvisation was and is always in use).

In piano music, classical improvisation is still feared, it is something that is better avoided in order not to "destroy" the perfection of classical music ;-)

Nikhil Hogan: Any words of encouragement for the newcomers in the growing partimento/generalbass movement?

Szymon Jakubowski: First let me tell you in a few sentences what I think learning partimento/generalbass will give you. By learning partimento/generalbass you will be able to create very nice harmonies quickly and correctly, you will be able to harmonize in a classical way any melody you hear or see in the scores, play an accompaniment or improvise. Music will be much more understandable and predictable for you.

If you are beginning your adventure with classical improvisation, look and listen for what appeals to you in music. Look what delights you. Delight is the best motivation. If in some piece of music, which you play, you like a particular place, start "playing" with it, listening to it. If it is a piece from the 17th, 18th, or first half of the 19th century, there is a good chance that the place you like so much in that piece is a cadence, sequence, or other contrapuntal-harmonic pattern or model. If you go step by step into the world of partimento, solfeggio, marches d'harmonie, sooner or later the model you liked so much will appear and you will be able to understand it better and use it when you want in your improvisation.

Nikhil Hogan: what’s your advice to learn classical improvisation?

Szymon Jakubowski: First, listen "consciously“ to a lot of music that you like and that you want to play or improvise.

Secondly, sing a lot, especially melodies that you like. If you can't sing, play those melodies by ear on the piano.

Thirdly, use every situation where you can play something spontaneously, e.g. harmonize ad hoc Happy Birthday at grandma's birthday party (no preparation, just three chords!) :-)

Fourth, use great literature, like for example:

John Mortensen - The Pianist's Guide to Historic Improvisation

Job IJzerman - Harmony, Counterpoint, Partimento

Robert O. Gjerdingen - Child Composers in the Old Conservatories

and the website www.partimenti.org and … The Nikhil Hogan Show :-)

Fifth, don't forget that music, and especially improvisation, is about having fun! It's about playing. Playing music like a little child plays with blocks to build fantastic structures.

Nikhil Hogan: how would you change the way classical music is taught?

Szymon Jakubowski: The most important thing I would like to change in classical music education is the fusion of two very distant fields: practice and theory. I would like elements of music theory to be actively used for learning improvisation, but also for the conscious performance of musical compositions.

How would I do that?

The answers: teaching solfeggio and partimento, teaching solo and ensemble improvisation in different classical styles, showing similarities between classical music and pop, rock, jazz.

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