Compelled to be Impeccable

American pianist Amy Fay (1844-1928) wrote something extremely interesting about Franz Liszt in her book, published in 1880, Music-Study in Germany (Reprint/Dover 1965):

Liszt sometimes strikes wrong notes when he plays, but it does not trouble him in the least. On the contrary, he rather enjoys it. He reminds me of one of the cabinet ministers in Berlin, of whom it is said that he has an amazing talent for making blunders, but a still more amazing one for getting out of them and covering them up. Of Liszt the first part of this is not true, for if he strikes a wrong note it is simply because he chooses to be careless. But the last part of it applies to him eminently. It always amuses him instead of disconcerting him when he comes down squarely wrong, as it affords him an opportunity of displaying his ingenuity and giving things such a turn that the false note will appear simply a key leading to new and unexpected beauties. (p. 242)

I find this extremely interesting, not just for the historical value of this vivid description of Liszt in action, but also because it provides a term of comparison with performances as we experience them today. Performing standards are extremely high in our time, and performances are almost always impeccable from the technical point of view. So impeccable they are, as a matter of fact, that if we consider Franz Liszt as Amy Fay describes him, one is tempted to believe that performances today, just HAVE to be impeccable That is because most instrumentalists, if they ever got into trouble, they would not know how to get out of it by means of an improvised detour, or any kind of melodic or harmonic trick that might bring them back to the right course. In a way performers incapable of improvisatory skills, simply are compelled to be impeccable, because if they are not, then they really do get hopelessly into trouble. In other words, if you are unable to extemporize (and most performers today are not trained for that), than you just have to be impeccable – you just have no other choice!