Improvisation in Western Classical Music



As a creative musician, I spend much of my time improvising: the Dastgah system of Persian classical music, the maqamaat of Arabian music, jazz, free improvisation, and so on. What we call “classical” music in the West (Europe/North America) also had a very vibrant tradition of improvisation until the last 180 years or so, but today it is known more for its strict reproduction of written scores. Since many musicians are not aware of the West’s historical improvisational tradition before the 19th and 20th centuries, I have provided a brief overview of it, taken from my notes on Ernest Ferand’s work Nine Centuries of Improvisation In Western Music (1961). 


Discussion of improvisation in Western culture can be seen as early as the writings of Aristotle on the origins of Greek drama:

“Given then, that mimetic activity comes naturally to us—together with melody and rhythm (for it is evident that metres are species of rhythms)—it was originally those with a special natural capacity who, through a slow and gradual process, brought poetry into being with their improvisations [autoschediasmāton].” (Poetics 1448b7, 1449a14).

Having come into being from an improvisational origin [arches autoschediastike] (which is true of both tragedy and comedy, the first starting from the leaders of the phallic songs which are still customary in many cities), tragedy was gradually enhanced as poets made progress with the potential they could see in the genre.

Aristotle’s view of improvisatory activities directed toward the perfected form of tragedy can be interpreted on what is ‘natural’ to one’s conception and what is ‘missing’ from the improvised events. Boethius, in the early sixth century A.D., set out principles for what a musician ‘is’ in a section of his highly influential book on music and theory, De insitutione musica. In Boethius’ view reason is more honourable than skill, ration artifictum in the same way that the mind is superior to the body. Therefore, a musician is ‘one who has gained knowledge of making music by weighing with the reason, not through the servitude of work, but through the sovereignty of speculation.’ If manual labour and the labour of the intellect are the polar opposites, then ‘those’ who are engaged in the musical art’ can be categorized according to their position between these two opposites. According to ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, musicians of the lower class are ‘dependent upon instruments’ and ‘totally lacking in thought’. Those in the highest class, who are ‘totally grounded in reason and thought’, have the ability to meticulously consider rhythms and melodies, and the composition as a complete whole. In the middle of this continuum are ‘those who compose songs’, the poets who are ‘led to song not so much by thought and reason as by a certain natural instinct.’

In the actual practice of improvisation in music, Ferand states that the spontaneous invention and shaping of music while it is being performed is as old as music itself, and that the beginnings of musical practice can scarcely be imagined in any form other than that of improvisation – which is instantaneous musical expression (p. 5). The rites of the early Christians were marked by a religious ecstasy that manifested itself in unhampered, purely emotional, spontaneous expression; songs of praise of the Lord born in the impulse of the moment as reported by Tertullian (155-222) (6). The presence of “Oriental” influence and element of improvisation is evident in Ambrosian and Gregorian chant in their elaborate melismas, which were the goal of the performance of these works; the melody being pretext as such. (6). As well, a common 12th century technique from two-part organum was the performance of an equally measured sequence of notes in the foundation lower part (cantus firmus) with a varied set of rhythms in the upper part. Writings by Anonymous 2 and French cleric Elias Salomon (1274) in the 13th century as well reveal the act of super librum cantare (Latin: singing over the book): four-part improvising on a chant melody (8).

Improvisation by a single player on a keyboard instrument became increasingly important in the course of its development (9), while principles of keyboard improvisation eventually came to apply to solo extemporizations on other instruments, especially on the lute, but also on the viol (10). These, along with the art of ornamentation and variation became highly developed by the time of the Renaissance as seen in the practical and theoretical sources of the day, as well as in the various diminution formulas, examples for study, and instructions for the employment of such formulas appearing in increasing number from the second third of the 16th century onwards (10).

The transition from the art of diminution and passage work in polyphony to the application of this ornamentation practice to monodic forms of music, as exemplified by the falsibordoni passeggiati of the early 17th century (14), a century in which the violin gradually came to the fore in instrumental music (15). The cadenza in the 17th and 18th century concerto form in can also be considered a kind of transition from ensemble to solo improvisation (19). The art of ‘independent’ improvisation blossomed in 17th and 18th century organ performance in the performances and writing of J. S Bach, G. Handel and others, as great Baroque organists were required to be able to write down their improvisations afterwards, which shows that many of their great works came out of improvisation (19-20) (such as J. S Bach’s masterful Goldberg Variations).



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