Improvisation in Classical Music – Where Did it Go?

Classical musicians are typically stuck to their sheet music. If they don’t have music in front of them or memorized they are often completely handicapped at their instrument. There are two major ways that a musician can play music without reading. One is playing by ear, and the other is improvisation.

The art of improvisation is now mainly associated with jazz music. Did you know, though, that improvisation in classical music was commonplace well before jazz was every played?

What is Improvisation?

In the strictest sense a musician improvises when they make up music without any reference to other musical material. This type of improvisation did take place in the past, but often improvisations were played around a theme.

The most common form of improvisation today is in jazz music. Jazz musicians make up the notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, and just about everything else about the music on the spot. This doesn’t mean that everything in jazz is improvised however. That would make playing with a group rather problematic.

In jazz, a melody is often written down and after playing through the melody once or twice, the musician would improvise over the chords used in that melody. Often musicians will include ideas from the original melodies in their improvisations. Having a melody written is not a requirement however. Jazz musicians just need common chords to play on top of. The rest is up to the musicians.

The piano, bass, guitar, or any combination of the three play the chords underneath the soloist. Typically, the soloist tries to play notes within the chords.

Improvising doesn’t have to happen in the same way as it does in jazz. Musicians can improvise notes and melodies over chords like they do in jazz, they can improvise the notes and chords, they can improvise just rhythms, they can even improvise just dynamics and articulations.

In art music today, there is little to no improvising, but it wasn’t always like this.

Early Music

Before music was written down, it was learned and passed down by rote and by ear. This means that those who composed music would play the piece, and other musicians that enjoyed the music would copy what they heard either by watching the composer play or by listening.

Improvisation was common. Without the ability to write down their ideas, they were often forgotten.

Baroque Music

In music of the baroque period, improvisation was an extremely common practice. Baroque music is played today by classical musicians, however most often all of the music is written down.

In the Baroque period, tempo markings, articulations, and dynamics were rarely notated. The composer would leave the decision around how to play the music they wrote to the performer.

Embellishments, also called ornaments, were added around melodic notes so the composer’s original melodies would stay in tact. Today, these ornaments are frequently practiced and written down by the performer, so it can hardly be termed improvisation, even though the decision on how to play them is left up to the performer.

Basso Continuo

The Baroque period saw rise to an interesting style of improvisation called basso continuo. It translates to “continuous bass”. It was most often performed by a harpsichord (or organ) and some other bass instrument like a cello or double bass.

The basso continuo was an accompaniment. The composer would write out just the bass line, and what is called “figured bass” which would tell the performer what intervals to play above the bass.

The performer would then improvise the the notes and rhythms above the bass based on the figured bass instructions.

This type of improvisation is very similar to jazz, in that the performer was given chords to improvise on top of. The rules for basso continuo playing are rather strict though. Much stricter than the free jazz style. There are many different rules as to what voicing (which notes appear where) the chords would need to follow. The performer therefore had access to rhythmic variations, and a few different options for voicing.

Today, if a basso continuo is performed, it’s often written out note for note for the performer. Few musicians have the skill set to realize a figured bass part.

Bach and Improvisation

Bach was not very well known during his lifetime as a composer. He was better known as an organist and improviser. Bach would improvise entire pieces of music from scratch. In fact many of the books on playing the keyboard were written about improvising specifically.

Improvisation was an important aspect of music education.

Classical Period

Improvisation was not confined to just the Baroque period. Mozart would often improvise over his own compositions. His public concerts almost always contained a complete stand alone improvisation. The listeners at the time would have expected it. His improvisations were so incredible that some were more impressed by them than the music that he actually wrote down.

Beethoven was a well known improviser as well. Daniel Steibelt, an incredible pianist in his own right, competed against Beethoven in an improvisation competition. These competitions were regularly held at the time. Steibelt played first. Beethoven apparently play so much better than Steibelt that he vowed never to return to Vienna again.

Cadenzas

A cadenza is a part of a concerto where the orchestra stops playing. The soloist then plays play a free sounding section of music. When Mozart played his piano concertos, his cadenzas were most often completely improvised. Mozart was not the only one to improvise cadenzas, it was regular practice for them to be improvised. If Mozart did write in music for a cadenza, it was often for a student that was not skilled enough in improvisation. Writing out the improvisation was a simplification.

Beethoven followed much of the same pattern. Originally he did not write a cadenza for his first four piano concertos. Later in his life he did go back and write out cadenzas and even several alternate versions as well.

Today, almost all performers will play cadenzas that have been written out instead of improvising them.

Romantic Music

Liszt would often improvise before a recital. He called these improvisations “preludes”. He would also often improvise at the end of his recitals on a theme by the audience.

Chopin was no stranger to improvisation himself. He said he sometimes had problems writing down a version of his music because he would play it differently every time.

20th/21st Century Music

Rarely today do classical pianists improvise in the style of art music. There are definitely some exceptions, but it is definitely not commonplace.

The question is then raised, what changed? For centuries improvisation was as commonplace in art music as it is today in jazz. Then it seems like all of a sudden it disappeared.

Emphasis on Written Music

You will be hard pressed to find a school that teaches classical improvisation. Schools focus mainly on reading the written music of others. Why is this? One reason is likely because teachers are not skilled improvisers. The talent has been all but lost. There are still some incredible musicians out there that can improvise quite readily in any style, but even among some of the best teachers in the world it can still be hard to find someone that is a comfortable improviser.

Competitions

Many serious musicians attend competitions. Competitions have rigid requirements and they emphasize written music. Gone are the days of sponsored improvisational contests. Students don’t have the time or the need to learn how to improvise. Generations have passed with this philosophy, and even teachers today don’t have the skill in improvisation that they would have had in the past.

Conclusion

If you ask me, the loss of improvisation is a big loss. I would love to sit down and improvise in a style of my choice, but I never learned. It’s obviously not an impossible skill to learn, but the motivation for most students is just not there because there aren’t really practical applications for it. You can’t improvise in an audition, competition, and even formal school recitals likely won’t allow it.

Can we bring it back? Should teachers start learn how to improvise and teach classical improvisation to their students? Let us know what you think in the comments.