Beethoven Rolls Over: Improv Duel

Ludwig van Beethoven

I still remember how one day Gelinek told my father that he was invited to a party that evening where he was to oppose a foreign virtuoso in a pianistic duel.

“I’ll fix him,” Gelinek added.

Next day my father asked Gelinek about the outcome of the battle.

Gelinek looked quite crestfallen and said: “Yesterday was a day I’ll remember! That young fellow must be in league with the devil. I’ve never heard anybody play like that! I gave him a theme to improvise on, and I assure you I’ve never even heard Mozart improvise so admirably.”

“Then he played some of his own compositions, which are marvelous – really wonderful – and he manages difficulties and effects at the keyboard that we never even dreamed of.”

“I say, what’s his name?” asked my father with some astonishment.

“He is a small, ugly, swarthy young fellow, and seems to have a willful disposition,” answered Gelinek.

“Prince Lichnowsky brought him to Vienna from Germany to let him study composition with Haydn, Albrechtsberger, and Salieri, and his name is Beethoven.

–Carl Czerny


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Quote: Improvisation in History


Felix Mendelssohn


Domenico Scarlatti

Franz Schubert

Johannes Brahms

Georg Friedrich Händel

Ludwig van Beethoven

Although Beethoven’s supreme art of improvising on the piano represents a peak in the history of solo extempore playing that was probably never surpassed, or even reached again, the old tradition was still carried on after him by some composer-virtuosos, by church organists, and sometimes by concert artists. From the 14th century almost to the present, stretches the long series of great improvisers on the organ, on the harpsichord, on the piano – from the blind Landini and Paumann, also blind, through Hofhaimer, Frescobaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, Bach, and Handel, through Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and many others to Cesar Franck, Brahms, and Bruckner. Finally some interesting exceptional phenomena should be mentioned, like the four-handed extemporizing on two pianos of by Mozart and Clementi, by Beethoven and Joseph Wölfl, by Mendelssohn and Moscheles, by Chopin and Liszt… These were the final relics of the old ensemble improvisation in the art music of the West.


–Ernest Thomas Ferand, Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music

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Improv Quote of the Day: Sing and Dance!

Joseph Haydn

The canon which runs from antiquity via Palestrina and Bach and through to Schoenberg via Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is truly a wonderful tradition full of beautiful music. But who needs it any more? And when did people begin sitting down to listen to music instead of dancing and singing along? Compared to the joys of group improvisation, this great European tradition seems like so much hierarchical social nonsense studded with genius.

Johann Sebastian Bach

–Rod Paton (from his web site www.rodpaton.com)

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven

Mozart, about 1780. Detail of Mozart family po...


Improv Quote of the Day: Only Natural


Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Improvisation is the most natural and widespread form of music making. Up until the last century it was integral even to our literate tradition in the West. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the great pioneers of improvisation on the viola da braccio, and with his friends put on entire operas in which both the poetry and the music were made up on the spot. In Baroque music, the art of playing keyboard instruments from a ‘figured bass’…resembled the modern jazz musician’s art of playing over themes, motifs, or chord changes. In classical times, the cadenzas of violin, piano, and other concertos were meant to be improvised – a chance for the player to put his own creative display into the total artwork. Both Bach and Mozart were renowned as very free, agile, imaginative improvisers, and many stories, both moving and amusing, are attached to their exploits in the field. Beethoven, when he first came to Vienna, became known as an outstanding improviser on the piano, and only later as a composer.

–Stephen Nachmanovitch

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