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: 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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Improv Quote of the Day: The True Mozart


Mozart in 1777, the year of the concerto. Pain...

Contemporaries report that when he was playing the piano, especially when improvising, he became that other human being they would have liked him to be in his daily life. His expression changed; he seemed to become serene… These must have been the moments (often hours) when he reveled in blissful self-forgetfulness, when he severed his connection with the outside world; here he was the unadorned Mozart, who needed no intermediary in order to communicate – no singers, no instrumentalists or fellow musicians, and no bothersome score, either. Here, and perhaps only here, he achieved true pleasure in his own genius; here he transcended himself, becoming the absolute Mozart.

–Wolfgang Hildesdeimer, Mozart


Improv Quote of the Day: How Improv is Like Ice Hockey

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

[The use of improvisation] makes it impossible for any two players to execute K. 622 the same way, as is, sadly, so often the case today. The tool may be likened to the thing that makes a hockey game interesting: once the puck is thrown down, one has no idea what is going to happen. And that is one of the principal reasons why eighteenth-century musicians improvised: it made every performance of a work measurably different from every other performance of that same work. As such, it was a tool

English: Pictogram, Hockey Français : Pictogra...

used to create freshness and originality, the very thing that we all want to have in our performances.

– Daniel N. Leeson, Spontaneous Improvisation in Mozart Performance