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This question occurred to me today as I was thinking about the sharp contrast between how music was performed back in Mozart's days and before versus how it has been performed since the mid 19th century. Improvisation or slight changes in the music that was to be performed were more popular back in the Baroque and Classical eras than since the Romantic era. I'm sure there was a history behind this as if at some point a cultural and paradigm shift that made this "somewhat frowned upon." Now, we will almost tar and feather someone if s/he injects even a little bit of creativity (in terms of notes played) into a performance. Do you know how improvisation in classical performances, including but not limited to piano, died?
It says here, early 20th century with the growth of recording.
Improvisation in classical is not fully dead. A few concert pianists still improvise cadenzas for Mozart concertos in performance, like Robert Levin and Mikhail Pletnev.

Musicians basically just don't do it in public anymore, apart from a very few who are very good at it, like Gabriela Montero, because the bar for classical musicians is set so high that anything not up to the standard of whatever else they might play would be deemed pointless and time-wasting (and people expect to get their money's worth of music, not improvs).

Less than a hundred years ago, there were still pianists who improvised preludes to the pieces they played, or linked disparate pieces together seamlessly (with key change etc) with their own improvisations like Raoul Koczalski, whose Chopin is today widely regarded as closest to the way Freddy himself might play. I have a CD set of a recital of his where the improvs were left in. Unfortunately, you're more likely to find them edited out these days, including on YT. Because we don't want to hear improvisations - we just want to hear what Chopin actually wrote.......

The problem of course is that unlike with jazz, we go to classical concerts to hear the music, not the performer (who is supposedly merely the conduit.....).
Chopin was a great improviser. He composed improvisationally and considered it a burden to have to write out a score in order to publish a work— in part because he did not need to do so for himself, and in part because he did not like having to commit one version to publication.

Brahms, on the other hand, composed by writing out what was in his head. How well a piano work fit the hands was of secondary importance. This gives rise to the phenomenon of Brahms’ music often sounding less difficult than it is.

An improvisation is only a true improvisation if the player is given a theme. A classical player playing an “improvised” cadenza or jazz musician playing a solo are typically playing materiel they have practiced a fair bit in preparation. The improvisational component is the freedom to go with the flow or the moment, rather than coming up with something from scratch.
My understanding is that conservatories discourage any such thing.
Short answer, in my opinion: when musicians stopped being *musicians* as much as specialized instrumentalists. Given the growing vastness of repertoires along with technical advances, it was probably inevitable. Also, the movement of "serious" or "art" music away from the public and into conservatories.

Improvisation is making a comeback mainly through HIP instrumentalists, who are playing music from an era in which an oboist might also double as a flutist or recorder player. You don't see that much these days.
^ Another point: how many pianists today would know how to play the keyboard part in a continuo group? That often relied heavily on improvisational skills. Music in the past I think was a much more fluid and flexible relationship between composer/score and performer than it is today. Now it's performers as note-perfect conduits of what is in the score.
I can't help but think that the conclusion in the link provided by Tyrone is correct. It feels similar to another consequence of technological change. Spelling standardisation didn't happen until the invention of the printing press.
It is a skill I would like to have. I'm not sure at what point in your piano playing technical skill level you should start working on being able to improvise.
Originally Posted by KevinM
It is a skill I would like to have.

Prof. John Mortensen of Cedarville University has created an online course for learning and practicing classical improvisation in the manner and style that it was performed historically. Tuition is $1/month for the beginning improvisation course and $3/month for the advanced improvisation course.

Originally Posted by KevinM
I'm not sure at what point in your piano playing technical skill level you should start working on being able to improvise.

Prof. Mortensen might answer that question somewhere among his online course material.
My piano-god (and fellow countryman; and having the same first name as me 😛) Evgeni Bozhanov improvised some stuff while checking the piano before a concert in Japan and they published it:


It’s like a Scriabin piece and I’m not sure Evgeni actually wanted to create anything, maybe just testing the piano but it turned out so great! I really admire pianists who can improvise, especially in the classical (or romantic, to be more precise) idiom. I guess it proves why he’s so good as interpreter and can always make a piece surprisingly fresh and singing.
I don't perform at pro level in big halls, but improvise in classical style all the time. I practice written works from the masters, then I can have fun improvising for myself. It's certainly not as great musically of course, but every now and then it's good, just like it's fun to discover an unexpected great scene of nature in an unknown park, etc.

I guess it's a well-known weird "taboo" thing in the formal classical minds, which is often prohibited to students by teachers. I suppose there is some good in that as it prevents young students and beginners to think they can do great while just discovering improvisation. At the same time, IMHO all should at least attempt and/or can learn to improvise with time, as long as they are aware it's an art just like performing written masterworks. Music is not static nor immutable and can/should evolve as needed. Great works from the masters can be rendered differently using one's own personality and view of the written music. But there is also a whole world of unknown music waiting for anyone to explore with improvisation. Many written masterworks were improvised.
Improvisational skills are not innate but can be studied. Studying music theory helps a great deal. I like to work on improvisation. I’m not skilled enough at it to improvise in the style of typical classical composers, but improvising in some other musical styles is easier. I find improvising blues to be more accessible for instance. Also modal medieval and some renaissance styles can be more straightforward, eg I like to improvise in the Phrygian mode. Classic rock styles can be very improvisational but a bit more difficult than say blues because rock harmonies are more diverse, but improvising leads and accompaniments with a chord chart is an interesting exercise that is similar to figured bass realization, but usually with chord name instead of scale position of the root of the chord and inversion.

The Scroll Ensemble is a group of musicians who improvise in a classical styles and have some instructional resources:

https://www.thescrollensemble.com/en/

I suspect improvisation died because, beyond a few geniuses, it was never very good.

The "classical music is boring" criticizers all seem to think that if people who don't perform well suddenly start improvising that it will make them "fresh and innovative." It doesn't work like that. laugh
Keith Jarrett often improvises in a "fusion" of different styles. Of course, he is a primarily a jazz musician, but he also records some classical albums - so perhaps he could be included as an improvising classical performer as well as a jazz one.

The funny thing is when people reverse the process, by transcribing his improvisations, and then performing them on YouTube as if they were written music.
Originally Posted by 3am_stargazing
Keith Jarrett often improvises in a "fusion" of different styles. Of course, he is a primarily a jazz musician, but he also records some classical albums - so perhaps he could be included as an improvising classical performer as well as a jazz one.

The funny thing is when people reverse the process, by transcribing his improvisations, and then performing them on YouTube as if they were written music.

Why would that be funny? Isn't that true for all jazz? Don't performance by jazz greats get transcribed all the time so others can play them?
Originally Posted by WhoDwaldi
I suspect improvisation died because, beyond a few geniuses, it was never very good.

The "classical music is boring" criticizers all seem to think that if people who don't perform well suddenly start improvising that it will make them "fresh and innovative." It doesn't work like that. laugh

But nowadays there's a huge demand for improvised music.

For example, even very mediocre improvisions (like Greg Haines - which is not better than what I can do) have a big audience.

Moreover, from the musicians perspective, improvising is extremely fun. And it's what most people would like to do, if they have some time on their own with a piano.

So training in improvisation should have a significant demand from the musicians themselves.
Didn't Beethoven's Emperor Concerto spell the beginning of the end of improvisation? Cause he wrote "do not play a(n) [improvised] cadenza, play what is written," in the score.

Of course, Beethoven knew no one could top his cadenza in the Emperor.
Originally Posted by 3am_stargazing
Moreover, from the musicians perspective, improvising is extremely fun. And it's what most people would do, if they have some time on their own with a piano.

So training in improvisation should have a significant demand from the musicians themselves.

Only 199 people have signed up for Prof. Mortensen's classical improvisation course. I wouldn't call it "in demand" among classical piano musicians themselves.
Originally Posted by Tyrone Slothrop
Originally Posted by 3am_stargazing
Keith Jarrett often improvises in a "fusion" of different styles. Of course, he is a primarily a jazz musician, but he also records some classical albums - so perhaps he could be included as an improvising classical performer as well as a jazz one.

The funny thing is when people reverse the process, by transcribing his improvisations, and then performing them on YouTube as if they were written music.

Why would that be funny? Isn't that true for all jazz? Don't performance by jazz greats get transcribed all the time so others can play them?

Of course it's not unique.

Transcribing something as spontaneous as a Keith Jarrett piano solo concert is still funny to me - but it's also an epic undertaking.

For example, a Japanese musician transcribed the Koln Concert for Schott. It took Keith Jarrett an hour to create it, but imagine how much work it was to transcribe.
https://www.amazon.com/Koln-Concert-Original-Transcription/dp/3795795192

Originally Posted by Tyrone Slothrop
Originally Posted by 3am_stargazing
Moreover, from the musicians perspective, improvising is extremely fun. And it's what most people would do, if they have some time on their own with a piano.

So training in improvisation should have a significant demand from the musicians themselves.

Only 199 people have signed up for Prof. Mortensen's classical improvisation course. I wouldn't call it "in demand" among classical piano musicians themselves.

Sadly, "classical" and "improvisation" became almost a contradiction in terms during the 20th century, and this seems to have stunted the creativity of so many classical musicians in the last couple of generations.

However, let's say you are alone in a dark room, with a piano, and no-one else can hear you, and you are in a whimsical or creative mood. Do you want to play other peoples' music, which expresses them - or would you like to create something yourself, that expresses your own soul, and the current moment in time?

Being able to improvise is perhaps analogous to flying, or at least cycling without training wheels. Intuitively most people would love to do this.

Improvising puts you into a creative trance, and it is possibly the most enjoyable thing you can do with your instrument. The problem is that it requires a lot of practice (and musical knowledge) to get good at it.

My "free improvisations" are not very great and I doubt anyone would ever pay to listen to them, as they involve a lot of noodling and wrong notes. Nonetheless, to my ears, they are very exciting, as they express my original ideas, and my emotion in the moment. I don't think there is any substitute for that.
Originally Posted by iaintagreatpianist
Didn't Beethoven's Emperor Concerto spell the beginning of the end of improvisation? Cause he wrote "do not play a(n) [improvised] cadenza, play what is written," in the score.

Of course, Beethoven knew no one could top his cadenza in the Emperor.


Blaming Beethoven for the lack of improvisation in modern classical makes as little sense as blaming Clara Schumann for playing from memory. We ascribe to them far more power than they ever had.
Beethoven's father strongly disapproved of his son improvising on the piano when he was supposed to be practicing (other composer's music) - he was of course grooming him to be a great performer and land a good job in a court. Beethoven Snr. told Luddy: "You can play your own music when you've learnt how to compose properly, and become a good pianist - not before."

Nothing has changed much.......
I think it's a shame that many classical pianists don't improvise in private. It's a great way to improve grease the cogs of the theory machine. Organists of course still improvise in public.
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