Classical Improvisation

Musical improvisation today is found extensively in jazz, free form, and rap, but it formerly held a more prominent role during the pre-classical era of music history.

Ernest Ferand states in his book titled Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music that “sections of polyphonic masses were as much subjected to improvisation as opera arias,” and evidence of it is found not only in hymns and dance music, but also in madrigals, chansons, chamber duets, motets, sonatas, sacred concertos, and secular songs. Unfortunately, improvisation became less popular through the eighteenth century, appearing primarily in classical works as free solo cadenzas and in concerts by featured composer-performers.

Authors, such as Derek Bailey, refer to “the petrifying effect of European classical music on improvisation,” calling today’s classical music “formal, precious, self-absorbed, pompous, harbouring rigid conventions and carefully preserved hierarchical distinctions.” From a philosophical perspective, many other authors have joined him in condemning the elitist snobbery that goes hand-in-hand with the reverence for geniuses and timeless masterpieces.

Thomas Turino discusses the presentational-versus-participatory nature of our society today. That is, we tend to do more watching than doing. North American society tends to embrace a Eurocentric view of arts and culture, placing an emphasis on both the quality of
the art and the quality of the performance, which tends to limit enthusiasm for creative participation if the individual feels that he or she is not good enough.

Richard Schechner discusses the tendency of Western culture to separate the entertainment component of performance from the ritual aspect of sharing, again a commentary on the importance of involvement in the arts as not just presentational, but as a communal part of society.

It is possible that a return to our historic roots of improvisation and participation would provide a welcome change to the exclusionary state of the arts in Western society today.