Room 66--Winging it!

Improvisation, that is, making the music up as you go, was a very important tool during the Baroque era (1600-1750). It was expected that any musician worth his (or her) salt could improvise. In fact, during this time, the keyboard player with an instrumental ensemble was often only given the lowest (bass) line, and there were numbers written above it that gave indications of the chords that were to be played. This type of writing was called a “figured bass.” The part that was played by the keyboard player was known as the continuo part.

Improvisation came back in the classical and romantic periods, especially in a solo concerto, where the showcased artist was expected to improvise a cadenza in one of the movements. For example, you can find recordings of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto where varying cadenzas by different artists are played. A great example of a wild cadenza is the Glenn Gould recording of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven, where his improvised cadenza threatens to turn into a fugue by Bach!

Improvisation was quite popular among traditional jazz musicians, and of course, with the coming of age of such players as pianist Keith Jarrett, you can find entire concerts which are improvised.

In a few moments you’ll be able to hear a wonderful example of improvisation First we’ll bring you an excerpt from the piece that will be the basis for the improvisation, the famous Aria from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations.


Now, here is an improvisation excerpt based upon that Aria, played by pianist Gabriela Montero. You won’t really notice the familiar melody until about 30 seconds in.


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