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the act of creating a work of art extemporaneously during performance. Improvisation is associated with poetry, music, dance, and drama. Its sources in professional art lie in the folk tradition. Since earliest antiquity various peoples have enjoyed the creative work of singers who improvised their songs as they performed them (for example, the ancient Greek aoidois, the Western European Spielman, the Russian skaziteli, the Ukrainian kobzari, and the Kazakh and Kirghiz akyny). Improvisation has developed more widely in music and poetry than in any other branch of professional art.
In poetry, improvisation is usually done on a given theme. A. Mickiewicz was a brilliant improviser, and the Russian poets P. A. Viazemskii and V. Ia. Briusov (The Torrents of Spring) were masters of the improvisatory art. The image of the poet-improviser is engraved in A. S. Pushkin’s novella Egyptian Nights. The impromptu is a form of improvisation.
In professional music, improvisation is influenced by folk improvisation and incorporates characteristics of folk music. Early forms of improvised music in Europe were associated with medieval vocal religious music. Because the score was incompletely and roughly written, using neums and hooks, each singer had to improvise his own part to some extent. Gradually the methods of improvisation became subject to rules. For a long time professional qualifications of musicians such as organists were defined in terms of their mastery of the art of free improvisation of polyphonic forms such as the prelude and fugue. At the end of the 16th century, with the acceptance of the homophonic harmonic system (melody with accompaniment), the figured bass (a numbered base) attained popularity. It provided for an improvised accompaniment that followed the rules of harmony.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries improvised elements appeared as ornaments in instrumental pieces as well as in the vocal parts of operas (the roulade and gracenote). Improvisation reached its highest artistic development in the art of ornamental embellishment. However, the abuse of improvisation, which transformed it into a superficially virtuosic, decorative art, led to its ruin. In the 18th and 19th centuries the complexity of musical forms and the profundity of their content demanded that the composer make a more complete and more precise notation of the score. Thus, a great deal of freedom was lost by the performer. During the first half of the 19th century, improvisation in the form of the free fantasia was important in the works of the leading composer-performers (Beethoven, Paganini, Liszt, and Chopin). The names of a number of musical genres indicate their partial ties with improvisation (for example, the fantasia, impromptu, prelude, and improvisation). In modern music, improvisation is seldom used except in jazz, of which it is an organic part. Certain modernistic schools frequently call for free improvisation in their compositions.
In dance, improvisation has been an integral part of folk rituals, games, and celebrations since ancient times. In the Orient and in Asia improvisation has remained a part of both folk and professional dancing. It varies in quality from the primitive to the highly professional. In many folk dances, when a dancer is called upon to demonstrate his strength, agility, or courage, he will go beyond the set form of the dance. (This occurs, for example, in Georgian and Armenian dances for men.) In folk dances such as the Russian weaving dance the dancers compete in the improvisation of patterns.
The growing importance of music in choreography at the beginning of the 20th century led to the rise of a new form of improvisation: the intuitive expression of music through dance. I. Duncan’s art, which was to a great degree improvisatory, inspired the growth of a number of schools. In the second half of the 20th century improvisation remains a necessary part of popular dances, and it is widely encountered in ballroom dancing—for example, the Charleston, Lipsi (a German dance named after the city of Leipzig), twist, and shake.
In the theater “improvisation” refers to an extemporaneous performance by an actor, based on his ability to build a character and to create his own text on a given theme or on one prescribed by a scenario. Characteristic of various forms of folk art, improvisation originated in the popular theater. It was an essential part of ancient Oriental drama and is still important in modern Oriental theater. In addition, improvisation was significant in the classical, medieval, and Renaissance theater. The art of improvisation was highly developed in the Italian commedia dell’arte in the 16th through 18th centuries and in the French farce in the 15th and 16th centuries. Later, it retained a place on the stage as a stylistic device (for example, in C. Gozzi’s plays).
In the early 20th century an interest in improvisation was associated with efforts to revitalize the creative powers of the actor and to enrich the contemporary theater by infusing it with the sources of popular artistic culture. K. S. Stanislavsky introduced the method of improvisation into his actors’ training classes. A mastery of improvisational methods borrowed from the Italian commedia dell’arte and the Russian farce characterized V. E. Meierkhol’d’s artistic quest as a director, as well as the creative work of E. B. Vakhtangov. (In Vakhtangov’s staging of Gozzi’s Princess Turandot, an improvised beginning influenced the directing of the entire performance.) Between 1919 and 1938 there was a theater for improvisation in Moscow—the Semperante Theater. The art of improvisation is an important part of training in the theater today.
REFERENCESWehle, G.F. Die Kunst der Improvisation, vols. 1–3. Minister, 1925–32.
Fellerer, K. G. “Zur Geschichte der freien Improvisation.” Die Musikpflege, vol. 2, 1932.
Ferand, E. T. Die Improvisation, 2nd ed. Cologne, 1961.