Beethoven and the Art of Improvisation

Classical music, which, in our time, focuses on the interpretation of great compositions of the past, was once a thriving scene of world class. Robert Levin, in an interview on NPR's Performance Today, notes that...

Nowadays we associate contemporary improvisation with jazz or bluegrass, not classical music; we don't often get the opportunity to hear a classical musician improvise. However, this wasn't always the case. In previous centuries, the occupations of composer and performer were inextricably linked. The one who composed music also executed it, sometimes spontaneously. Organists such as J.S. Bach improvised during church services. In the nineteenth century, after the establishment of public concerts, performers such as Beethoven used improvisation as a way to show off their abilities and attract attention to themselves.

Many great composers were masters at improvisation, and some of them incorporated improvisation into their written compositions. Mozart and Beethoven not only improvised variations on popular themes of the day, but preserved some of these improvisations on paper. Sometimes, a composer was required to improvise a passage of an otherwise notated composition, as was the case with the 1808 premiere of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, Op. 80. Beethoven was so overwhelmed with concert preparations that he had no time to compose an introduction for the Fantasy. When it came time for the premiere and Beethoven still had no introduction, he simply sat down at the piano and improvised one.

- Melinda Whiting with Robert Levin on NPR's Performance Today in 1999.