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Back in the day, the great classical composers were brilliant improvisers. Are they still? Is it even possible?

When I was 17 and still in the throes of my love affair with jazz, I came upon a passage in a biography about J.S. Bach that really messed with my head.

I read that, on-demand—from emperors, dukes, church officials and whoever else made demands of musicians in the 18th century— Bach could brilliantly improvise multi-voice fugues on the keyboard that rivaled or even surpassed his written works in that form.

When I was 18, I read a biography about Beethoven, in which I learned that he could improvise multi-movement piano sonatas that rivaled or surpassed his written works in that form.

Fugues. Sonatas. Fugues! These are among the most complex musical forms to craft, and you’re telling me these dudes could just make them up on the spot? Somewhere deep down, I decided that I wanted to be able to do that. Or something like it.


As an impressionable young pianist/composer/jazzer/songwriter, I read the biographies of great musicians the way a religious fanatic reads the bible—absorbing everything, and worrying about how all of it applied to me. If I read that Charlie Parker, the great bebop saxophonist, was addicted to heroin, I wondered if my lack of drug use would be a problem in being a jazz musician. (Never got further than pot and booze.) I worried extensively about being a white kid playing black music. (Every white kid playing black music worries about that at some point.) Most of all, I worried about whether or not I’d ever be worthy of my heroes. Many of the musicians I jammed with, often twice my age, let me know in no uncertain terms that I would never reach those heights, that I should just settle for musical competency—like them.

But even though what I read in these biographies worried me, it also inspired me in two important ways. One, unless they were hagiographies, they humanized my heroes—brought them down from the pedestals that insecure and mediocre artists and critics put them on in their need to make what they masters did unattainable. By making them flawed, showing how they struggled to scale the heights, I gradually came to understand that there was a path towards musical greatness, one that involved many tough choices along the way. Too often, with the greats, we assume they were just born that way. Not so. Quite the opposite. The truly great artists fight for every note for the simple reason that they’re not the notes everyone else is playing—that everyone else assumes are the notes you should be playing.

Improvisation as Proof of Concept

The other thing I learned was the importance of improvisation itself throughout musical history. Improvisation was not just a thing jazz musicians did, but a vital part of the creative process in all great musical traditions. In effect, what the great jazz improvisers did was bring it back—remind us that it was an integral part of the compositional process and that if your musical language couldn’t be improvised, then there was a problem.

And there was a problem in the Western Art Music tradition when I was young. We were still under the sway of advanced serialism, a musical language so convoluted that it could only be appreciated by the “experts”—meaning the composers who meticulously created it and the small cadre of musicians who played it.

In its purest (puritanical) form, It certainly could not be improvised by human musicians. You’d need a pretty powerful computer for that. (Interestingly, a significant advance in the musicality of serialism came when composers like Witold Lutoslawski figured out how to use it in an improvisational setting, what is called aleatoric, or chance, music.)

All of which proves two things: one, improvisation is vital to the creative health of any musical tradition. And two, there is no one way or approach to improvising. For a long time, jazz musicians improvised around the tune, the chord changes of popular or jazz tunes. Many still do this in various forms. But there are other ways, including free improvisation (which itself has many subsets.) And then there are the ways I learned from reading about Bach and Beethoven’s improvisations mastery.

A Third Way

Bach, with his ability to improvise fugues, and Beethoven with his ability to improvise sonatas. What did this tell me? That there was a third or fourth way: not purely free improvisation, but not wholly married to a tune like in most jazz. You could improvise on themes—freely, but with the aim being some kind of structure that added up to a story.

That’s what I wanted to do.

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