Musical Improvisation in the Eighteenth Century

Why did musical improvisation die in the eighteenth century, to be fully reborn only in jazz?

Until the late eighteenth century, musicians were trained to improvise and embellish, and even to create entire compositions spontaneously. But by the Romantic period, improvisation had almost become a lost art. Although organists and opera singers continued to learn how to improvise, for most instrumentalists the art of spontaneous improvisation survived only in the solo cadenza. From a modern perspective, the decline of improvisation seems paradoxical, because modern listeners think of spontaneity as a characteristic of Romanticism.

Perhaps one cause of the loss of improvisation was the loss of a system of musical shorthand that made instant composition easy: figured bass notation.

The modern jazz improviser uses "fake books" which contain chord symbols--the standard modern shorthand for harmonies. The standard musical shorthand in the eighteenth century was figured bass, or thorough-bass. Instead of using chord names, it indicated harmonic patterns by means of numerical notations above a written bass line. Three- and four-part harmonic accompaniment to the bass line was worked out instantaneously.

The most important eighteenth-century text on thorough-bass notation was Der Generalbass in der Composition (Dresden, 1728), by Johann David Heinichen. For music students who do not read German, Heinichen's work is clearly explained (and partially translated) by George J. Buelow, in his Thorough-Bass Accompaniment According to Johann David Heinichen, rev. ed., Studies in Musicology, No. 84 (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986).

© 1999 Martin Maner

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