Improvisation: Performer as co-composer

Kyle Schick


Elements of musical improvisation have been present throughout the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras; however, improvisation had the most profound recorded presence in the Baroque era. Improvisation is inherently a living practice and leaves little documentation behind for historians to study, but however elusive, it is still important to trace where instances of this improvised art appear throughout the eras listed above. It is also interesting to trace what role improvisation would later have in realizing the Baroque ideals of emotional expression, virtuosity, and individuality. This paper seeks to focus on a few of the best-documented mediums of improvisation within each era. During the medieval period, improvisation took on the form of improvised counterpoint against a plainsong. In the Renaissance, improvised harmony of faburden and the contenance angloise is this paper’s selected example. In the Baroque, this study seeks to describe several areas where improvisation appears such as the art of improvised accompaniment from figured-bass symbols, the practice of expressive ornamentation on a written melody, and improvised vocal embellishments and cadenzas of the da capo aria. A final aim of this research is to provide examples to clarify the definition of improvisation as the degree to which the composer of a musical work has given control of its realization to the performer. Treatises and ear witness accounts of improvised musical forms provided primary sources. Other sources used in this research included writings on performance practices of different historical eras and writings on the changing relationship between the composer and the performer. This paper also consults writings on how improvised music was perceived historically as opposed to composed music.


Improvisation; Prelude; Ornamentation

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