Ivan’s private site

November 16, 2008

Classical Music and Improvisation (re: Gabriele Montero)

It was the French Classical Music channel (France Musique) that made me discover the name of Gabriele Montero. A great classical pianist from Venezuela (if a person like Marta Argerich says “I have rarely come across a talent like Gabriela’s. She is a unique artist.”, well, that means something). But what really caught my attention is that Montero does something very rare: she does classical music improvisation.

Musical improvisation has a strange history in Western classical music. There was a time when it dominated classical music: Bach was considered to be incredible improviser at the keyboard, and so were most of his contemporary musicians like Händel or Telemann. In fact, the tradition claims that some of Bach’s keyboard pieces are just the write down of his improvisations (the best known example is the “The Musical Offering” which includes a three-voice fugue for keyboard and which was probably the improvisation of Bach when he visited Frederick II of Prussia). And, in fact, even when playing “published” music a baroque artist was not only allowed to improvise a little bit here and there, but it was, sort of, expected from him.

But this tradition has disappeared. (I am not talking about jazz here. That is different.) Today a classical musician is supposed to follow the notes, the dynamics, the speed, etc, exactly as written down by the composer. Of course, this is not 100% true, musicians do have a great freedom of expressiveness, otherwise any machine would do. But it is certainly not allowed to deviate from the notes as written down in the music. Improvisation is not expected by the public, rarely practiced by musicians, not taught at conservatories. Actually, if an artist still does it, the “established” community of musicians will very often consider this as not “serious”, not worthy of a real classical musician… It requires a certain guts for a serious performer to do it in public.

Well… and Gabriela Montero has the guts. And that is why it is worth remembering her name. There are a bunch of videos on YouTube; maybe the one I prefer is a baroque style improvisation on Debussy’s Claire de Lune. Quite amazing: improvising counterpoint on the fly… She also has some CD-s where she recorded improvisations she made on Bach tunes (“Bach and Beyond”) or Baroque tunes in general. If you are interested in classical music but you also want to hear something a bit… unusual, then it is worth checking out!

B.t.w., she also has a web site (of course 🙂 where one can submit her a tune, she would improvise on it and send back the result in MP3. I might check this out sometime…



  1. Interesting points Ivan.

    I’m finding myself increasingly interested in another aspect of this, though, which is the wide variety of ways you can perform the same piece. Years ago a friend gave me Bach’s Cello Suites performed by Pablo Casals. At the time I was not really ‘into’ classical music, so didn’t have much to play, so whenever I did choose to listen to anything, it would invariably be this recording that I reached for.

    Over the years I decided to branch out a little more, and from this starting-point I found more cello pieces, and then of course more Bach. (This approach probably shows my techie background. :))

    But it was only two or three years ago that I heard other recordings of the Cello Suites! And I have to say I was astounded.

    It simply hadn’t occurred to me that there was any point in listening to two versions of the same piece, since I had simply taken for granted that whatever was in a piece, waiting to be unlocked, was intrinsic to the music itself.

    But then on a flight I heard Yo-Yo Ma’s version of the Cello Suites, and it might as well have been a different piece altogether. Perhaps it’s because I knew the Casals version so well that the differences struck me so sharply, but at almost every turn something was different.

    In some ways an even more striking example — since it involves only one performer — is the pair of recordings by Glenn Gould of the Goldberg Variations. Once again, the moment you hear the more recent recording, it leaps out at you that it is different to his earlier one, recorded decades earlier.

    Anyway…I’m certainly not saying that music should be constrained, with every note accounted for in the performance, and no room for improvisation. But at the same time, I’m continually struck by the variety that is possible amongst performances, even when they are seemingly following the same railtracks.

    All the best,


    Comment by Mark Birbeck — November 17, 2008 @ 17:56

  2. Hi Mark!

    Actually… the example you give is closely related to the original blog. Indeed, one of the interesting points about baroque music is that it allows a much greater liberty in interpretation than the music of later ages. The published music contains very few specific instructions on dynamics, speed, etc. Even the choice of instruments is, sometimes, left to the musician (actually, much or the modern instruments did not even exist back then). The result is that there are huge differences in interpretation, greatly influenced by changing traditions, habits, taste. And, actually, there were fierce discussions exactly on that in the past 20-30 years, with some experts trying to research what the “authentic” baroque music interpretation should be. Several generations separate Yo-Yo Ma from Pablo Casals, which means that the huge differences between the two recording is, in fact, not even such a big surprise. Every age had “its” Bach or Vivaldi or Händel…

    But, of course, great musicians always prevail, regardless of age and the taste of the time. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier played by Sviatoslav Richter may be several decades old but it still talks to me just the same as some of the more modern interpretations (like András Schiff’s) do, though they are radically different. (Maybe because I consider myself lucky enough to have heard Richter’s interpretation live in Budapest a long time ago when I was still, hm, young…).

    I do not want to give the false impression that only baroque music gives a freedom in interpretation. This is certainly not true… it just may be more subtle sometimes. But the differences are certainly there and are huge. How and why in spite of the composers’ more precise instructions? I do not know. It is mystery… or magic? Much as we are techies it is good to know that there is something (a lot!) beyond that techie world 😉

    Comment by Ivan Herman — November 17, 2008 @ 22:05

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