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Beethovenfest

Beethoven and more podcast #11: The art of improvisation

Improvisation was long part of the classical tradition but largely died out in the world of contemporary classical music. However, one Venezuelan pianist who excels at playing off the cuff is an exception to the rule.

Pianist Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero was already improvising on the piano at age 5

Gabriela Montero (1970-)

Improvisation on the song "Guantanamera"

Gabriela Montero (piano)

MP3 recorded at the Petersberg near Bonn on September 25, 2010 by Deutsche Welle (DW)

Improvisation has been called the well-spring of all music. In the baroque and classical periods, it was standard practice. The improvisational abilities of composers like Bach, Handel and Mozart were legendary. Beethoven also showed a prodigious improvisational talent at the piano. Many of his piano sonatas, although precisely crafted compositions, reflect the freewheeling spirit of improvisational fantasy with their tempestuous runs and cascading successions of chords.

Today, the art of improvisation is widespread in jazz but rare within the realm of "classical" or "serious" music - with one exception being church organists who may improvise preludes or accompaniments to hymn tunes. However, a talent of the caliber of Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is extremely rare. Montero, who says that she began improvising at age five, has been asked repeatedly "how she does it," for which she has no answer.

To demonstrate her gift for spur-of-the-moment invention, Montero often begins a recital playing works from the repertory, but in the second half, improvises elaborate pieces based on melodies suggested by audience members. The styles and rhythms can vary from Romantic to rumba and from the toccata to the tango.

We've chosen a brief excerpt from her all-improvised recital at the Petersberg Hotel near Bonn. She begins by plucking out the melody of the song "Guantanamera" and then builds an elaborate and cleverly crafted musical edifice from the song's motifs. Experiencing Gabriela Montero live in concert reminds one of the fact that without improvisation, there would be no music.

Author: Rick Fulker
Editor: Greg Wiser

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