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Updated on December 26, 2010

Improvisation, the art of composing music or verses, sometimes with musical accompaniment, without preparation and on unseen subjects. It is Italian in origin, and at the end of the 16th century prospective organists at St Mark's, Venice, would be put through tests in improvisation on a fugue-theme. Silvio Antonio (1540-1603) was said to have been made a cardinal because of his skill in composing verses on any subject; while Perfett (1681-1747) was crowned with laurel by Pope Benedict XIII in recognition for his skill in improvising to the accompaniment of a guitar. Outside Italy, mention may be made of the Swedish poet K. M. Bellman (1740-95), the Frenchman Joseph Mery (1798-1865) and the English humorist Theodore Hook (1788-1841). Today the spoken art is practiced chiefly in cabaret entertainments.

The improvisation of music was formerly practiced by performers of all kinds, but is now confined, at least in public, mainly to organists and jazz pianists, as well as performers of present-day avant-garde music which allows great freedom of interpretation. In the 17th and 18th centuries both singers and instrumentalists were expected to add improvised ornamentation and cadenzas to their solos: indeed much of the music surviving from before 1830 represents a skeleton on which the performer would have improvised ornaments and filled in passages.


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