Spicks and Specks of Harpsichord Improvisation

| November 18, 2014

Improvisation in classical music? This is the sort of question which causes much discomfort amongst classically-trained musicians these days. However, there is much evidence which would suggest that not only was improvisation common, it was expected from performers. As we get further back in musical history we find more and more emphasis on the art of improvisation. With closer examination, a wide variety of musical freedom can be found. This reveals the importance of improvisation in the musical world and allows an elucidation of the musical language in which improvisation existed. Furthermore, we can see how seemingly unrelated musical genres have common relatives in the musical past. In this article, Aleksandra Acker sought Donald Nicolson’s views and experiences in improvising.

What is improvisation?

In my own musical journey, in its smallest form, it is the addition of another note to a chord, or the addition of an ornament to a melody. It may be my decision to spontaneously change the piano reduction of a Mozart violin concerto to make it more suitable to my technique, or what I may think would be a more suitable piano version of the piece. As a baroque harpsichordist, steeped in the traditions of basso continuo, everything I play with my right hand is improvised, based on the harmonic structure sketched by the composer. A more extended version would be taking a solo (in the same way as would a jazz musician) over a well-known bass line, or choosing to heavily ornament a melodic line so as to bring out its linear contours, or even quite simply to show off. In its most advanced form, improvisation is the spontaneous performance of an un-composed piece, performed entirely according to the whims of my mind, or using a melodic idea I might like and exploring all its possibilities. I may not know how I will end until I feel the end approach!

What is specific to improvising on harpsichord?

As instrumental performers we are bound to the limitations of our instruments. Unlike a piano, the harpsichord has no sustaining pedal; the notes that sustain are the ones I hold down. I can’t improvise on the harpsichord the same way as I would on the organ or piano. We have learnt that baroque harpsichordists were very influenced by the techniques of lute and guitar players – many of the devices that these musicians used were copied by harpsichordists and eventually became part of the ‘language’ of harpsichord playing. I follow this principle – if it was good enough for the harpsichordists of the baroque, it must be good enough for me! I’ve learnt how to make very interesting colours from asking guitarists what they do. As I‘ve become more interested in folk music I’ve followed in the same vein – to improvise in an Eastern European tradition (and beyond). I’ve listened a great deal to the instruments which have a similar sound to mine – the oud, the hammered dulcimer (or cimbalom) or the Turkish qanun. I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with some of Melbourne’s best musicians on these instruments so have experienced first-hand their performance techniques.

Donald playing taksim with Latitude 37 and guests at MONA, Hobart Baroque, 2014. Photo by Toby Frost

Donald playing taksim with Latitude 37 and guests at MONA, Hobart Baroque, 2014. Photo by Toby Frost

In Baroque music, how much do you improvise?

As a harpsichordist, I am improvising about 95% of the time – this is because my part within a baroque ensemble is usually the bass line only – following the figures (or, as it is called figured bass) notated above the bass line provides the basic harmonic structure – how I play the chords, where I choose to play them or whether I choose to completely re-harmonise the bass line are all my own decisions. There are general rules regulating how to play chords and how to join them together in fluid ways, but these are basic guidelines. The next step is turning an accompaniment into a piece of music itself. It should serve to enhance the other melodic parts, to elaborate on their gestures as well as the bass line’s inherent musical gestures. Unfortunately, the difficulty with learning to improvise in this language is that we don’t have any recordings from 300 years ago! We can only rely on written descriptions or publications. The most common form of improvising at the keyboard in the baroque period was in a form called the toccata. This originated from the lutenists (who else?!) who would test the tuning of their instruments by improvising short pieces which gradually became more elaborate in length and structure. Many of these were written down, and they range from short pieces by Gabrieli or Louis Couperin, to elaborate multi-sectional pieces by Frescobaldi, and finally to the extremely virtuosic and grand organ toccatas by JS Bach. I believe many of these written toccatas represent actual improvised pieces, but most likely ‘cleaned up’; that is to say, we may imagine the Italian master Frescobaldi thinking to himself, ’this opening material worked very well, but I wasn’t happy with my cadence at the end of this section. Now I have the time to write it down, I can improve it.’ If we look at the 1710 Amsterdam publication of Corelli’s Opus V we can see the sonatas “performed with the ornamentation Mr Corelli uses himself.” Whilst many scholars still argue whether this is actual Corelli, at the very least we can look at it as an example of how violinists were ornamenting at a very high level and also heavily ornamenting very simple melodic lines.

How do you form improvisation ideas?

Improvisation is a form of self-expression. If we are communicating our own ideas, we must have cohesive structure – we could call this an improvisational ‘language.’ This is something that may be missed especially by performers of baroque music and earlier. We spend so much time burrowing into the old sources that teach improvisation that we may overlook that they each represent the individual authors’ examination of improvisational practices – no two are really alike – in other words, they improvised according to their own individual language within the language of the baroque. Jazz musicians might study and transcribe the solos of Oscar Peterson or Chet Baker to advance their understandings of improvisation in a particular subgenre, but very rarely would one be encouraged to improvise exactly as these masters. The spontaneity and the individual expression (a crucial element in the solo) are completely lost – so it is for the baroque musician. The techniques must be assimilated but I don’t think one should create an improvisation that sounds exactly like Bovicelli or Della Casa.

My view on improvisation … talking with my audience and drawing them into my world at a deeply personal level.

What core knowledge is required?

For the modern baroque musician, it is extremely important (if not essential) to have a thorough understanding of harmony. This is emphasised by the fact that basso continuo was used as a teaching tool during the Baroque Era; one cannot really understand the melodic direction without understanding the underlying harmonic structure. In the same way, I think to create an improvisation, be it free or founded on the bass line, one needs to know how to create harmonic drive. In the baroque period, there was a huge importance placed on the practice of rhetoric – a piece of music was a speech which was communicating ideas to an audience. That’s also my view on improvisation – I feel I should be talking with my audience and drawing them into my world at a deeply personal level.

How stimulating is improvising?

I find it a very personal experience as it allows me to direct a musical moment with my own decisions, to savour a sound or chord that is affective to me and to communicate that experience directly to my audience. I like to be challenged by the notion of originality. While I like playing particular chord progressions or chordal, the need to keep testing one’s boundaries and the need to improve is greater than simply playing from the score.

Does one improvise for the listener or himself or both; perhaps this varies?

It depends on the context. We read in the sources from the 16th and 17th centuries that embellishing a melody must serve to move the listener by its enhancing of the melodic line or affect contained within the line. It does not take long however before the enhancement of every part of a piece becomes a bit too overwhelming for the listener – and yet the performer may feel as though he is doing a great job! Much is written about the importance of ornamenting a melody with good grace and I think that is a very important factor to keep in constant consideration.  Baroque musicians constantly face the issue of needing to ‘join the dots’ on the page by implementing various ornamentation devices but it is crucial to ensure that they are always varied, original and pleasing to the ear. I can imagine that these conditions probably sound very familiar to all musicians of all genres and improvisational styles.

What are some of your memorable experiences?

One of my more recent experiences was creating an improvisation steeped in the tradition of Turkish classical music, or in a general Middle Eastern style. I poured through the books reading the 13th century Arabic treatises, to learn about the types of musical mode and their moods, or the expectations of improvising musicians, the environments they work in, and the aesthetics of improvisation. As it turned out, I was able to find a very extensive book on the ‘musical licks’ that are taught to modern-day Persian musicians. This formed the basis for much of the musical material I learnt in preparation for my improvisation.

Being in Anja & Zlatna Ensemble has been a special discovery. There is not much known (if any) incorporation of the harpsichord in the folk music of the Balkans. However, there are many instruments which have similar sounding qualities to the harpsichord. These include the guitar, accordion, cimbalom (related to the Turkish qanun). The guitar of course, bears some relation to the baroque lute, and it was from this very instrument that the baroque harpsichordists found much of their ornamental devices. I like to take the same approach – listening to the sounds that the modern folk musicians play on their instruments and finding ways to incorporate those sounds into my own playing making it become part of my own technique.

As an organist I also improvise during the service, striving to enhance the liturgical experience for the congregation. I am still learning a great deal about the various aspects of the church service and I use these to guide me in the ‘characters’ of my improvisations.

Does one have to be brave or even arrogant to improvise?

Probably all of these! As a keyboardist, I step into a tradition of show-offs, grandstanding and competitions. Merula and Gabrieli would have organ ‘duels’ at Saint Mark’s in Venice in the late 16th century; Girolamo Frescobaldi was known all across Europe as a master improviser, and thousands would flock to hear him in Saint Peter’s; French organist Louis Marchand challenged JS Bach to an organ show-down (although the French organist notoriously stole away in the middle of the night and forfeited), Handel and Scarlatti engaged in an organ and harpsichord duel… the list goes on. We also read about singers, such as the great Farinelli who would add copious amounts of ornamentation – much of this practice was scolded by composers, but we have the evidence here that that was how it was performed. Farinelli and Handel were larger than life personalities – they were the 18th century equivalents of pop stars – they may not have been arrogant as such, but were certainly very confident and bold.

A virtuous improviser does not have to know the work he is playing very well (?)

This is a question we must unfortunately handle very cautiously. In the baroque we usually meet two conflicting views – the purists who insisted that musicians improvise to a degree that must move a listener but never be overwhelmed by their performers technical capability – and the performers, of whom written descriptions seem to suggest that they would not only show off and display their technical wizardry, but exasperate composers who often didn’t even want any improvisation in their works. I can think of countless examples ranging from Guillaume Du Fay in the 15th Century to Mozart, and they all expressed disapproval – usually saying, ’if I had wanted to hear those notes, I would have put them in!’ And yet, we must also concur that this is what was done. If we are to truly present these works in their original context, we must have singers who can’t stop showing off, or violinists that got so carried away in their cadenzas they would be ‘welcomed home’ by the director (in this instance, Handel!)

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