Classical and Compositional Improvisation: Thoughts on the 2014 Richard Lupien Classical Improvisation Competition

Article to be published in the 2014 edition of CRS “Society News”.  Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (


History making. The first classical improvisation competition, certainly in modern memory. I was honored to be in attendance, as a self-proclaimed “compositional improviser”.  The event was held from 1-4pm, May 20, 2014, at Tanna Schulich Hall, McGill University, Montreal, as a part of the 2014 Montreal International Musical Competition.

Improvisation and classical music. There used to be a time when they went hand in hand. Nowadays, classical composers improvising in their own styles (as did Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin and Messiaen) are rarities.  So, when informed that there would, in fact, be a classical improvisation competition I immediately knew history was in the making. The current number of classical improvisers is quite small, yet already within their ranks there exists a wide variety of approaches. To initial appearances, there are two: the purely classical approach–which means playing strictly in a selected style of the past–and the compositional approach, which entails playing in one’s own style. However, this paradigm is much subtler than at first it appears.

I will not mention the names of the competition performers here, rather my impressions of the overall playing as it served “classical music improvisation”–perhaps a good unified definition of “classical and compositional improvisation”. Several of the performers were clearly on the classical side–a talent that takes a great deal of performance experience playing older styles–coupled with deep intellection on how those styles operate, utilizing music theory–from basic harmony and counterpoint up through sophisticated Schenkerian formal analysis. If one were to defend classical music improvisation as a viable art form this argument would certainly suffice, as these skills are both unique and hard-won. But even more, these performers brought individual elements which only their own on-the-spot compositional talents could create, another admirable achievement. For the performers more on the compositional side, there was still a strong admixture of the classical, with all the work and knowledge that implies. But primary in their playing was spontaneous composition–a distinctly different approach–and one which brings us back to the relevance of “classical and compositional improvisation” as not merely a continuum, but an exciting acknowledgement of the huge range inherent in classical music improvisation. Ultimately, this variety was evident in all the players’ work, and the competition laid the foundation for an exciting and diverse field of performances. As a whole, this skill takes an intense study of piano technique and knowledge of the history of classical music and couples it to compositional talent, that of an on-the-fly creation which is simultaneously free yet structured.
Classical music improvisation has the promise to turn both composers and performers into improvisers, bringing them closer together along the lines of the ideal nineteenth-century composers Liszt and Chopin, who were simultaneously the best pianists and composers of their day. And in that time both competitions and salons were important catalysts. Classical music improvisation flourished in the 19th century largely due to the culture of the salons. Pianist/composers developed their improvisatory techniques in this fertile ground, in much the same way as jazz musicians hone their skills improvising at clubs today. Some of the canonic musical works of the 19th century were born in these salons, through the art of improvisation.

It seems axiomatic that any music which communicates directly with its listeners has improvisation at its heart. Fans of jazz go to concerts not so much to hear the music but to hear what performers will do with the music. Classical music was perhaps at its most relevant during the Baroque, when performers improvised around figured bass. In these idioms, musicians improvise in a musical language that is so familiar to them and the audience that it is ultimately feelings they express, not just notes.

With a bold step Mr. Richard Lupien–urged on by the pioneering improvisational work of pianist/improviser Gabriela Montero–has almost single-handedly begun to legitimize the competition side of this long-dormant art, one in which lie the seeds of a true revival of contemporary classical music as a fully viable, creative and living art form.

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Copyright ©2014 Gregory Hall.