Improvisation: Conde Claros (Spain, 1538)

An anonymous thirteenth-century treatise coins the phrase “ex improviso”, which was transformed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into terms like the Italian “all’improviso” and the French “à l’improviste”, capturing something of the spontaneity of short-notice decisions in music-making. Yet the word ‘improvisation’ really only comes into its own in the first half of the nineteenth century, wielded in stark opposition to composition. While composed music was seen to take a definite (notated) form and structure, improvised music took succour from the Latin 'improvisus', indicating something unforeseen or unprepared.

One of the most exciting projects undertaken by the ‘historical performance’ movement has been an attempt to unpack and deconstruct anachronistic associations with the word ‘improvisation’. In this context, the word is better understood as the process by which certain genres are created, rather than denoting a mode of unstructured performance.  As a period instrument ensemble today, one of our main concerns is to keep investigating a closer and more ambiguous relationship between the not-so-discrete categories of performance and composition, a connection that is abundantly evidenced in pre-nineteenth century texts and scores.

By performing ‘standard’ pre-composed repertoire alongside improvised forms (the passacaglia, divisions on a ground, and partimenti and diminutions to name but a few), a completely different relationship is forged with an audience. Celebrating the necessarily anti-historical nature of historical performance, we also enjoy allowing this positive sense of ‘improvisus’ to permeate our programming choices, experimenting with social conventions associated with repertoire as well as working with composers on commissioning projects.

We believe that this approach leads to dynamic and unique concert performances, outreach projects, and collaborations.

Improvisation: divisions on 'John Come Kiss me now' (Division Violin, London 1684)