Improvisation in music did not begin with jazz. Bach and Chopin were noted improvisers, as was Beethoven. One of the great Beethoven stories is about the flamboyant pianist Daniel Steibelt (seen right) challenging Beethoven (seen left) to an improvisation contest, in effect a musical duel. Steibelt played first. When it was Beethoven’s turn, he used a few notes of Steibelt’s score, turned the page upside down, mocked his opponent’s first notes and built a brilliant improvisation. In that early nineteenth century cutting contest, Steibelt was humiliated. The younger man announced that he would leave Vienna, never to return as long as Beethoven lived there. Beethoven died in Vienna in 1827. Steibelt, as promised, stayed away.
Many of today’s classical musicians are also master improvisers. One of the most flexible, prolific and daring is Mandhira de Saram, a British violinist of Sri Lankan origin. She is, among other things, the founder and leader of the Ligeti String Quartet. In this video provided by the British Music Collection, she discusses her music and introduces performances by a variety of colleagues, including pianist Steve Beresford and the Ligeti Quartet.