IMPROVISATORS, a word used to describe a poet who recites verses which he composes on the spur of the moment, without previous preparation. The term is purely Italian, although in that language it would be more correctly spelt improvaisatore. It became recognized as an English word in the middle of the eighteenth century, and is so used by Smollett in his Trawls (1766); he defines an improvisatore as " an individual who has the surprising talent of reciting verses extempore, on any subject you propose." In speaking of a woman, the female form improvisatrice is sometimes used in English.
Improvisation is a gift which properly belongs to those languages in which a great variety of grammatical inflections, wedded to simplicity of rhythm and abundance of rhyme, enable a poet to slur over difficulties in such a way as to satisfy the ear of his audience. In ancient times the greater part of the popular poetry with which the leisure of listeners was beguiled was of this rhapsodical nature. But in modern Europe it was the troubadours, owing to the extreme flexibility of the languages of Provence, who distinguished themselves above all others as improvisatores. It is difficult to believe, however, that the elaborate compositions of these poets, which have come down to us, in which every exquisite artifice of versification is taken advantage of, can have been poured forth without premeditation. These poets, we must rather suppose, took a pride in the ostentation of a prodigious memory, most carefully trained, and poured forth in public what they had laboriously learned by heart in private. The Italians, however, in the 16th century, cultivated what seems to have been a genuine improvisation, in which the bards rhapsodized, not as they themselves pleased, but on subjects which were unexpected by them, and which were chosen on the spot by their patrons. Of these, the most extraordinary is said to have been Silvio Antoniano (1540-1603), who from the age of ten was able to pour out melodious verse on any subject which was suggested to him. He was brought to Rome, where successive popes so delighted in his talent that in 1598 he was made a cardinal. In the 17th century the celebrated Metastasio first attracted attention by his skill as an improvisatore. But he was excelled by Bernardino Perfetti (1681-1747), who was perhaps the most extraordinary genius of this class who has ever lived. He was seized, in his moments of composition, with a transport which transfigured his whole person, and under this excitement he poured forth verses in a miraculous flow. It was his custom to be attended by a guitarist, who played a recitative accompaniment. In this way Perfetti made a triumphal procession through the cities of Italy, ending IN-ANTIS INCENSE up with the Capitol of Rome, where Pope Benedict XIII. crowned him with laurel, and created him a Roman citizen. One of the most remarkable improvisatores of modern times appeared in Sweden, in the person of Karl Mikael Bellman( 1740-1 705), who used to take up a position in the public gardens and parks of Stockholm, accompanying himself on a guitar, and treating metre and rhythm with a virtuosity and originality which place him among the leading poets of Swedish literature. In England, somewhat later, Theodore Hook (1788-1841) developed a surprising talent for this kind, but his verses were rarely of the serious or sentimental character of which we have hitherto spoken. Hook's animal spirits were unfortunately mingled with vulgarity, and his clever jeuy d'esprit had little but their smartness to recommend them. A similar talent, exercised in a somewhat more literary direction, made Joseph Mery (i 708-1865) a delightful companion in the Parisian society of his day. It is rare indeed that the productions of the improvisatore, taken down in shorthand, and read in the cold light of criticism, are found to justify the impression which the author produced on his original audience. Imperfections of every kind become patent when we read these transcripts, and the reader cannot avoid perceiving weaknesses of style and grammar. The eye and voice of the improvisatore so hypnotize his auditors as to make them incapable of forming a sober judgment on matters of mere literature.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)