The History of Improvisation

We know very little about the history of improvisation before the 19th century. Some researchers have traced it back as far as the Arab Empire.

The bertsularis Txapel and Zepai. 1933, Elgoibar. (cc by-sa
The bertsularis Txapel and Zepai. 1933, Elgoibar. (cc by-sa
The author and editor Antonio Zavala, a specialist in this matter, humbly admits: "We do not know about this subject before 1801".

The writer Joxe Azurmendi replies to this by saying: "Yes, nothing is clear: not through a lack of material, but because no-one has cast any light on it".

The author of "A History of Basque Literature" and member of the Basque Academy, Luis Michelena, tells us that "the tradition (of improvisers) is ancient and goes back at least as far as the improvising ladies of the 15th century" mentioned by Garibay. But, as Joxe Azurmendi suggests, it is possible that from the 14th century a certain form of improvisation was present in the Basque Country since there are songs which evoke wars, family quarrels and also the death of a Chief, victory over an enemy, etc.

Gorostiaga says that "Improvisation dates back to the Arab period (888)", a theory supported by the researchers C. Etxegarai, P. Urkizu and J.A. Arana-Martija.

The year 888 seems a long time ago, but it would be interesting to analyse the cultural and literary relations between Arabs and Basques.

On the other hand, the Catholic faith which only became established in the Basque Country late on, undoubtedly influenced our future bertsularis through its hymns, just like the troubadours and jongleurs.

It is most likely that some form improvisation was already present in the Basque Country as far back as the 14th century since the oldest Basque songs which were passed down from one generation to another date back to this period.

Find out more about the history of improvisation