Summer Improv Courses 2016

The Summer is a popular time for conferences and special courses. Here’s a list of opportunities to study improvisation at the organ this summer. If you know of others, please email me or share them in the comments so that I can add them to the website.

This summer is also the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists. It will take place in Houston July 19-23. Typically there is an improvisation competition and several workshop presentations on improvisation during the convention. I only spotted one improvisation workshop: Adagio Lost and Adagio Regained:
A Study of the Lost Art of Improvising in the Adagio Genre, with Emphasis on Handel’s Organ Concertos presented by HyeHyun Sung. The NCOI competition was restructured for this year with the preliminary round taking place last summer. (See my critique here.) No information about the competition is currently on the Houston website…

I am still considering offering a couple of days of improvisation instruction here. If you would be interested in coming to study with me at the Cathedral July 28-30, 2016, please let me know. Space for active participants will be limited. If there is sufficient interest, I’ll share more details soon.

Hoping you take some time this summer to improvise better,

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 58 – 2016 04 21

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Not All Solos Are for Soprano

As our ears are naturally attracted to the extremes, melodies often get placed in outer voices. The default location for a solo voice tends to be the soprano or uppermost voice. A soft gentle air will usually have the theme here. The most common exception to a soprano solo would be a rousing toccata where the extreme low end gets the theme played by our feet. Today, I want to look at two forms found in the French Classical Suite where the left hand gets the solo.

Basse de Trompette

The basic registration suggestion for a Basse de Trompette is:

  • RH (Pos): Bourdon 8′ with the Prestant 4′ or Montre 8′
  • LH (G.O.): Trompette 8′, Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′ or Montre 8′

Depending upon the organ, a Clairon 4′ might also be added to the solo registration and the Doublette 2′ and/or Larigot to the accompaniment.

These pieces are generally in 2 or 4 beats to a measure and often start with the accompaniment alone. They may be imitative and occasionally are even titled as fugues. Most often though, the accompaniment remains simple once the bass solo begins. Whereas a soprano solo may be very lyrical with lots of motion by step, these bass solos are modeled more after pieces written for the viole de gamba with large skips. For example:
BasseTrompette

Like the other récits last week, it is possible to use other solo registrations for a bass solo. A Basse de Cromorne will have more stepwise motion that a Basse de Trompette, and a Basse de Tierce will be even smoother. Though large leaps will still appear with these other registrations, the frequency of them will decrease as the registration becomes further removed from the trompette. The tempo is also likely to slow down. Because of the activity in the solo voice, the harmonic rhythm is likely to be only one or two chords per measure. That makes these great pieces to work on if you want to practice thinking faster than you play!

Tierce en Taille

The earlier registration suggestion for the Tierce en Taille is:

  • RH (G.O.): Bourdon 16′ (or Montre), Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (Pos): Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Nazard, Tierce, Larigot

While the pedal is used for these pieces, no registration was specified as there would be so little to choose from on a French Classical organ. Most organs had a Great to Pedal coupler, and the only pedal stop available for accompaniment would be the Flute 8′. As the Tierce stop lost its’ strength in the 18th century, the accompaniment also lost some of its vigor by exchanging the Prestant for a Bourdon and even losing the 16′ stop(s). If a Montre 8′ was available on the Positif, it might be added to the solo and the Prestant 4′ changed to a Flûte 4′.

These movements are some of my favorite from this stylistic period. The registration is rather unique with the accompaniment surrounding the solo (written above and below, but also sounding in the same register as the solo). It was often used at the Elévation in Mass (where the priest consecrates the bread and wine – the most solemn moment of the celebration), but it also appears in other suites for verses of the Magnificat, Gloria, and other hymns. These solos are very vocal in style and highly ornamented. They should be considered like récitatives sung during the same time period, almost without tempo and with lots of freedom to explore the exquisite sounds of this registration. The Cromorne en taille would be slightly less active, but still extremely vocal and highly ornamented. These are delicate pieces so a Trompette would never be chosen as a solo here.

Left Hand Workout

These movements will encourage you to think more about your left hand. As the left hand often ends up playing in the middle of our improvised texture, it can be filler and often is mindlessly making noise. These two solo movements require that we focus our attention on the left hand, whether it is playing the lowest part of a Basse de Trompette or is in the middle as a Tierce en Taille. If you have difficulty focusing on the left hand, you could always rehearse the solo and accompaniment separately. Just like a live duo, the accompanist practices his or her part before meeting the soloist, and the soloist learns his or her part before meeting with the accompanist. Practice your left-hand solos alone to discover how to play the leaps and ornaments for these movements. Practice the right-hand (with pedal) accompaniment so that harmonically you have a support for the solo. Then schedule a joint rehearsal after each has learned his or her part!

May your left-hand solos be as creative and easy as your soprano solos!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 47 – 2015 08 31

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The French Suite

During the Baroque music period, French organists developed a style of playing and pieces that has become known as the French Classical School. Notable composers during this period include:

Before improvising in a style, it is always a good idea to play as many of the written pieces as possible. Scores from these and other composers from the era are available from IMSLP. While there will be differences in the pieces between composers, by playing through a large part of the repertoire, it becomes easier to identify the common characteristics of the style.

Movement types

Whether written for use with a hymn, movements of a mass, or for the Magnificat, French Classical composers created suites of pieces, often titled by the expected registration or texture of the movement. The most common movements include:

  • Plein jeu
  • Fugue
  • Duo
  • Trio
  • Récit
  • Grand jeu

While the order and number of interior movements varies, the suites almost always start with a Plein jeu and end with a Grand jeu. In the category of Récit, I am including movements that feature a solo stop and accompaniment such as Tierce en taille and Basse de trompette. Don’t worry if these titles don’t mean anything to you for now. I plan to spend the next few weeks explaining each one individually, offering comments on the style, registration, and steps we can take towards improvising these different pieces.

In the meantime, go find (or download) some scores to play through and enjoy this audio clip of one of the current French masters, Michel Chapuis, improvising in French Classical style for your inspiration:

MichelChapuis YouTube

Hoping you will find inspiration from the French Classics,

Glenn


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Newsletter Issue 42 – 2015 07 20
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Practice with focus

First I’d like to offer an update on information from the last newsletter. Last week I offered a review of an almost free edition of First Lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ by Hamilton Crawford Macdougall. Thanks to a couple of readers, I discovered the complete edition of the book is available for free here. No need to suffer through the incomplete version I had found on Forgotten Books. If any one knows of any other free improvisation method books that are available on-line, please let me know and I’ll pass them along as well.

Maurice Clerc

I spent most of this week attending the Church Music Institute of Shenandoah Conservatory where Maurice Clerc taught improvisation. My primary take away for the week was that I need to spend more time in focused practice. As we get better as improvisers, it is still important to spend time practicing with focus, and perhaps even challenging ourselves to master a particular element in a particular setting.

One note at a time

One of the focus areas for the week was harmony. After a brief review of traditional cadences, Maurice Clerc focused on creating harmonic progressions by changing one note at a time. The example he eventually wrote out for us was as follows:
ClercHarmony

Rather than following traditional harmonic progressions, these chords change by moving notes to neighboring tones. I’ve heard a very similar lesson from several French organists, so I believe this is one of the hallmarks of the French style of improvisation.

Registration

We first worked with this progression playing the chords on the celestes with the left hand and a melody on the harmonic flute with the right. (Think of ‘Clair de lune’ from Louis Vierne’s Pièces de fantasie.) Another suggested option was for a solo on the clarinet in the tenor range or even a 4′ in the pedal! The new registration I heard from Maurice Clerc this week was to use all the 8′ foundations. Can you play an active texture with lots of movement in different voices (not just tremolos) and still follow a progression of harmonies where basically one note changes at a time?

Form

If you practice the progression above in several different keys and with several different registration arrangements, it becomes very easy to create a lengthy 7-9 minute piece simply by modulating once or twice and changing the disposition of the material. Choose a tonic key for the opening and concluding sections with one registration. Add a contrasting middle section in one or two other keys and with a different registration, and suddenly you are on your way to improvising the slow movement of a symphony!

Focus

As we made the progression from simple harmonies to a symphonic form, each step required us to focus on some quality of the improvisation. For the students who mastered the harmony quickly, Maurice Clerc focused on the quality of the melody, critiquing the range, rhythm, and shape. If the melody was ok, could there be more movement in the accompaniment? Any problems that arose required a step backwards in the process and simplification. When it was time to work on the form, the different sections were mapped out in advance, making it easy to work on each section individually. Though some people might think we are taking the spontaneity out of the improvisation by working each section over and over, I prefer to consider it as exploring for better options. If you find something that works, were you focused enough to be able to do it again? Is there an even better option that you might discover (especially if you didn’t like the one you chose last time)?

Encouraging you to be focused in your explorations,
Glenn


 
Newsletter Issue 40 – 2015 06 22
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Macdougall – First Lessons


Hamilton Crawford Macdougall
First lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ

Forgotten Books offers an almost complete free download available here. There are a few missing pages in the download, but still plenty of useful and useable content. To get the entire book, you need to purchase a subscription, or you can order it from Amazon.

Sometimes, older books can be out of date and contain little relevant information. I knew there would be solid information in this book however as soon as I started reading the preface and the author recommended daily practice:

Natural aptitude alone will not enable one either to play the organ well or to extemporize on it acceptably; one must practice extemporizing regularly, day by day, over and over again, just as one practices the pieces in one’s organ repertoire. A seventeenth-century writer (Francis Quarles) puts it somewhat inelegantly, but squarely, when he writes: ‘I see no virtues where I smell no sweat.’

Improvisation requires consistent practice and focused effort. The very first lesson in the first section on fundamental principles is something I try to emphasize to any student of improvisation or even hymn playing:

Do not stop the flow of the music for reflection;one must keep going.

Near the end of the book, the author suggests writing as a way to hone one’s improvisational skills. While I’ve heard many authors and teachers suggest this, the key suggestion from Macdougall is that it should be done in nearly the same conditions as improvising:

Writing must also be absolutely without erasures to be preparatory to extemporization; Further, it must be at a fairly regular speed. It is nonsense to expect writing to be done in tempo, but it can be done with a fair amount of steadiness; the quick decisions that must be made in effective extemporizing may be practiced just as effectively in writing, provided no erasures are allowed.

Even as much composing as I’ve done, that would be a new experience for me!
The instruction throughout the book is clear and precise. Whether you need to extend a hymn or provide a stand alone piece, the guidance provided in this book will give you a firm foundation.


 
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Newsletter Issue 39 – 2015 06 12
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Summer Improv Courses 2015

Immersion

While I was a student, some of my best memories come from being able to take short courses where I could immerse myself in a topic. These often involved travel and allowed me to work with a new teacher and new instruments. One of my dreams has been to organize a course and invite the teachers that I’ve wanted to work with to come to me. While I won’t get to do that this summer, I would like your feedback in order to plan a workshop for next summer. If you would like to come to Baltimore and the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for a workshop next summer, please complete my survey here.

Summer 2015

During this summer, there are several different workshops with improvisation instruction. Listed below are the ones that I am aware of. If you know of others, please email me or share them in the comments so that I can add them to the website.

This summer is also when the American Guild of Organists holds regional conventions. I’m sure there will be some improvisation workshops at some of these events, and for the first time NCOI will hold the first rounds at the Charlotte regional.

robinsonMcNeil Robinson

I received word yesterday that McNeil Robinson has passed away. I was very fortunate to have taken some lessons with him while I lived in Albany. While I never had the intensive experience of being one of his students full-time, he was an absolute master that I greatly admired. Sadly, I know of very few recordings of his improvisations, but there is a two-part concert improvisation posted on YouTube here (part 1 and part 2). He will be greatly missed.

Hoping we can all learn to improvise as well as he did,

Glenn


 
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Newsletter Issue 37 – 2015 05 11
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Thoughts on NCOI 2016

The Update

The rules for the next American Guild of Organists National Competition in Organ Improvisation have been released and are available here. While the competition has not been without changes in the past, this set of rules is a significant departure from previous versions. Even if I thought changes in the rules were warranted, I’d like to make some observations about the new rule set that seem to run counter to the spirit of an improvisation competition.

Time lag

Most competitions begin with a recorded round, leading to a selection of semi-finalists who will compete live in person. A smaller number of finalists is then selected to compete in one last performance evaluation. When there are only 5-6 semi-finalists, most competitions hold the semi-finals and finals a few days apart from each other. For the 2016 edition of NCOI, the semi-finals will be held at the regional convention almost a full year before the finals. For a competition focusing on creating music with minimal preparation, having a year between rounds might as well be having two different competitions.

Repertoire

The 2016 NCOI adds a repertoire requirement. To win the competition, not only will one need to improvise, four substantial pieces of repertoire must be learned. To ask an improviser to demonstrate technical ability and mastery of the instrument by playing a piece of repertoire seems reasonable. I know there are other improvisation competitions that demand repertoire, but in no other case does the time for repertoire become more substantial than the time required for improvisation. In the NCOI semifinal round, it could take a competitor longer to play the repertoire requirement than to meet the improvisation requirement!

Hymns

The other new requirements for the 2016 edition are hymns and figured bass. While competitors have been provided hymn tunes as themes for many past competitions, it is now a requirement for a competitor to actually play a hymn with people singing. Recognizing that creating hymn introductions and varied accompaniments is a skill that at least some organists practice every week, this seems to be a more reasonable new territory for NCOI to include. However, as there was a separate hymn-playing competition held in Boston, it seems much preferable to me to continue holding a distinct hymn-playing competition rather than folding this skill into the improvisation competition. While related skills are involved, I would still consider improvising to accompany a congregation as a small subset of the skills necessary to win an improvisation prize.

Figured Bass

While hymn playing may be the bread and butter of most organists’ playing duties, realizing a figured bass seems completely foreign to what most organists must do even occasionally. While improvisers may (should) learn to realize figured bass, it seems to me like asking the entrants in NYACOP to play scales and arpeggios for their assigned repertoire. Who would go to a performance competition to listen to scales and arpeggios or Hanon exercises? While I may be exaggerating slightly to make my point, if a candidate doesn’t know how to realize a figured bass, I feel pretty confident that they won’t be able to improvise variations on a given theme. I say don’t waste time asking for a figured bass, let’s hear the variations!

Preparation

While the rules for the timing of the preliminary round need some further clarification (Does the competitor get three 30 minute preparations or only one?), the significant change in preparation time is the availability to use the organ and the material that is provided more than thirty minutes in advance. Granting access to an instrument during preparation time makes it easier for candidates to verify or practice ideas before performing, but is still a minor change compared to the release of themes days or months in advance. For the preliminary round, the competitor is to improvise five contrasting variations on Vom Himmel hoch. The theme is already known, so there is plenty of time for an enterprising composer to actually write a set of variations, memorize them, and then perform them for the recording. With a few months of preparation, I am sure that the quality of variations heard by the judges will be better than in previous years, but I have no confidence that they will be able to select the best improviser from an exercise with this much preparation time.

Likewise where the themes are given three days in advance for the semifinal and final rounds, I become less assured that what we hear will be an improvisation. Having written a Prelude and Fugue (albeit short) in less than a week and even some compositions in a few hours, I certainly could plan out very carefully if not outright compose my entry. Anyone with sufficient skills to win the competition could certainly posses the skills to compose a piece that fast and either memorize it or bring rough sketches to the competition.

To counteract these potential composition practices, there are very particular rules about what a competitor may write on a piece of paper and bring to the console for the competition. Certainly as long as themes are given out days in advance, what sort of papers one can bring to the competition should be restricted, but what does it mean to compose full harmonies? Would writing out figures over a bass line or using guitar/jazz chord notations be a rule violation? If the goal of all these changes is to raise the level of performances, why couldn’t the competitor take part of the thirty minutes of preparation time to write out harmonies in whatever format he or she chooses? Restricting the paper brought to the competition seems to be a much cleaner rule than trying to tell someone what can or cannot be written down.

Adjudication

Sadly, too few organists practice improvisation at the level where they could consider entering NCOI. It is a difficult skill to master, and even more difficult to teach. With only a handful of master improvisation teachers in this country, in order to avoid any potential conflict of interest where teachers judge their own students, many times the best improvisers are left out of the judges pool. Having a problem finding qualified judges however is not solved by adding more people to the panel. I propose following the model of St. Alban’s, Concours André Marchal, Chartres, and Haarlem where the jury is announced in advance. Competitors are hidden from the judges during all rounds of the competition and are free to study however often they can beforehand with the jury members. Having well-qualified jurors seems much preferable to me than having more people on the jury (especially if they cannot improvise).

Final Round

The AGO has a long tradition of offering certification to its membership. Perhaps unknowingly, the AGO has just set up three levels of improvisation certification corresponding to the preliminary, semifinal and final rounds of the NCOI. When viewed through the lens of certification, each of the requests at the different levels seems appropriately graded and a reasonable way to verify that someone has a well-rounded skill set. Just as a math teacher would ask a student to show his or her work to get to the final answer, it seems perfectly reasonable in a certification process to verify that a candidate can cover all the required bases. At a competition however, repeatedly asking a candidate to do the musical equivalent of reciting a multiplication table is redundant and distracting from the primary topic of improvisation.

Coda

I understand that there was an age limit proposed initially in the 2016 rules for NCOI. A competitor in the 2014 NCOI succeeded in getting that removed by appealing to the AGO’s purpose of professional development and the lack of entrants selected for the competition above that age limit. While I hope the committee will consider my viewpoint for further revisions to the 2016 rules, I have no expectations that any further changes will be implemented for this year. The best suggestion I can make for this rule set would be to expedite the process and hold the final round in Charlotte in 2015 a few days after the semifinal round. Launch a new set of rules for 2016 in Houston with a panel of three judges selected and announced in advance with performance requirements similar to NCOI 2014. Remove the hymn playing (and figured bass) requirements from NCOI and establish a regional hymn playing competition that requires improvised introductions and accompaniments. (The winners of this competition could then provide a fabulous hymn festival for the following national convention!) Finally establish procedures to offer one or more certificates in improvisation as outlined above.

As a devoted supporter of the art of improvisation at the organ, I wish to support any effort to encourage more people to improvise and to raise the level of improvisation in this country. (After all, I started organimprovisation.com in my free time.) I hope AGO will take my suggestions and turn NCOI back into a competition and begin to explore the certification and other hymn-playing competition ideas I have offered here so that we may all work together to encourage spontaneous music making.

Glenn Osborne
www.wmglennosborne.com

Twists and Turns

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been working from Charles Ives’ Variations on ‘America’ to discover improvisation ideas and practice techniques. After looking at the fireworks of the first variation, the polonaise, and the introduction, today we turn to the chromaticism of Ives’ second variation.

Chromaticism

The first difference to notice with this variation is that Ives has changed range. The melody begins one octave higher, allowing him to use chords with more open voicing – and thus more space for chromatic fill! This variation is filled with stepwise motion (whether chromatic or diatonic) in the lower voices. Only the soprano melody remains largely untouched. Ives also moves from the predominantly quarter note rhythm of the theme to consistent eighth note activity. As our first exercise (since Ives didn’t touch the soprano), let’s try to tun the melody into a flurry of chromatic eight notes:

IvesChromaticExample

Add chromatic passing tones between steps in the melody and chromatic neighbor notes for repeated notes. It may be overkill to do this only to one voice, but I think it is a great practice technique to explore, working our way through each of the voices in the standard harmonization one after the other. Do the same exercise with the alto, tenor, and then the bass alone. For step two, play the full harmonization while adding chromatic neighbor and passing tones to one voice. After you are comfortable focusing on one voice at a time, your ear will likely have led you to discover spots where chromaticism works better in one voice than another. Play through the harmonization again now adding the chromaticism in the voice where it works best.

Some tips to consider as you explore: In four-part texture, one of the notes of the chord is doubled. This is probably not the note to alter chromatically unless it is the root of the chord and you are adding the seventh. (Ives ignores this in m.4 of this variation, but ends up with parallel octaves between the soprano and this inner voice.) Thirds of chords can easily be major or minor. Choose whether to move from major to minor or minor to major based upon where the voice needs to go next. Fifths of major chords can be raised; fifths of minor chords can be lowered. The diminished triad (and fully diminished seventh chord) can transport us easily from one key to another, so provide excellent transition material (see m.6 of variation II). Ives also reduces his texture to only three voices at times in order to highlight the chromatic lines (and lessen his concerns about doubling). As you become comfortable shifting from one voice to another, be sure and try combining chromaticism in multiple voices at the same time!

And now, faster!

Typically when creating variations, the rhythms move from quarters to eighths, through triplets and on to sixteenth notes. After exploring eight notes, the third variation on ‘America’ by Ives suggests the triplet feel by shifting to 6/8 time. Ives also sets up an accented chromatic neighbor note in the accompaniment as a motif for this variation. Leaving modulation and discussion of the interlude for next week, Ives also changes keys here. Rather than change so many items at once in our practice, how about doing them one at a time? Stick to the original key, but instead of chromatic eight notes, add chromatic triplets! Rather than using passing and neighbor tones on the weak beats, try to use more accented chromatic neighbors. It would be overkill, but what if each note of the soprano (or alto or tenor) began a half-step lower and slid into the proper pitch? (How many vocalists have you heard scoop into a note? Why can’t we try it at the organ!) After you are comfortable in the home key, choose another key in which to practice the harmonization and addition of chromatics. Start again with eight notes and progress through the same steps outlined above.

After triplets, move on up to sixteenth notes. The final variation Ives provides keeps the same chromatic neighbor from variation three in the accompaniment, returns to the tonic key, but increases excitement by using a constant sixteenth note motion passed between the voices (including some challenging runs for the feet). While it looks complicated on the page, it really grows out of the techniques covered in the earlier variations.

While the road may offer many choices for the twists and turns to take, I hope you will take each step forward, confidently making progress towards creating your own fireworks at the organ!

Glenn


 
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Newsletter Issue 13 – 2014 07 21
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International Organ Festival Haarlem 2014

StBavoHaarlem

In 1951, Louis Toebosch won the first International Organ Improvisation Competition. He was to be followed by Anton Heiller in 1952, Piet Kee (1953, 1954, 1955) and many other organists who later became internationally known names. Winning ‘Haarlem’ was, and is, the first step to an international career. Even just taking part in the competition has helped launch many a career, as the names of the numerous famous organists among the previous participants testify.

The final round of the 50th Haarlem Improvisation competition takes place this evening. The themes for the final round were composed this year by Louis Andriessen, who descends from a famous family of Haarlem musicians. Threefold winner Hans Haselböck (1958/59/60) wrote the theme for the first round. For the second round the renowned Dutch composer Roderik de Man provided material, accompanied by videos for the audience created by the sound and video artist Marcel Wierckx. The competitors have only one hour to prepare their improvisations with the help of a pencil and paper (but not an instrument).

Beginning from 22 applications from 11 countries, the following 8 contestants were selected to compete in the first of three live rounds from 14-18 July: Jacob Lekkerkerker, Geerten Liefting and Harmen Trimp (Netherlands), David Cassan (France), Lukas Grimm and Tobias Wittmann (Germany), Morten Ladehoff (Denmark) and Luke Mayernik (USA). Four have been selected to continue to the final round at St. Bavo’s Church.

The jury, chaired by Stephen Taylor, includes five internationally renowned organists: David Briggs (Canada), Jürgen Essl (Germany), Zuzana Ferjencikova (Slovakia/France), Gilbert Amy (France) and Jan Hage (the Netherlands).

A livestream may be available here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/orgelfestival.

From ‘America’ to France (via Poland)

After celebrating Independence Day last week, today is France’s national holiday: Bastille Day! While I couldn’t find the recording of Pierre Cochereau’s improvisation on La Marseillaise for General de Gaulle’s funeral on line, I did find Jeremy Filsell’s transcription/recreation for your listening pleasure:

While the theme is normally in a major key, as this improvisation was originally created for a funeral, the minor mode beginning suits the occasion perfectly. When we began creating holiday variations last week, we started working with Charles Ives’ Variations on ‘America’. Ives also provides us with a variation in minor which is what we will focus on today. (Here’s a link to the video in case you want a refresher.)

Polonaise

The polonaise (which is the French word for ‘Polish’) is a traditional Polish dance in 3/4 time. Ives includes one of these dance movements as his fourth variation on America. You can see the traditional rhythm in the excerpt below:
IvesPolonaiseExample

As mentioned last week, rarely does Ives let a measure go by without any thematic material. Here we have two measures to practice our polonaise rhythm before beginning the theme. If we wish to improvise polonaises, we could spend much more than two measures practicing the rhythm. Choose some simple chord progressions and practice the rhythm in different keys. While Ives keeps the rhythmic figure confined to the left hand and pedal, we could also practice it with right hand and pedal or hands alone.

Once you have mastered the rhythm, then it’s time to add in the theme. For the first half of this variation, the theme is played by the right hand on a solo stop. If necessary, practice soloing out the theme with a simplified accompaniment first before adding the polonaise rhythm back in. For the second half, Ives requires the left hand to play both the theme and the rhythm. Just as you would probably want to practice the left hand alone if you were learning the Ives, so too, you probably want to practice the same idea with whatever theme you have chosen to turn into a polonaise. The first variation in the Ives set has the left hand playing the harmonized theme, so even Ives gives you a simplified version to practice first before increasing the difficulty level. The right hand then adds some sparkle with it’s commentary.

Fireworks

It is interesting to contrast the Polonaise with the first variation Ives offers. Having already practiced the harmonized theme played by the left hand and pedal in a simplified rhythm, rather than add difficulty to the left hand, Ives adds a running line for the right hand to play. He begins with sixteenth notes (basically four notes to each note of the theme), but then doubles the speed to 32nd notes (8 to 1)! The fast motion, large leaps upward and chromatic movement downward make me think of fireworks which seems a most fitting idea for variations on a patriotic song.
While these two variations appear to be very different, there are several common techniques that we can practice to advance our improvisation skills. Thanks to registration options at the organ, we could also practice the same ideas found in each of these variations but swapping hands. For example, use right hand and pedal to play the polonaise rhythm while the theme is played by the left hand in either the tenor or soprano register. Play the theme with right hand and pedal while the left hand adds fireworks on a 2′ stop! What if the polonaise was in a major key and the fireworks in minor? What other dance rhythms could you use instead of a polonaise?

While not looking to start a revolution today, I hope you are inspired to create your own fireworks while practicing your improvisations!

Viva la France!

Glenn


 
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Newsletter Issue 12 – 2014 07 14
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