Video Improvisation Lessons

Back in 2014, I wrote a list of twenty ways to improvise on a hymn. Many of these are more like exercises than specific ways to create pieces. Following a request for clarification, I thought I’d do a few video lessons to demonstrate the topics.

More and more often I turn to the metaphor of music as a language. When we were young and learning our native tongue, we spent time learning vocabulary lists. Friday was often the day for spelling tests when I was in elementary school. While these exercises may seem simple – the written instructions are often only one or two lines – I believe they are the vocabulary lists for our improvisation studies. When we have chords and keys in our ears and in our hands, we can more easily say what we wish to say when we speak in the language of music.

For these demonstrations, I work with the tune St. Anne, commonly sung with the words “O God, Our Help In Ages Past.” So far, there are a total of three videos that cover the first nine items of the original 20 on the list. Here’s part one:

Because music is so difficult to capture on the written page, I have always found it helpful to have recordings or videos of examples or demonstrations. Especially with the organ, it can be instructive to see how a sound is being created. Is that solo being played by the pedal or the left hand? I remember after listening even to a piano piece by Olivier Messiaen, I had to go buy the score so I could find out how certain sounds were created.

if there are any other past lessons that you would like me to demonstrate, please let me know, and I’ll add them to my to do list.

Livestream

We have recently installed cameras at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. In the near future, you should be able to tune in live to hear me play. I am hopeful that I will be able to share more of the pieces I improvise with you when this new camera system is fully functional. Please let me know if you tune in to one of the broadcasts!

Hoping all your improvisations speak to your audience,
Glenn

How to sound like Brahms

Earlier this summer, I taught an organ masterclass at the National Pastoral Musicians convention in Cincinnati. Participants were encouraged to bring repertoire or ask questions about improvisation. One of the objectives of improvising can be to create a piece that sounds like it might be written down, so when the student was interested, we looked for improvisation skills to learn from the repertoire that we covered. One of the pieces presented then seemed like a great piece to share here, so let’s take a look at Johannes Brahms’ chorale prelude on “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele.”

I recorded the video above earlier this spring at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. A basic harmonization of the chorale can be found in the Hymnal 1982 which was in the pews at Christ Church Cathedral where the masterclass was held. So with scores for the chorale and the prelude on the music rack, we pondered, how did Brahms get from one to the other?

Form

Any time you start an improvisation, it is helpful to know the form you intend to create. You may choose or need to deviate in the form after you start, but if you haven’t chosen a form to begin with, it’s highly unlikely your improvisation will sound like a written piece….

The chorale in the hymnal is in four-part harmony. Brahms provides no introduction, and leaves the melody in the soprano virtually unaltered. In this way, the melodic presentation and form of the two scores stay the same. The differences appear in texture, harmony, and figuration.

Texture

Brahms reduces the texture from four voices down to three. Because one of them as the melody is given to us, this actually makes our job as improvisers a little simpler. We only have to create two different parts to accompany the tune. If this seems difficult, we could even consider simplifying further so that we are only playing with two voices. One of the joys of improvising is being able to customize the level of difficulty. Unlike repertoire where we work to play what the composer has indicated, in improvisation, we can adjust to what we are able to manage.

Harmony

The standard harmonization of the chorale borrows from related keys only a small number of times. Brahms begins borrowing in the first full measure. The chorale only borrows from B major and F# minor. Brahms borrows from A major, C# minor, F# minor, and B major. He doesn’t just use secondary dominants for these keys. He even manages to include a D minor (sub-median, vi) for F# minor as he enriches the harmonic vocabulary. Brahms also occasionally fits two chords in the place of one from the chorale.

Figuration

Finally, after the first two beats, Brahms manages to keep sixteenth note movement going throughout his chorale prelude. Neither the alto nor bass move consistently in sixteenth notes, but their combined movements provide continuous motion throughout the piece. He uses passing tones, arpeggios, neighbor notes, and suspensions all to help fill in this more active texture.

Sounds like Brahms

If we really want to sound like Brahms, we’ll need to look at more than just this one piece. However, as we compare the chorale to his chorale prelude, we can identify areas to study and develop in our improvisation tool box:

  • How do you harmonize a melody in only three voices?
  • What harmony can you imply with only two voices?
  • Where can you borrow from related keys to make the harmony more rich?
  • Where can you add additional harmonies to increase the frequency of changes?
  • Where can you add passing tones, neighbor notes, or suspensions to make more active figuration in the accompaniment?
  • What if you use triplets instead of eighth or sixteenth notes?

All of these are items that we can practice separately before combining them together. Work with them one at a time until you feel comfortable, then start combining them together. Brahms had a lifetime of experience before writing his chorale prelude. What will you be able to create if you continue practicing for the rest of your life?

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 65 – 2017 08 30

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Transposing Vierne

One of the skills every improviser needs to have in their toolbox is the ability to transpose. Any of the larger forms which include a development section require the repetition of material in different keys. While it is acceptable to modify the material in the development, the best preparation for that is to practice strict transposition.

There are three ways that can learn to transpose: by ear, by clef, or by analysis. Some experience with all three can be useful as improvisers.

Using Your Ear

The ear is a great asset in transposition. It will be how you check if the notes you play sound the same in the different keys. If you have learned a melody by ear, then it may be easy to transpose by ear. Harmonies, especially complex ones, can by much harder to transpose by ear. This can be the slowest way to practice your transposition, but the ear will always be how we judge if our transposition is correct.

Using a Clef

The simplest transpositions are those by a half-step. Depending upon how many accidentals are in the piece, it is relatively easy to move a piece from Ab major to A major by simply changing the key signature. Likewise, moving down from E major to Eb major requires only a change in key signature and some attention to the alterations.

It is also possible to change the clef and read the music in a key further away. Sadly, most musicians today are generally only fluent in reading treble and bass clef. Violists will know alto clef. Some trombone and cello players will know tenor clef, but unless you read from a lot of early music scores, you probably haven’t spent much time with the other C and F clefs. There are enough different clefs that any note on the staff can actually be any pitch. Here’s an example of the same space on a staff and how it appears with the different clefs:
cleftransposition600
The way I learned to read these clefs was with Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading by by R.O. Morris and Howard Ferguson. (This is an Amazon affiliate link.) I spent one summer working through learning to read the various C-clefs and larger open scores. Being comfortable reading the different clefs makes it much easier to transpose pieces into more distant keys. I strongly encourage you to master as many clefs as you can.

Transposition by Analysis

Learning to read by clef reinforces reading by interval. One form of transposition would be to consider the interval that each voice moves. This can be very helpful when transposing a single melody or theme but also for complex harmonic structures. Recognizing that the alto moves a half-step down might be easier to see than reading the part in a new clef which shows a movement from F# to E#. In a tonal piece where you can analyze harmonic function, knowing that the original is a ii-V-I progression should make it easier to play the proper notes and progression in the new key.

One of the exercises I did daily for almost 6 months was to play a single Bach chorale in all twelve keys. Not only did this help me recognize standard chord progressions and voicings, I played everyday in keys that most people avoid, e.g. Eb minor, Bb minor, and F# major. I now read harmonic function almost as fast as I read the notes on the clef. The further I have to transpose a piece, the more likely I am to rely upon some form of analysis in addition to using a clef and my ear.

Applications

I still remember my amazement when one of my theory (and piano) teachers told me that Alfred Cortot suggested transposing Chopin etudes into different keys while keeping the same fingerings! I left my piano studies behind well before I ever played any Chopin etudes, however as an aid towards improvisation, I would recommend transposing repertoire. Let’s take something a little easier like the first of Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces en style libre, the Préambule. (Free score available through IMSLP.)

The simple texture of this piece makes it relatively easy to transpose by ear or clef. The harmonic passages on the Récit will require some analysis (harmonic or melodic) in order to master. For my own practice, I read through the piece quickly in several keys:

There are also complete performances of the original C Major, and transpositions to C# major, D Major and Eb Major.

Once you’ve transposed a piece like this, use it as a model for improvising. Follow the score, keeping the same registrations and rhythms, but change the notes. After playing the piece in several keys, I improvised an imitation Vierne piece in F Major and in G minor. There are some hesitations as I searched for similar interesting tonal gestures without following exactly what Vierne did, but that’s why we practice. I decided to make this exercise my prelude this weekend, so there are two more that follow the score less slavishly in A minor and D minor as well.

Practice

Transposition is a skill that everyone easily recognizes as something that must be practiced in order to be mastered. Improvisation requires practice as well. Whether you choose a piece by Vierne or another favorite composer, I hope you will spend some time practicing it transposed and then imitating it in improvisation.

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 61 – 2016 10 03

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Small Structures

The Sierpinski triangle sierpinski-triangle is an equilateral triangle that is subdivided repeatedly into smaller and smaller equilateral triangles. It is one of many recursive designs that mathematicians call fractals. Whether you look at a small portion or the entire picture, the design appears the same.

Building Out

While Sierpinski divided the basic triangle to create smaller triangles, Helge von Koch added triangles to each side:
KochSnowflake
Like the Sierpinski triangle, the Koch snowflake can be continued infinitely. More and more details arise, but they are all triangles. The most common structure in music is the 4-bar phrase. Sierpinski and Koch used triangles for their forms. We will look at form through the lens of the 4-bar phrase.

Léon Boëllmann

Though he died at the age of 35, Léon Boëllmann is one of the well-known French organist-composers thanks to his Suite Gothique. While he wrote numerous pieces for organ, piano, and even orchestra, the “Toccata” from Suite Gothique is a staple of the organ repertoire and his best-known work. Rather than look at the “Toccata,” I’d like to look at the second movement from the suite, the “Menuet gothique.” If you do not have a score for the Suite Gothique, you can download one at IMSLP. You can also hear me play it as a postlude on YouTube.

Repetition

The Menuet is built virtually entirely with 4-bar phrases. The overall form is ABA. Only towards the end of the B section is the 4-measure structure even slightly ambiguous. The return of the A section is abbreviated in that the repetitions on different manuals are omitted. The piece is constructed entirely through the use of repetition and contrast in 4-bar phrases. The first improvisation lesson from this piece is to be sure you can play what you just played, even five minutes later after doing something different!

The first section of the piece is 48 measures long. The first eight measures (two 4-bar phrases) is played on the swell and then repeated on the great. The next sixteen measures (4 4-bar phrases) on the swell takes us a little further away from the home key before returning to end on the tonic. This is repeated on the great and brings the first A-section to a close.

Contrast

Whereas the A-section began softly with the repetition being louder, the B-section reverses those and begins loudly with softer repeats. The A-section was also more connected with longer notes and step-wise motion (especially the descending bass line). The B-section is filled with staccato notes, arpeggios, and rests creating a marked contrast with what came before.

Following the same format as the A-section, the first eight measures of the B-section (two 4-bar phrases) played on the great are repeated on the swell. After another two 4-bar phrases on the great, we get another break with the repetition when the softer material is not a repeat. This new figuration gets a four measure extension which brings back the original A-section material which will now alternate with the louder B-section material for another page until we modulate back to the original home key and arrive at the recapitulation of the original A-section.

Modeling

Because I believe anyone can improvise a 4-bar phrase, I believe it is possible to use the “Menuet gothique” as an improvisation model to build much longer pieces. I’ve created a PDF map of the form which is available for download here. The key centers are indicated so that you could use this to create a similar piece with different thematic material. It also could be interesting to change the tonal plan but use the same thematic material from Boëllmann.

While Sierpinski and Koch used triangles to create and break down forms, as musicians, we can use 4-bar phrases and work with a surprisingly small amount of material to build larger works.

Hoping Boëllman’s “Menuet gothique” inspires you to improvise!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 60 – 2016 08 15

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Graduating to the Metronome

Westminster_shieldEarlier this month, I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater Westminster Choir College for reunion activities and graduation. Westminster is a special place of world-class music making, and I was delighted to see and hear that the standards had not diminished in the 20+ years since I finished my degree.

Graduation at Westminster is almost more of a concert as it is loaded with choral and organ music. The Princeton University Chapel is filled with virtually the entire student body, alumni, and family and friends so the hymn singing is absolutely glorious. There are many pieces that are a traditional part of the Westminster graduation, including the Processional by Warren Martin. With 300+ students and faculty in procession, even with some coming three abreast down the aisle, it takes quite a while to get everyone in.

The first year I was in that procession, I was surprised to discover as we approached the organ console to hear a metronome clicking away. Everyone always talks about practicing with a metronome, but here was one being used in performance! Only those in the choir closest to the organ console could here it, so it was not a distraction to most of the people present and listening.

At the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, we host 10-12 high school graduations every spring. I’m not sure if our aisle is longer or shorter than the Princeton University Chapel aisle, but when you have to play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march for 34 minutes to get 300+ people down the aisle (as I did yesterday), there is a certain usefulness to the metronome. Mine flashes so no one hears it, but I was thankful to have it turned on as I lost track of how many times I played the 32 measures.

Improvising in tempo

One of the most obvious ways to know that an organist is improvising is when there is a rhythmic hesitation. Metronomes are designed to help us remove rhythmic inconsistencies. It seems like all improvisers should practice improvising with a metronome, but I would guess that almost no one ever does that. We practice repertoire with a metronome in order to work through technical difficulties or make sure our tempo is stable. Have you ever tried to improvise while following a metronome?

With these graduation processions on my mind, I’d like to suggest improvising a processional with the metronome. Choose a comfortable (slow) tempo and perhaps a simple form following four-bar phrases. Can you play (or change) something on every beat of the metronome to convey the processional nature of the piece? If this is challenging, choose a slower harmonic rhythm so you have more time to consider what chord will come next. As you become comfortable improvising with the metronome, increase the speed. Choose a different meter. What other forms or styles could you improvise with the metronome? What repertoire do you practice with a metronome? Could you improvise in the same style with the metronome?

Metronomes are a practice tool. They keep us at a steady beat, can urge us on to the next note, and help us play slow enough to not make mistakes. We recognize their utility for learning repertoire and playing long entrance processions, so it seems to me we should also have them in our improvisation tool box. What does the metronome inspire you to improvise?

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 59 – 2016 05 27

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Modeling Tournemire: Offertoire

As I prepare to play selections from Tournemire’s L’Orgue mystique for All Saints this weekend, I thought we’d look at the second movement for some improvisation ideas.

Form and Language

The Offertoire for All Saints is based on the chant Justorum animae. The short piece contains five sections: A)harmonized chorale, B) monophonic chant, A’)elaborate harmonized chorale, B’) shorter monophonic chant, C) Coda.

The chant is in Dorian, Mode 1, so though there are no alterations in the key signature, because Tournemire starts the chant on G, every B is flatted except at the final cadences of the A sections. He borrows from closely related modes by including E-flats and A-flats. The chant is presented in half notes in the soprano, but Tournemire suppresses all the repeated notes, making each pitch of the chant equal in duration. While a traditional Bach-style chorale harmonization would include many root position chords, Tournemire rarely uses root position triads. Sevenths, suspensions, and inversions keep the progression unstable even at the cadence in the middle of the section at the end of the first phrase of the chant. The voices move mostly with step-wise motion.

The second section is a monophonic statement of the last two phrases of the chant. The change of registration and texture provide a contrast to the opening chorale. The relative speed of the chant also changes dramatically from half-notes to eighth-notes.

The return to the opening material for the third section is on a slightly softer registration and now includes more motion. While there were occasional eighth-notes in the first harmonization, this repetition keeps to the same harmonies, but includes constant eighth-note motion.

The fourth section is an echo of the second. The registration is softer, and only the second (final) phrase of the chant is cited. The final section seems to be a return to the opening material, but does not cite any of the chant. It is more of an extended harmonic return to an open fifth on the tonic G.

As offertories often take different lengths of time in different places, it strikes me that this piece could be easily shortened if needed by leaving out a section (or two or three). It would also be possible to repeat the longer B section instead of the shorter B’ section in order to lengthen the piece. While I do not know that Tournemire intended a performer to do these things, if we consider these pieces as examples of how we can improvise and fulfill the musical needs of the liturgy, I see no reason not to alter the number of sections we might play.

Applications

To summarize, here are ten ways to apply ideas from Tournemire’s Offertoire in our improvisations:

  1. Alternate contrasting sections to create a piece to cover an unknown length of time.
  2. Borrow from closely related modes or keys for harmonic interest.
  3. Use inversions and suspension to keep the piece moving forward.
  4. Suppress repeated notes in the melody.
  5. Standardize the rhythm of the melody into one time value.
  6. Change the unit of standardization for contrasting formal sections.
  7. Use single voice textures.
  8. Plan for repetition. Make sure you can play what you just played again.
  9. Repeat with variation. Keep it the same, but add more motion.
  10. Use registration to help mark formal sections.

As an example, I recorded an improvisation on Veni Veni Emmanuel following the model of this movement which you can watch here. As I recorded it before writing this column, I’m not sure I followed all ten of the above ideas, but hopefully it demonstrates at least some of the ways to apply ideas from Tournemire to a new theme.

Happy Halloween!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 52 – 2015 10 31

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Modeling Tournemire: Preludes

SeniorRecitalCoverI planned my senior recital at Westminster Choir College for Sunday evening, October 31, so I decided to include some selections appropriate for the day. I opened with the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, concluded with the Toccata from Louis Vierne’s Pièces de Fantasie. In the middle of the program, I played the complete L’Orgue mystique, no. 48 for All Saint’s (November 1). this was the second suite from L’Orgue mystique that I learned. The first was no. 17 for Easter which I had learned and played for a chapel service earlier in the spring at the request of my chant teacher, Fr. Gerard Farrell. Fr. Farrell was not only a chant scholar, he was an organist and had studied with Flor Peeters. Fr. Farrell’s love of chant the organ music based on it definitely led to my interest in the music of Tournemire and improvisation.

The Prélude

The first movement of the suite for All Saints is a simple one page prelude. It alternates a brief harmonic progression with accompanied presentation of portions of the introit chant Gaudeamus omnes in Domino. I have marked up a copy of the score here showing the alternating sections. In it’s simplest description, the piece is a seven part rondo: ABABABA with A being simple harmonic fill and B containing the theme. This plan of alternating sections will be our model for the form. The tonal language of the accompaniment is simple, staying virtually all the time in the mode of the chant providing atmosphere more than following traditional harmonic progressions.

Advent

In Tournemire’s day, the organ was not used during the season of Advent except on the third Sunday, referred to as Gaudete Sunday and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. As most organists continue to play during the Advent season now, I thought it would be a good idea to take themes from Advent and apply Tournemire’s forms and ideas to them in order to fill in the gap in today’s repertoire not covered by L’Orgue mystique. Perhaps the best know Advent theme today is Veni Emmanuel, a modal chant tune that I’m sure Tournemire would have used if he had needed to write more organ music for the season.

One of the tasks that I’ve suggested from time to time that will help us become better improvisations is to actually take pencil and paper and write out our ideas. I took the time to craft a Prélude à l’Introït on Veni Emmanuel following rather closely Tournemire’s prelude for All Saints. (Donwload the score here.) While I can claim it as a composition, it really is simply an example of how we can take the form and ideas from Charles Tournemire and apply them to themes that we know and use in our liturgies today. I encourage you to play through both the scores and to try your hand at improvising your own prelude following this model on a theme of your choice.

Videos

While I haven’t managed to make a video lesson of this yet, I was able to record performances of both the All Saints Introit and my Advent version. I also recorded an improvisation on Adoro Te Devote following the same idea (and registration). None of these is terribly long, but they can be fabulous ways to fill a couple of minutes, introduce a new tune to the congregation, or even provide an introduction to singing a hymn. I hope these lessons and examples will lead you to enjoy and discover the music of Charles Tournemire as I was led to it by Fr. Farrell.

May your improvisations be inspired,

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 51 – 2015 10 04

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The Final Grand Jeu

In concluding this series on the French Classical Suite, we come to one of the most impressive sounds of the French Classical organ, the ensemble of reeds. Virtually every time I sit down at a historic instrument and pull out the small number of stops required for the Grand Jeu, I am impressed by the volume of sound. Listen to Jean-Baptiste Robin play Louis Marchand’s Grand Dialogue at Poitiers to hear what 6-7 stops can produce!

Registration

The Pre-classical Grand Jeu registration consisted of:

  • G.O.: Trompette, Clairon, Cromorne, Cornet, Tierce, Bourdon 8, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard

A distinction emerged in the Classical period between the Grand Jeu using the registration above and the Grand Dialogue which omitted the Jeu de Tierce:

  • Pos: Montre 8′ or Prestant 4′, Bourdon 8′, Cromorne
  • G.O.: Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′, Trompette 8′, Clairon 4′, Cornet

As the organs grew larger and the Dialogue advanced, the registration expanded to:

  • Pos: as above
  • G.O.: as above
  • Récit: Cornet
  • Écho: Bourdon, Prestant, Doublette, Nazard, Tierce

Use of the pedal depended upon the organ, but was based on the Trompette, adding the Clairon and then Bombarde stops if available. Couperin and Boyvin specify the flute stop on the pedal when they include trio passages in their dialogues.

Forms

Multiple forms are used with this registration including Pedal points, Fugues, Dialogues, and Overtures. In an early suite, the Grand Jeu may only be 10-12 measures long and played entirely on one keyboard. Later composers created 10-12 minute Dialogues exploiting the varied palette of colors and demonstrating a variety of writing styles. For a short movement with a little variety, the overture provides an easy example for us to follow.

Start on the Grand Orgue in a slow tempo. Use dotted rhythms. Scales by either the right or left hand can provide movement while the other hand holds a static chord. This slow section is generally in a duple meter.

The second section is generally faster and in a triple meter. Voices could enter in a fugal style (one after the other in imitation). Typically this portion would start on the Positif and could have dialogue sections where the soprano or bass would be played on the Grand Orgue.

The final section would be a return to the material of the opening of the movement, but may be very short and serve more like a coda than a true repeat of the opening.

Conclusions

I hope you have enjoyed this series on the French Classical Suite. Please let me know if you have any questions or areas where I could offer further help as you improvise your suites. If you are able and willing to share recordings of your improvisations, feel free to include them in the comments section for this post.

Improvement comes not only through practice, but also feedback. This applies not just to improvising, but also to writing. If you have suggestions for the next series or ideas for how I can help you improvise better, I’d love to hear them.

May your improvisations continue to improve,
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 49 – 2015 09 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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Récits: Registration and Unwritten Expectations

Structurally, a French Classical Récit may not seem too difficult to improvise. Pull out a solo stop and a bourdon (maybe with a montre 8′ or flute 4′).  Play for a couple of minutes. Make sure you cadence in the same key you started, and you’re done. Easy, right?

Maybe so. Maybe not.

At first glance, Récits come with a variety of registrations: cornet, cromorne, trompette, nazard, tierce, hautbois, and even voix humaine. There are even movements that dialogue between two different solo registrations so that you don’t even have to limit your selection to one at a time! While many of these movements are in some form of 4/4 time, pieces with three beats per measure are not uncommon. Aside from an occasional suggestion of some snippet of a phrase from the chant, there is usually not a distinctive melodic motif or other form expected for the piece. With so many options, what makes it so difficult to be authentically French Classical?

Unwritten Expectations

About twenty years ago, I came across an article that delivered an a-ha moment for me about improvisation and also prepared me to study abroad. Unfortunately, I have no idea who the author was or where the article appeared. (Presumably the photocopy I made of it might be hiding in an unopened box from my recent move, but was likely misplaced many years ago.) The article compared improvising to learning the unwritten rules of a culture. Every culture has and teaches its members a certain set of behavior an knowledge. Most people do not realize the extent of this cultural formation until they encounter a radically different culture while traveling. 

While it is easy to accept and understand that each culture teaches its members its own set of knowledge and behavior, the revelation for me in this article was that the level of assumed knowledge varies from culture to culture. The author compared the cultures of Germany, France, the United States, and Japan. Germany demonstrated the lowest level of assumed knowledge. Germans will explain what you need to know to you clearly. If the information is important for your understanding, it will be included and explained by a German. 

Moving to a slightly higher level of presumed knowledge are the residents of the US. (I’ll call us Americans for brevity even though I recognize there are many others on this continent that can use that title and not be the group the author referred to.) As an American, I am likely to presume that my audience has some familiarity with the topic I am presenting. Ask questions, and I’ll fill in any details you need, but I’m not going to bore you with details that you may already know if I can make my point without them.

in France, a great deal more knowledge is presumed. Where an American might presume you’ve heard of an author before, the French will not only expect you to know who the author is but also when he lived, what he wrote, and something about his style or why he was influential. I was very thankful to have learned this before I went to study in France. In a practical example, if I hadn’t known there was a discounted train ticket price for students, I would have never been told or offered one by the sales agent. Presumed knowledge is not explained.

The culture with the highest level of presumed knowledge in the article was Japan. I have never traveled to Asia, so cannot verify how different this is from the other three cultures (which I have experienced). I do know there are many more cultural rules and behavioral expectations in Japan, so this hierarchy of assumed knowledge seems to make sense to me. Neither the author of the article nor I imply that any of these cultures is better than the other. They are simply descriptions that are useful to know, especially when moving from one culture to another.

From Culture to Music

Music is often called a language, so carries it’s own set of implied knowledge and structure. The French presume a certain level of knowledge that remains unstated. The title of a movement not only gives the registration, but so far has also implied a tempo and character. It’s no surprise then to discover that Récits have different characters and compositional styles based upon the solo voice chosen. If more than one option is given by the composer for the solo voice, then it is expected that the tempo and ornamentation of the piece will change with the registration. 

Here are some of the differences between the different solo stop pieces:

Récits de Cornet, Tierce and Nazard

The Récits de Cornet are the quickest of these solo movements. Ornamentation is very florid with irregular groupings of notes (5, 9, or even 10) very common. For example:

CornetRecit

 

Slightly slower than the Récit de Cornet, but still generally a lively piece the Récit de Tierce often ends with two upper solo voices. The Récit de Nazard is the slowest of these three, generally marked Largo, Andante or Tendrement (Tenderly). Clérambault is the exception with a Récit de Nazard marked Gayment et gracieusement.

Récits de Trompette, Cromorne, Hautbois and Voix Humaine

Sometimes called a Dessus de Trompette because the trompette is used in the upper voice (as opposed to a Basse de trompette), these are the most lively of the reed solo movements. The solo writing often imitates gestures played by a real trumpet, with lots of skips between notes of the same chord:

TrompetteRecit

By contrast, the Récits de Cromorne are much slower and more melodic, imitating a singer:

CromorneRecit

 

The Hautbois being a later innovation to the French Classical organ, these récits are generally quicker and more active than a récit de cromorne. They are modeled more after writing for the violin than purely vocal styles. Finally, the Voix humaine is the slowest of the récits, played in a more legato, vocal style, reflecting the name of the stop.

Immersion

The best way to speak a foreign language is to live in the country where you are completely immersed in the language and culture. Learning to improvise in French Classical style requires the same immersion with the native speakers. Just as there are accents and dialects in a spoken language, each composer will write a little differently than the next, but they will still speak the same language. Exposure and focused study will allow you to notice the unwritten expectations of the style like the differences in tempo and ornamentation between solo stops.

What musical elements have you learned through immersion? How long were you immersed before the knowledge appeared? How did you become immersed in a particular musical idiom? We have so many different musical styles available to us now, I believe it is more difficult to truly be immersed in a musical language, but I’d love to hear any immersion stories you might have.

Hoping your Récits sound truly French!

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 46 – 2015 08 17

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