Harmonie

What a fabulous conference at the University of Kansas! While Philippe Lefebvre’s completely improvised recital was one of my highlights of the conference, the opening concert was a unique experience that will inspire me for years to come. Five organists played a Mass in alternation with a chant schola. Michel Bouvard and Shin-Young Lee played movements from François Couperin’s Messe pour les Paroisses, while the three organists from Notre Dame, Philippe Lefebvre, Olivier Latry, and Vincent Dubois improvised. Here was truly a program in alternatim. No player played twice in a row, and improvisations alternated with repertoire. In between the movements, the chant schola from Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, under the direction of Nicholas Lemme provided exquisite chant. I have heard that the AGO intends to release videos from the conference over the next year. I certainly hope they include this unique concert soon. This was apparently the first time all three organists from Notre Dame have played on the same program outside of Paris ever. Bravo to the University of Kansas and AGO for organizing such a great event!

From left to right: Vincent Dubois, Olivier Latry, Shin-Young Lee, Philippe Lefebvre, Michel Bouvard

In an opening presentation to the conference, Michael Bauer asked what makes French pedagogy different. Is there anything specific or unique to the French system of training organists that carries across styles, time periods, and even teachers that sets it apart from the way organists are trained in the US, Germany, or other countries? There were panel discussions probing the French organists on their teachers and their own teaching methods, as well as presentations on the approach of Marie-Claire Alain and the conservatory system in France.

Because of the time I spent studying organ in both the United States and in France, I believe I came up with an answer by the end of the week.

Harmonie

Every music student in France is required to have multiple years of solfège. After a few years of learning to read music notation and sight-sing, students begin the disciplines of Écriture. This includes multiple years of harmony, counterpoint, and eventually the possibility of composition. To complete a college degree in music in the US, students generally have two years of music theory classes. In these two years, students cover basic notation, sight-singing, harmony, counterpoint, and analysis for all periods of music history from early to the most recent. Some students or schools may continue into a third year of required studies.

When I went to France, I had completed my Master’s Degree. I had composition lessons and had breezed through the theory classes I had taken in the US. When I took a placement test in France, I ended up in first year harmony! Now, I found it very easy and probably could have placed into second year with a little coaching, but harmonizing melodies in four-part open score (with C-clefs!) without the use of a keyboard was something I had never done in the US. Even the basic level of harmonie instruction in France requires skills that simply aren’t taught in this country.

Troisième cycle

The French Conservatory system has a system of three cycles for each discipline. The first cycle is a beginner; second level is intermediate; third level is advanced. Each cycle generally takes 2-3 years to master. During my time in France, I was able to complete the first cycle of harmonie. Even now, I wish I could complete the final levels of harmony and counterpoint from the French system.

Most of the organists in France also earned prizes or diplomas in harmony, counterpoint, and/or écriture (according to how the formation was grouped at the time). Many of them completed their studies in these disciplines before they earned their organ or improvisation prizes. If you had six or seven years of harmony and counterpoint classes, how much better would you be as an improvisor? Even for playing repertoire, how much more insight could you have on the construction of a piece if you had to write similar passages while studying harmony and counterpoint?

Pen and paper exercises develop not just the knowledge of music theory, but also the inner ear. I believe it is the extended study of these disciplines that sets the French organists apart. They have in depth study not just of the instrument, but also the disciplines of music construction. If you haven’t done so before, it may be time to sit at a desk and work on your musical écriture.

Music as Language

At the beginning of the month, I gave a presentation to the Baltimore AGO chapter. You can now view my opening remarks here. I truly believe that if we treat music as a language and invest the time into practicing it, we can become as fluent speaking music as we are in our native tongue. The French insist upon longer more detailed studies, and we can see the results there.

Before I ramble on too much longer, today is Halloween in the United States. Somehow, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor has become linked with the celebration. (With my American mentality, it was quite a shock when a couple I met with in France requested the piece as the entrance music for their wedding!) ORGANPromotion assembled two recordings of improvisations on the piece. You can hear them both on Spotify (Disc 1 and Disc 2). Rather than frighten you, I hope these recordings inspire you to improvise more often.

Happy Halloween!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 69 – 2017 10 31

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Improvisations on Spotify

In the nineteenth century, organs were exhibits at the World’s Fair (Exposition universelle), not just for their cultural relevance, but for their technology. Mechanical action instruments were growing larger and needed new technologies, such as the Barker lever to keep the instrument playable. While technology has continued to advance for the pipe organ (see how my iPhone can play the organ), organists and organ builders can be a little slow at times to embrace new technology.

Spotify officially launched in October of 2008. I might have looked at it sometime in the past nine years, but only recently have truly started diving into the playlists and artists hiding out there. Improvisation recordings have historically been hard to find. Anytime I spot a CD with an improvisation on it, I’ve tended to pick up the recording right then. For a while, I even restricted my CD purchases to recordings with improvisations on them. No improvisation = no purchase. Now, Spotify makes the recordings available for free! No need to wait for a recording to arrive in the mail. You can listen to some fabulous playing as soon as you register with them.

Here are a few of the improvisers I’ve found there:

I even discovered a couple of improvisers I didn’t know on Spotify:

There are even some interesting compilation albums like The Britannic Organ, Vol. 11: Historic Improvisations by British & German Organists which includes improvisations by Edwin Henry Lemare, Alfred Hollins, William Wolstenholme, and Kurt Grosse.

YouTube has been a great resource. The videos of organ improvisations there are too numerous to catalogue. (Even so, I’m trying to keep a master list of all the ones included on organimprovisation.com here.) I’m delighted to see that Spotify is another great resource to help immerse ourselves in the realm of improvisation.

Workshops

As mentioned last week, I made a presentation on improvisation to the local Baltimore AGO chapter. For those who asked, I have video from there that I hope to post soon. I also was able to attend a workshop by Bálint Karosi on Friday evening that he gave for the Lancaster AGO chapter. Any time I discover someone else teaching improvisation, I’m always interested in hearing what they have to say. I was delighted to hear Bálint start drawing parallels between music and language!

This week I’ll be attending the AGO Pedagogy conference in Lawrence, Kansas. I look forward to being renewed and inspired this week through all the presentations and interactions. I already know there is a contingent from Baltimore. I hope to see many more of you there!

If you can’t be there, listen to some French improvisations on Spotify. Immerse yourself and be inspired!

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 68 – 2017 10 17

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Music as Language

Music is a language. Through it we express joys and sorrows beyond words. Composers across the centuries have given us pieces crafted in the language of music that we perform repeatedly. We trust in their skills and creativity to create the atmosphere or transmit our feelings to others.

In our spoken language however, we do not rely upon great writers to express ourselves. Imagine trying to have a conversation where you could only quote Shakespeare. While we may not be great writers or even great orators like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., we are all capable of putting words together and conveying our thoughts to another person in a coherent manner.

For me, improvisation becomes the ability to converse in the language of music. When we enter the world of music, why do we suddenly lose faith in our own ability to communicate? Everyone learns his or her native language, and perhaps a few others. All musicians should learn not just to recite the music others have provided but to create their own expressions in music. Complex sentences and large structures are not required in our everyday conversations. Why should we consider a good improviser only someone who can make complex music? To improvise well should be as easy as speaking a well-constructed sentence.

Daily Practice

We learn our native tongue through constant use. We are surrounded and encouraged daily as a child to make sounds and put words together, even if they don’t follow correct grammar! To master the language of music, we need that same daily practice, encouragement, and immersion. A child doesn’t learn to say “mama” and “papa” in the same day. How many times did the parents say those words to the child before he or she uttered something close to those sounds? Find a sound or progression you would like to make part of your improvisation vocabulary and practice it daily. Do you have a keyboard at home? Play your chosen sounds every time you walk by it! We learned the grammar of our spoken language not because we learned the rules but because we heard them applied every day. A three-hour session on Saturday afternoon will not have the same lasting result as a few minutes everyday. Sure, we can make progress in a long session, but we learned our language through daily practice. We should do the same to master the language of music.

Workshops

This Saturday, I will present a workshop to the local Baltimore AGO on improvisation. If you are in the area, feel free to drop in. We’ll be at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen from 9:30 to 12:30 on October 14. After an opening presentation on looking at improvisation as conversing in the language of music, there will be time for questions and willing volunteers to sit on the bench and apply the ideas.

I will also be attending the AGO Pedagogy conference next week at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. With a focus on organ and improvisation study in the French conservatory system, I hope several of you are planning to attend. Please say hello if you see me there!

Hoping you speak music daily!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 67 – 2017 10 11

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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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What did you give up for Lent?

If you serve a liturgical church, today is the day when we are halfway through Lent. Many people give up something for Lent. Common examples include caffeine, smoking, chocolate, or even all desserts. I know a lot of organists that give up certain stops on the organ for the season. No reeds, no mixture, and certainly no Trompette-en-chamade! What if instead of giving up stops, we gave up notes? What would happen to our improvisations if we used not just fewer stops, but fewer pitches?

Rhythm

Can you improvise a piece using only one note? Harmony completely disappears from consideration if we only use one pitch to create our piece. Can you build a melody by moving the note up and down to different octaves? Rhythm and tone color seem to be the primary musical options for us when we only have one note to work with. Drum solos can last several minutes, so it is definitely possible to keep someone’s attention using primarily rhythm. How long can you keep the listener engaged while using only one note? What does it do to your own sense and awareness of rhythm? I managed about 2.5 minutes…

And then there were two

Using only one note is pretty tough. What if we give ourselves permission to use two different notes? Which two would you choose? How far apart would they be? A fifth? A third? Only a half-step?

With two notes, we now have some melodic and harmonic elements to work with in addition to rhythm. Is it easier to make a longer piece now? How much longer can you go? What difference does the choice of interval between the notes have on your creative ability?

I managed an extra 10-15 seconds with 2 notes…

A few more

Before going running back to a full set of 7 or 12 pitches, try using only 4, 5, or 6. If you can play for 2 minutes using only 2 notes, can you improvise for 5-6 by creating a B-section with 2 other notes and then return to your original material and pitches for a rounded binary or ternary form? Imagine 6 minutes of music using only 4 notes? What might that sound like?

The pentatonic scale only has five notes and has generated numerous folk melodies. How much time have you spent improvising with those five notes? Beginning keyboard students often have pieces that do not require moving the hands beyond the five notes that are directly below the fingers. What sort of music can you create in five-finger mode?

The whole-tone scale has six notes. Composers have made ample use of it to create impressionistic pieces and transitions. The traditional major and minor triads aren’t available in this set. How do you create harmonic tension or interest when all the notes are the same distance apart?

Lenten Sacrifice

Giving up chocolate, alcohol, or caffeine for Lent might be difficult, but I believe the practice of restricting ourselves for a limited time makes us better in the long run. While it is not easy to improvise using only one or two notes, the practice makes us aware of other elements in music that we may not pay as much attention to normally. Even though Lent is now halfway over, I encourage you to spend at least a few minutes exploring how you can improvise using only a handful of notes.

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 64 – 2017 03 23

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Recording improvisations

If there is anything that will tempt me to buy an organ recording, it’s one with an improvisation! More than the instrument or even who the performer is, I am always interested in hearing what sort of music someone else has created on the spot. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s not.

So, if improvisation is music made for the moment, should it be recorded?

No

While the capacity to record is much more available than it once was, we still don’t walk around recording all of our conversations. Our smartphones may record audio and video that we share through social media, but those are only excerpts of our day. Some moments, regardless of how wonderful they may be, just cannot be captured except in our memories.

As music made for the moment and for a specific audience, improvisations may not carry the same message or relevance to someone outside that initial performance. A movie may be a real thriller the first time we see it, but after we know the ending, it likely is not as exciting the second or third time through. What we thought was a fabulous improvisation, may not stand up to repeated hearings. It won’t be the same occasion. It won’t be the same audience. Philosophically, we can argue that improvisations are just moments of our musical life to enjoy while we can. Once they are over, they are gone.

Yes

For the study of improvisation, I believe it is extremely helpful to have recordings. Not only is it useful for us to hear other living masters that we may not be able to travel to hear live, the past masters such as Tournemire, Cochereau, and Dupré still live for us through their recordings. We spend hours analyzing written scores, considering the form, harmony, and counterpoint a composer put down on the page. How much time could we spend doing the same with improvisations? Any question we ask about a written composition can be posed for an organ improvisation recording.

If we wish to learn to improvise, recording ourselves and obtaining recordings of others can help us make progress. With the prominence of video recordings, we can see how people create the sounds that we hear. I remember buying a Messiaen piano score once just in order to discover how a certain sound I heard on a recording was made! With the multitude of tone colors available at the organ, seeing whether that solo is in the left hand or pedal may be a lot simpler than guessing from listening. While the musical affect may not be the same as when we first hear an improvisation, repeated listening give us the chance to learn vocabulary, grammar, and form. As children, I’m sure we all had a favorite book that our parents read to us over and over again. Through repetition, we absorbed words and an innate sense of language structure. The same can happen when we listen (or watch) an improvisation over and over.

Out of the Depths

Last night, I recorded my first CD. It is the program I played in Lent after I began here in 2015. On that program, I included an improvisation. Because I have gotten such joy from organ improvisation recordings, I am including one on the Out of the Depths CD.

The improvisation on the recording is not the one from the concert. I did choose to use the same theme: Wondrous Love. Now almost two years later, that is honestly about all I can remember from my original improvisation. If you ask me to improvise on that same melody two years from now, because of this recording, I will be able to do something similar. As the audience and occasion will be different, I probably would still do something different then. One theme lends itself to many different treatments, so even if we work with a them for a certain type of improvisation for some time, it never has to be the same way twice. How many different ways have you improvised on the same theme?

Recordings are useful and inspirational. Which improvisation recordings have you found most beneficial and why? How do you use recordings to further your studies? Some of the ones I know about are available through Amazon. Let me know if you have others I should add to my library!

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 63 – 2017 02 16

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Kansas Here I Come!

Hello 2017!

I was planning a column for the Christmas season when they announced the appointment of two new auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Their ordination was scheduled for January 19, so the crazy Advent-Christmas scheduled for a couple of weeks longer. The ordination even provided an improvisation challenge: how can you stretch an entrance procession to cover 500 people walking into the building?

Maybe it was only 450, but everyone in the upper and lower sanctuary as well as all the people in white on the right entered in procession. We did two hymns with interludes after every verse. What’s the longest procession you’ve played for? What did you do to keep the music interesting?

Kansas

As I was catching up on my reading after the holidays, I discovered that the American Guild of Organists has scheduled their next pedagogy conference, and its focus is improvisation! Organ and Improvisation Study in the French Conservatoire System will be held October 18 – 21, 2017 at The University of Kansas. I promptly signed up to attend. The lineup includes Olivier Latry, Michel Bouvard, Vincent DuBois and Philippe Lefebvre. More information is available at:
http://agopedagogyconference.music.ku.edu/
Please let me know if you plan to be there.

Simple Christmas Music

So the idea I wanted to get out for Christmas was based on one of the Orgelbüchlein chorales: Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich, BWV 605. The score (with a little alto clef for fun) starts like this:

At least in the US, virtually no one will recognize this as a Christmas tune, but the structure of the piece is simple enough that I thought it could be easily applied to Christmas tunes that people do know. The soprano is a straightforward presentation of the tune on a solo stop. The bass is a very simple harmonic bass with occasional passing tones. The interest of the piece comes from the treatment of the alto and tenor. The tenor has a dotted eighth and sixteenth note pattern while the alto fills in between the two tenor notes with either two thirty-second notes or a sixteenth note before finishing the beat with an eighth note.

The rhythmic pattern simplifies into or can be derived from a standard 4-part chorale harmonization very easily. I opened the hymnal at random and applied it to a few Christmas tunes: While Shepherds Watched (WINCHESTER OLD), How Brightly Shines (WIE SCHÖN LEUCHTET), and Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (IN DULCI JUBILO). While Christmas is over, you could certainly do the same with tunes from other seasons.

NPM

In other news, I have been asked to lead an organ masterclass at the National Pastoral Musicians Conference this summer in Cincinnati. The masterclass will cover repertoire or improvisation according to what the student wishes to work on. If you’d like to participate, please check out the convention brochure.

I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and that 2017 is off to a fabulous beginning for you.

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 62 – 2017 01 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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