HEINLEIN was published in the Nürnbergisches Gesang-Buch (1676-77) as a setting of Christoph Schwamlein’s text based on Psalm 130 “Aus der Tiefe rufe ich” (“Out of the Depths I Cry”). The tune was attributed to “M. H.,” initials that are generally understood to refer to Martin Herbst, a theologian and philosopher who died in 1681 of the plague.

See a list of other popular hymn and chorale themes here.

Kerry Beaumont – Variations on ‘Forty days and forty nights’ – Coventry Cathedral
Kerry Beaumont – Toccata on ‘Forty days and forty nights’ – Coventry Cathedral

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Often translated in to English as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” the German chorale “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” first appeared in print in the late 16th century. The most familiar harmonization was written by German composer Michael Praetorius in 1609.

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Eric Dalest – Improvisation on “Es ist ein Ros” – Virtual organ of ST MAXIMIN
Paul Damjakob – Kommet ihr Hirten und Es ist ein Ros – Würzburger Dom

Models and Anchors

Composers create music for many different reasons. Occasionally, they write pieces to demonstrate techniques for their students, either as examples of instrumental technique or compositional practices to master. The Orgelbüchlein of Johann Sebastian Bach is a fabulous place to look for simple chorale treatment ideas. L’Orgue Mystique by Charles Tournemire offers a wealth of ideas for how to work with chants. As improvisers (and composers) we need to spend some of our time studying the masters that came before us and learning to use the material (notes, harmonies, and sound colors) that we have available to us.

Paul Manz

One of the great American composers and hymn players of the twentieth century was Paul Manz. He produced countless volumes of pieces based upon familiar hymn tunes. Published with the title of Improvisations, many of these pieces could be models for us to follow, suggesting ideas and techniques for us to learn and apply to other melodies. One of his collections that I’ve had in my library for many years is his Improvisations for the Christmas Season, Set 1. It includes settings of the chorales Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, Veni Emmanuel, and Wachet Auf along with a few others. Though the volume is labeled for the Christmas season, these are Advent chorales, so I typically will use them in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (That is, if I remember to take my score out of the file cabinet and bring it to church!)

Veni Emmanuel

One of the settings in the collection that fascinated me was a very simple setting of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It is a short one page piece. The pedal part consists entirely of a single note, the tonic E. The melody is presented on a solo stop and the chordal accompaniment on a softer registration. I found a performance on YouTube that you may hear by following the link here. What fascinates me about this composition is how Manz begins and ends with cluster harmonies and triads from within the mode, but then ventures quite far afield in the middle, using chromaticism might otherwise be out of place in a modal piece.

When evaluating an improvisation (or composition), I like to fall back on the four C’s that I outlined in the first newsletter issues: competent, convincing, coherent, and colorful. The mixture of chromatic and modal harmonic language could make this Manz piece incoherent and perhaps not very competent either, yet our ears accept the chromaticism. Why?


This improvisation gives our ears two anchors to hold on to: the pedal point and the melody. Being a familiar tune, the melody (as the loudest voice) clearly has the strongest pull for our ears. The pedal point also orients us just as the north pole orients a compass. Regardless of which way we may turn, the pedal will enable us to gain our bearings and return home again. The chromaticism also has a direction to it – the chords continue moving up – giving our ear an expected resolution to the dissonance as well. All these together combine to create the color of the piece, enabling it to be coherent, competent, and convincing, in spite of the rather simple and perhaps uninteresting ideas that are combined to make the composition.

Try it for yourself

How can this piece serve as a model for us? What can we practice following this example?

While normally, pedal points can be boring and would often be discouraged, they can be useful in times of very chromatic movement. What sort of harmonic tension can you create over a pedal point? How long can you keep a listener’s attention with only one note in the pedal? Explore chromatic harmonies by changing one note at a time in the accompaniment. Does this work better with the melody in the soprano or tenor range? What difference does it make if the theme is in a major mode? What if the chromatic lines move down instead of up? Here’s a technical challenge for you: play the pedal point with the left (or right!) hand and the melody in the pedal. Choose different themes and try out all the different combinations of pedal point, melody and accompaniment that you can imagine!

May all your improvisations be competent, convincing, coherent and colorful!


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Newsletter Issue 30 – 2014 12 01
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Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland


The German chorale “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” is a translation of the Latin chant Veni redemptor gentium made by Martin Luther. The melody for the chorale was adapted from the same chant by either Martin Luther or Johann Walter. While the chant hymn is designated as part of the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for December 17 to 24, the Lutheran hymn has become closely associated to the First Sunday of Advent.

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Ján Blahuta – Maestoso über den Choral ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’
Ján Blahuta – Trio über den Choral ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’
Ján Blahuta – Sarabande über den Choral ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’
Ján Blahuta – Quasi Fughetta über den Choral ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’
Wolfgang Seifen – Orgel-Improvisation ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ – Charlottenburg

Thank You

This week in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving. While it has become a commercialized holiday that at one point marked the start of the Christmas shopping season (which now begins before Halloween), I believe it is very useful for everyone to spend a few moments from time to time to express gratitude to others. Today, I’d like to thank you for visiting organimprovisation.com. If you enjoy the content, would you thank me by sharing it with your friends and colleagues and asking them to subscribe? Every time I see a new subscriber or get a note from someone, I feel encouraged because I believe in some small way I’ve been able to help someone become a better organist. Thank you for your confidence in my abilities to offer you useful information. Please feel free to email me with your ideas for topics or lessons that would be most helpful to you.

Now Thank We All Our God

One of the most popular hymns sung at Thanksgiving is the German chorale Nun danket alle Gott, and one of the most popular settings of the chorale for organ is the Virgil Fox transcription of a movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata no. 79. (Here Virgil Fox play it on YouTube here or the original Bach Cantata movement with orchestra here.) I’d like to use this piece as our model to imitate this week. How can we break this piece down and use the pieces to build something like it with a different choral?

Language and Form

Being composed by J.S. Bach, the musical language is very tonal. Secondary dominant seventh (or ninth) chords are about as adventuresome as we get harmonically. If you wish to treat another tune in this style, make sure the tonal language of the theme is consistent with the style.

For form, the piece basically alternates what I will call concerto material with phrases of the chorale. The second half of the chorale is also repeated, creating additional length for the piece. The chorale theme always appears in the left hand on a solo stop and is also given a half-note pulse. This allows time for the right hand to provide concerto material for each note of the theme, but the harmonic rhythm does not move any faster than the theme itself. In some other forms, doubling the length of time a melody note is played gives the composer the opportunity to fit more chords in the harmony, but this is not the case here. Bach keeps it simple.

Getting Started

The opening concerto material is actually the same material that is used to accompany the first phrase of the chorale. Rather than play the chorale, the left hand just played a rhythmic idea to keep the piece in motion:


Perhaps a first step to try if you wish to do this with another chorale is to simply use the left hand accompaniment figure to above to play through the harmonies of your new chorale theme. For example, here’s the opening of All Glory, Laud and Honor (Valet will ich dir geben):


After this, it’s time to experiment to find a motif or idea that you can play with the right hand. Bach uses both rising and descending thirds as well as neighbor notes to create his concerto material. Try using similar material for your harmonic progression, but keep the idea simple so that you can remember it and use it or reference it again and again in between each of the phrases of your chorale theme.

Pulling It All Together

One of the other details I noticed about the Bach cantata movement is that each full phrase of the chorale is interrupted at the halfway point by a short phrase of concerto material. At the end of a phrase of the chorale, there is a longer section of concerto material before the chorale returns. This makes it easier to modulate to the dominant where the second half of the chorale begins and is an easy way to create a longer piece if you have more time that you need to fill. To shorten the piece, leave out the additional concerto material that interrupts the theme at the midpoint of each phrase.

Thank you again for visiting organimprovisation.com. I hope you find these tips helpful and that your improvisations fill those around you with gratitude for the musical gifts that you have been given!

Happy Thanksgiving,

Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:



Newsletter Issue 29 – 2014 11 24
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Lasst uns erfreuen

The melody for LASST UNS ERFREUEN is named for the Easter text “Lasst uns erfreuen herzlich sehr” in the Jesuit hymnal Ausserlesene Catlwlische Geistliche Kirchengesänge where it was first published in Cologne in 1623. The setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams first published in The English Hymnal in 1906 has become the most popular version of the tune paired with the text “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” by Athelstan Riley. Other texts often paired with the melody include “All Creatures of our God and King” and “From All That Dwell Below the Skies.”

See a list of other chorale and hymn themes here.

DRJFK1986 – Improvisation ‘Lasst uns erfreuen herzlich sehr’
Healey Willan – Hymn and Improvisation – St Mary Magdalene, Toronto

Christ lag in Todesbanden

Christ lag in Todesbanden
The chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden is an adaptation of the chant Victimae Paschali laudes. The arrangement is credited to Johann Walther who published it his Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn in 1524, but it is possible that Martin Luther may have assisted in the adaptation.

See a list of other chorale and hymn tune themes here.

Robert Descombes – Improvisation on ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ – Orgelet
Morten Ladehoff – Partita in baroque style on ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ – Symphonic Hall Aarhus
Morten Ladehoff – Symphonic movement in romantic style on ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ – Symphonic Hall Aarhus
Morten Ladehoff – Free modern style improvisation on ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ – Symphonic Hall Aarhus
Rudolf Lutz – Improvisation sur “Christ lag in Todesbanden” – l’église Saint François, Lausanne

Nun danket alle Gott

This melody is attributed to Johann Crüger and was written around 1647. The German text “Nun danket alle Gott” was written in approximately 1636 by Martin Rinkart. It was translated into English in the 19th Century by Catherine Winkworth.

See a list of other chorale and hymn themes here.

Gabriela Montero – Improvisation on “Now thank we all our God” (piano)
Johannes Schröder – Improvisation zum Auszug über ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ – Abtei Marienstatt
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation Nun danket alle Gott – Geneve
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation Nun danket alle Gott – Martinikerk, Groningen

Ein feste Burg

Ein feste Burg is one of the best known of Martin Luther’s hymns. The words, a paraphrase of Psalm 46, and melody were written sometime between 1527 and 1529. It is strongly associated with the Reformation. The original melody was much more rhythmic, but it has been standardized into the isometric rhythm shown above.

See a list of other chorale and hymn themes here.

Maria Scharwieß – Organ Improvisation:Ein feste Burg – Nathanaelchurch in Berlin-Schöneberg
Sietze de Vries – Ein Feste Burg improvisation – Martinikerk, Groningen
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation Ein feste Burg – Leeuwarden

O dass ich tausend Zungen hätte


Johann Balthaser König (1691 – 1758) composed this tune, which later became associated with Johann Mentzer’s hymn “O dass ich tausend Zungen hätte” (Oh, That I Had a Thousand Voices).

See a list of other chorale and hymn themes here.

William Porter – O dass ich tausend Zunge hätte – Prelude
William Porter – O dass ich tausend Zunge hätte – Canon
William Porter – O dass ich tausend Zunge hätte – Intermezzo
William Porter – O dass ich tausend Zunge hätte – Fugue