Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her


Composed by Martin Luther in 1535, “Vom Himmel hoch” was first published in Valentin Schumann’s Geistliche Lieder in 1539. Johann Sebastian Bach used the melody in his Christmas Oratorio and as the theme for his Canonic Variations.

See a list of other chorale themes here.

Cor Ardesch – Vom Himmel hoch – Grote Kerk, Dordrecht
Maria Scharwieß – Vom Himmel hoch – Nathanaelchurch Berlin-Schöneberg

Valet will ich dir geben – St. Theodulph

A hymn commonly associated with Palm Sunday and the words ‘All Glory, Laud and Honor,’ this chorale was one of the themes for the final round of the NCOI competition in Boston in 2014.

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

Rafael Ferreyra – Fantasia improvisation on ‘Valet will ich dir geben’ – San Juan Bautista, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Where do I start?

Now that we’ve explored the Four C’s of Improvising (Competency, Convincing, Coherent and Colorful), the question becomes how do we apply them all at once? If our improvisations are to sound like a composition, then we must be able to master all of them, but where do we start? Is there an order that we need to cover them in order to master the art of improvisation?

The Tool Box

I have always looked at my improvisation skills as a tool box. A house or even a piece of furniture is constructed using not just a hammer, but a hammer, screwdriver, saw, nails, pliers, and depending upon the project, perhaps a measuring tape, a few wrenches, a blow torch or even a backhoe! So constructing a piece of music also requires use of harmony, counterpoint, and many other musical tools. It can be advantageous to practice these areas separately, but eventually we must combine them together if we are to achieve a final product. Mastering harmony alone would be like mastering the saw. There are many things we could do, but we will need more tools to complete our project.


Because there are so many tools that we need to master in order to improvise, I have become fascinated by the method books that have been written to teach improvisation. I am attempting to compile a bibliography of books here. Please let me know about others and I will add them to the list. Each of the books I have seen chooses a different place to start and covers different tools.

For example, one of the recent books I found is Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising by Sietze de Vries. As the title implies, this book is aimed at organists beginning the study of improvisation. The first pages explain root position triads, inversions, and basic harmonic progressions. The next few chapters build out from this base by expanding to other major keys, applying the inversions, widening the harmonic palette, and then moving into minor keys and church modes. If you do not have a solid foundation in harmony and theory, then this could be a good place for you to begin your study. As the author says on the last page:

And now a somewhat discouraging announcement: This is only the beginning! The knowledge you have gained about harmonizing can help you begin to improvise hymn introductions and choral preludes. This makes knowledge of different musical forms absolutely necessary.

Indeed, I find this book to be very basic and something I am not likely to use myself except as a thematic resource. It includes over two dozen simple chorale themes from the Dutch Liedboek voor de kerken. If you don’t have access to that hymnal and need some simple themes to work with, this could be an excellent resource. Here’s a sample theme, Lobt Gott den Herrn, ihr Heiden all:
LobtGottdenHerrn - Vries

Rather than search through Bach’s 371 Harmonized Chorales for simple chorales, Harmonizing by Sietze de Vries will provide you with plenty of useful themes to practice not just harmony but many other tools from your toolbox that you might wish to develop. What sort of introduction or chorale prelude could you make with the theme above? If this is the starting place, where would you go next? How many different places can we go from here? Rather than be discouraged, I get excited by all the possibilities! We have a start, so let the adventure begin!

Hoping you will explore the possibilities,

Glenn Osborne

Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:



Newsletter Issue 6 – 2014 06 02
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Passion Chorale

PassionChoraleOriginally written by Hans Leo Hassler around 1600 for a secular love song, “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret”, this chorale is often associated with the text “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” a text based on a medieval Latin poem often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but now attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Louvain (died 1250). Paul Gerhardt wrote a German version “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” The tune was appropriated and rhythmically simplified for Gerhardt’s German hymn in 1656 by Johann Crüger. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in his St Matthew Passion. Bach also used the melody with different words in his Christmas Oratorio. The hymn was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold. The most widely used English translations were made by the American Presbyterian minister, James Waddel Alexander in 1830 and the English poet Robert Bridges in 1899.

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

William James Ross – Free Fantasy on Herzlich tut mich verlangen – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio, Texas
Paul Kayser – Passacaglia on “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” – Dudelange, Luxembourg
Wilco Buitendijk – Improvisatie over ‘O haupt voll blut und wunden’ – Rodenrijs

Hymns and Chorales

Because hymns and chorales form the cornerstone of most Protestant worship services, they are frequent subjects for organ improvisations. Examples can be found below in both liturgical and concert settings.

Hymns and Chorales:

Vincent Dubois – Improvisation on Ode to Joy by BEETHOVEN – Reims Basilique St Remy
Gerre Hancock – Final hymn and improvised Organ Voluntary on ‘Gott sei Dank’ – May 18, 2003 – St. Thomas
Pierre Pincemaille: Improvisation sur “Noi canteremo gloria a Te” (aka OLD HUNDREDTH) – Chignolo d’Isola, Bergamo, Italy
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
Tom Trenney – “Duke Street”, April 28, 2013 at First-Plymouth Church
Tom Trenney – “Come Down, O Love Divine” – First-Plymouth Church

For more videos, see the master list of all videos on the website here.


A fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.

David Briggs – Fugue at St. Sulpice
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Fugue
William Porter – O dass ich tausend Zunge hätte – Fugue