Venez, Divin Messie

A 16th Century French Noël, commonly sung in English as “O Come, Divine Messiah.” The tune is also used in the Messe de Minuit pour Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier to set the lyrics “Laissez paître vos bestes.”

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Pierre Cochereau (David Briggs) – Variations sur ‘Venez Divin Messie’
Eric Dalest – Improvisation on Venez Divine Messie – Aubagne, France
Jean-Jacques Grünenwald – Improvisation on Venez Divine Messie – Nimes
Laurent Chalaux – Improvisation on Venez Divine Messie – Sylvanès
Duncan Middleton – Variation on ‘Venez Divin Messie’ – Notre Dame de France


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


Felix Mendelssohn originally composed this melody as part of a cantata in 1840 to celebrate the invention of printing with movable type by Johannes Gutenberg. William H. Cummings adapted the melody in 1855 to fit a text by Charles Wesley that was first published in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems. The first line commonly used today, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is an alteration by George Whitefield in his 1754 Collection of hymns for social worship.

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

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!


Recent additions to


Newsletter Issue 30 – 2014 12 01
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Veni, Veni Emmanuel


The tune ‘Veni, Veni Emmanuel’ was adapted by Thomas Helmore from a fifteenth century French Franciscan Processional. He first published it in The Hymnal Noted in 1854 with a translation by John Neale of the Latin hymn ‘Veni Emmanuel’. The text is a paraphrase of the O Antiphons sung at vespers during the seven days immediately before Christmas.

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Timothy Howard – Postlude on ‘Veni Emmanuel’ – Pasadena Presbyterian Church
János Pálúr – Improvisation on ‘Veni Emmanuel’ – Óbuda Reformed Church

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



Written by George J. Elvey for the text “Crown Him with Many Crowns” by Matthew Bridges, DIADEMATA was first published in the 1868 Appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern. The name of the tune is derived from the Greek word for “crowns.” While occasionally used for other texts, the melody retains a close association with the original lyrics.

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Kerry Beaumont – Improvisation on Diademata – Coventry Cathedral
Gerre Hancock – Improvisation on Diademata – Texas