Named after the city in Austria, the hymn tune SALZBURG was first published anonymously in the nineteenth edition of Johann Crüger’s Praxis Pietatis Melica. In the twenty-fourth edition of the book, the tune was attributed to Jakob Hintze, who contributed sixty-five tunes to the collection. The harmonization found in most hymnals was done by Johann Sebastian Bach.

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

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” was written by Philipp Nicolai in 1597 and first published in 1599. He is also know for his hymn for Advent, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.” The melody for “Wie schön leuchtet” was adapted from a melody for Psalm 100 found in Wolff Köphel’s Psalter (1538). The version presented here is the equal rhythm version used by J.S. Bach.

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Evert Groen – Symphonische Improvisation über ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ – St. Bonifatius-Dom in Wirges

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 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 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,

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The passacaglia originated in early seventeenth-century Spain, initially as an interlude between dances or songs. By the 1620’s, Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi transformed it into a series of continuous variations over a bass. The chaconne is a similar form, but because early composers were indiscriminate in their use of the two words, it is unclear what the difference might be between them.

While no order to the set of variations is prescribed, typically there would be an increase in complexity as the piece progresses. A sample progression might include:

  • Statement of the theme alone
  • Addition of a second voice
  • Addition of a third voice
  • Addition of a fourth voice
  • Eighth note motion (for a theme originally in quarters and halves)
  • Triplets
  • Sixteenth notes
  • Suspensions
  • Arpeggios

Following the model of Johann Sebastian Bach, many passacaglias now conclude with a fugue based upon the initial bass line melody. Composers may also choose to treat the bass as a melody, adding other transformations and modulations to further develop the theme.

Pachelbel Canon:
Bach Passacaglia:

Also see La Folía.

Marcel Dupré – Improvisation: Passacaglia – Cologne Cathedral
Marcel Dupré – Improvised Passacaglia
Paul Kayser – Passacaglia over ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ – Dudelange, Luxembourg
Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard – Passacaille Improvisée sur un thème d’Escaich – Nantes, France
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: IV (Introduction and Passacaglia)
Martin Sturm – Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue on a theme of Marie-Claire Alain – Seligenporten (DE)

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

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra – Bach and the Art of Improvisation

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra
Bach and the Art of Improvisation
Ann Arbor, MI: CHI Press, 2011.

Johann Sebastian Bach is often hailed as the greatest composer of organ music and a fabulous improviser. To be able to improvise in the style of Bach is a significant accomplishment for any musician. This book (part one of two volumes) looks not simply at how a student might learn to improvise in the style of the great master, but also how the great master perhaps taught and/or learned keyboard technique including improvisation.

As with other improvisation method books (like Hancock and Brillhart), Ruiter-Feenstra begins with a philosophical discussion of why we should learn to improvise. In the preface and first chapter, she places improvisation in a historical context and demonstrates how it was a common expectation in Bach’s time that organists be accomplished improvisers. Extensive notes for historical references are provided for each chapter in the book making this a well documented and researched presentation. Chapter two continues the look at historical techniques by considering fingering and touch. Though there are “applications” given in each chapter, only once we arrive at chapter three and the study of thoroughbass, is there any opportunity (or need) for the student to actually improvise or otherwise be creative. Chapter four requires slightly more inventiveness of the student by finally expecting the student to harmonize a given melody.

Finally with the beginning of counterpoint studies in chapter five is the student expected to create, though many of the exercises are to be done with pencil and paper first. One of the more interesting items in the text for me is the chart of ways to fill in assorted intervals with figuration. Table 5.2 also provides lots of good instructions for how to insert figuration into the chorale harmonization. Chapter six turns to the Neumeister Collection of Bach chorales for improvisational models. Chapter seven looks at dance suites and how to apply dance forms and rhythms to create chorale variations.

This book attempts to serve two purposes at the same time: 1) providing historical documentation of improvisation practice and pedagogy and 2) providing instruction for a current student wishing to learn to improvise in tonal style. While I appreciate the historical information, I am much more interested in applying the information today. As such, the later chapters in the book are much more useful to me. While foundational for the material covered later in the book, the early chapters are weak in opportunities to master the concepts. Many other texts treat the topics of fingering, thoroughbass, harmonization and even counterpoint in a much more complete manner. While it is interesting to consider these topics through the lens of improvisation, attempting to serve two purposes limits the potential depth of coverage. A second volume is projected to cover more forms, and I presume, will follow a similar dual purpose format. I have to wonder if it might have been better to divide the material into two books according to purpose, providing one volume of historical documentation and reference with a second volume of practical application and exercises. The historical documentation, research, and analysis included in this book is thorough and very interesting, however I find the practical application side weak.

Improvisation is a skill that takes time to master with many areas to cover. A beginning improviser would be better served by Jan Overduin, Gerre Hancock, or even Jeffrey Brillhart. Even if Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra has provided us a window into historical improvisation, the book lacks enough material for it to be a true method book for today’s beginner.

Karl Richter

Karl RichterKarl Richter (1926 – 1981) was a German conductor, choirmaster, organist, and harpsichordist. He studied with Günther Ramin, Carl Straube and Rudolf Mauersberger. In 1949 he became organist at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach was once Musical Director. In 1951 he moved to Munich, where he taught at the conservatory and was cantor and organist at St. Mark’s Church.

Karl Richter – Improvisation – Bavokerk, Haarlem