Moving to a new center

Did you have any time to fill this week? Did you fill it with song? Did you kill time or follow a form?

The key to filling larger blocks of time or creating large scale forms is the ability to move to different key centers. While staying in the same key is acceptable for certain styles and forms, even a simple ABA form can benefit from modulation to a different key.

Ready? Go!

The quickest way to change keys is to simply change keys! No preparation or transition necessary. This works well in tonal schemes when moving to a closely related key: tonic to dominant, major to relative minor, major to parallel minor, or vice versa. From C major, that enables us to simply move to G major, F major, A minor and C minor. If you are using a richer tonal palette (like Messiaen’s Mode 2), movements by thirds can work as well. This would add Eb major, F# major, A major, E major, and Ab major as possible direct jumps.

One Chord Transitions

A very common practice in some traditions is to modulate up for the final verse of a hymn. Often the easiest and quickest way to do this is with a deceptive cadence at the end of the verse, concluding on major chord on the flatted sixth degree of the scale. This makes the old tonic the leading tone for the new key one half-step higher and enables everyone to jump back in to the next verse with no further segue needed.

A dominant seventh chord can actually serve as a pivot point for a transition to any other key. While you might need a little more time to lock in the new key after the shift, I’ve made a handout available here showing the resolution from a G7 chord to all 24 major and minor keys.

In his Cours Complet d’Improvisation à l’Orgue, Marcel Dupré suggests using symmetrical chords for modulation. The diminished seventh chord built of minor thirds functions very much like the dominant seventh chord above, so I won’t elaborate further on it. The other symmetrical chord Dupré uses for modulation is the augmented triad. Built of major thirds, this is an unstable sound because it lacks a perfect fifth. The lack of stability helps create the motion to a new key, and once again this chord can get you to any other key that you would like. (See the handout here.)

Smooth Transitions

Of course, if you are not looking to shock your listeners, you may wish to take a little more time and venture through several keys before arriving at your final destination. Exactly how much time you can take will depend upon the form you are aiming to follow and the expected duration of your improvisation. Composer Max Reger offers a guide on how to modulate from one key to another, even providing different progressions for enharmonic key relations! In his book Modulation, he offers 46 potential progressions from a major key and 54 progressions from a minor key. If you don’t know how to get from one key to another, this is the place to look. If your time is short, you can employ his progressions as they are. If you have more time, you can create a phrase in the key for each of the chords of his suggested progressions. The key to smooth transitions will be to use melodic thematic material whenever possible. Referencing familiar musical material will make it easier for the listener to accept and process the harmonic changes. By playing thematic material in different keys, you will also be practicing skills necessary for larger forms such as sonata allegro or fugue!

May your move from one place to another pass smoothly!


Recent additions to



Newsletter Issue 26 – 2014 10 27
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Jeanne Demessieux

JeanneDemessieuxJeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) began studying piano with her older sister, Yolande, before entering the Montpellier Conservatoire in 1928. In 1933, she entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying piano with Simon Riera and Magda Tagliaferro, harmony with Jean Gallon, counterpoint and fugue with Noël Gallon, and composition with Henri Büsser. She studied organ privately with Marcel Dupré before entering his organ and improvisation classes at the conservatory in 1939. After earning her first prizes, she continued private lessons until her concert debut at the Salle Pleyel in 1946. She served as organist at Saint-Esprit in the 12th arondissement from 1933 until her appointment as titular organist at La Madeleine in 1962. She taught organ at the Nancy Conservatoire (1950-1952) and the Conservatoire Royal in Liège (1952–68). She wrote over 30 compositions and made several recordings, including the complete works of César Franck.


The Legendary Jeanne Demessieux: The Hamburg Organs
Festivo 6961862
Includes repertoire by Bach, Franck, Demessiuex, Messiaen and an improvisation on the choral “O grosser Gott der Treu”

Gaston Litaize

gaston-litaize-aux-claviers-de-l-orgue-de-saint-françois-xavier-à-parisAssociation Gaston Litaize:

Gaston Litaize (1909 – 1991) was a French organist and composer. An illness caused him to lose his sight just after birth. He entered the Institute for the Blind in Nancy, studying with Charles Magin. Magin encouraged him to continue studies in Paris at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles. Litaize enrolled concurrently there and at the Paris Conservatory. His teachers in Paris included Adolphe Marty, Marcel Dupré, Henri Büsser, and Louis Vierne.

In 1939, Litaize became organist at Saint-Cloud, and in 1944 he became director of religious radio programs, overseeing five weekly broadcasts. In 1946, Litaize became organist titulaire at Saint‑François‑Xavier, a post he held until his death. When he retired from the radio in 1975, he became the organ teacher at the Conservatoire in St Maur-des-Fossés. His students there included Denis Comtet, Olivier Latry, Eric Lebrun, and Christophe Mantoux.

Litaize made numerous recordings, some of which have been reissued. He also was very active as a composer. A complete list of his compositions is available here. Olivier Latry has even transcribed and published one of Litaize’s improvisations.


Gaston Litaize by Sébastien Durand
This book is in French.

Fantaisie et Fugue sur le nom de Gaston Litaize
Alain Litaize
This book is in French and includes an audio CD with unpublished works and improvisations of Gaston Litaize.


Gaston Litaize: Organ
Includes an improvisation on Victinmae paschali laudes.

Gaston Litaize: Récital de Son 80 Anniversaire
Includes Litaize playing some of his own compositions and an improvisation.

Gaston Litaize e Guy Bovet: All’organo di Carasso (Ticino)
Includes repertoire played by Gaston Litaize and Guy Bovet as well as an improvisation by each of the organists.

Litaize plays Litaize
Gaston Litaize plays his own works on the 1979 Winfried Albiez (Lindau / Lake Constance) organ located in the gallery of the Church of St. Mary in Kempen, Germany as well as three improvisations. Available through OHS.

André Fleury

fleury_andre_mediumAndré Fleury (1903-1995) was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. He received his musical training as a private student of Henri Letocart (a former student of César Franck), and later, of André Marchal and Louis Vierne. At the Paris Conservatory, he studied organ with Eugène Gigout and received a first prize in organ performance and improvisation under Gigout’s successor, Marcel Dupré, in 1926. Fleury also studied composition with Paul Vidal.

In 1920, Fleury became Gigout’s assistant at St. Augustin in Paris, and, later, also assistant of Charles Tournemire at Ste. Clotilde. He became titular organist at St. Augustin in 1930. In 1941, he was appointed professor of organ at the École Normale de Musique in Paris.

After World War II, Fleury relocated to Dijon. In 1949, he succeeded Émile Poillot as titular organist at Dijon Cathedral and as professor of piano (a year later also of organ) at the Dijon Conservatory. In 1971, he accepted Jean Guillou’s invitation to become co-titular organist at St. Eustache in Paris. He also was appointed as professor of organ at the Schola Cantorum and as titular organist at Versailles Cathedral.

As a composer, Fleury wrote numerous works for organ, many of which have not been published yet. He premiered several important organ compositions, such as the organ sonata of Darius Milhaud, Maurice Duruflé’s Scherzo op. 2, as well as La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen (the first integral performance of this organ cycle, after the premiere by Jean Langlais, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur, and Jean-Jacques Grunenwald).

Among his students were Bernard Gavoty, Pierre Cochereau, and Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur.

André Fleury – Improvisation-Demonstration of Dijon Cathedral – France


A symphony is a multi-movement form, usually tonal with the first movement in sonata allegro form. While originating as a suite of pieces for orchestra, as the tone palette of the organ grew, it migrated to a form for the newer romantic/symphonic organ. Though the very first organ symphony was written by German composer Wilhelm Valentin Volckmar in 1867, the genre is mainly associated with French romanticism. César Franck wrote what is considered to be the first French organ symphony in his Grand pièce symphonique, and the composers Charles-Marie Widor, who wrote ten organ symphonies, and his pupil Louis Vierne, who wrote six, continued to cultivate the genre. The Symphonie-Passion of Marcel Dupré is the reconstruction of an improvisation by Dupré that he made at Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia on 8 December 1921. While classical symphonies (and those written compositions) developed original material, it seems most improvised symphonies follow the pattern of Dupré in utilizing chants, chorales, or other themes known to the audience.

Nigel Allcoat – Symphonie Improvisée on ‘Salve Regina’ – St Nicolas du Chardonnet, Paris
Jean-Baptiste Dupont – Symphonie improvisée playlist- St-Joseph, Bonn Beuel (Germany)
Noël Hazebroucq – Symphonie Improvisée 1: Allegro Sonate – La Madeleine, Paris
Noël Hazebroucq – Symphonie Improvisée 2: Scherzo – La Madeleine, Paris
Noël Hazebroucq – Symphonie Improvisée 3: Cantilène et toccata – La Madeleine, Paris
Otto Maria Krämer – Symphonie Francaise – Allegro ma non troppo
Otto Maria Krämer – Symphonie Francaise – Cantabile
Otto Maria Krämer – Symphonie Francaise – Scherzando on “Macht hoch die Tür”
Otto Maria Krämer – Symphonie Francaise – Prière
Otto Maria Krämer – Symphonie Francaise – Final

Gerre Hancock – Improvising: How to Master the Art

Gerre Hancock
Improvising: How to Master the Art
Oxford University Press

As one of the most highly regarded American improvisers of the late twentieth century, Gerre Hancock has left us a wonderful treasure in his book Improvising: How to Master the Art. I remember as an undergraduate student anticipating its release, anxiously waiting to see what this master would put down on paper as the way to learn American improvisation. While there were some smaller volumes (by Jan Bender and Michele Johns), the referential text for improvisation when I was a student was still the Cours Complet D’improvisation a l’orgue by Marcel Dupré. While offering lots of guidance, the Dupré was written for French students who normally have many years of harmony and counterpoint studies either already under their belt or in parallel process which typical American students lack. This makes the Dupré a very challenging place to start for most Americans. Gerre Hancock provides a wonderful bridge for those aspiring to follow the Dupré method but without the advanced theoretical background.

After an introduction where he offers two axioms of the art of improvising – 1)Never stop and 2)Salvation is never more than half a step away – Hancock begins with scales. Beginning with one voice, the student is encourage to make an interesting melody out of an ascending and descending scale. Slowly the texture is increased up to four voices. Numerous examples are given in a multitude of styles, however there is always one voice that is the scale. Whereas Dupré expects a student to practice proper voice leading and keep a strict even rhythm to the scales, Hancock encourages variety. This does not mean rhythmic instability as one of the recommendations at the end of the first chapter is for the student to count the time signature aloud while playing.

Chapter two moves on into phrases, starting again with only one voice and building up to a four voice texture. Having mastered scales and phrases, the student begins work on transitions in chapter three (“The Interlude”). Chapter four lays the foundation for variations as Hancock leads the student through re-voicing and re-harmonizing hymns. Chapter five (“The Ornamented Hymn”) begins to move the student away from strict statements of the hymn tune, preparing for “The Hymn Prelude” of chapter six where the student is given several forms to combine and apply the work of the previous chapters on phrases, interludes and ornamentation.

Beginning at chapter seven, Hancock moves the student from a given melody to forms that can be used with freer themes, beginning with Song Form, moving through Sonata Form (chapter 8) to Toccata (chapter 9). At chapter 10, he begins to introduce contrapuntal ideas through study of the canon. More complicated imitative structures are studied in chapter 11 (“The Duo and the Trio”) before arriving at the ultimate improvisational achievement- the fugue (chapter 12).

Overall, I find this book to be very logical in the progression through the material covered. While tonal language is implied throughout the course of study, the primary instruction in this book is in coherence through form and thematic development. It can be followed using a very simple or very complex harmonic language, i.e. in whatever language the student is most comfortable. If you are looking for instruction in harmony or a specific style, this is not the place to go, but if you wish to develop your improvisational form, this is an excellent workbook. Each chapter is filled with concrete recommendations for practice. It begins simply enough that anyone with basic music theory knowledge can follow, but it provides enough substance that even those with several years of harmony and counterpoint studies can still follow and learn.

Gerre Hancock was not only a master improviser, but also a master teacher. Improvising: How to Master the Art is indeed a masterwork of improvisation pedagogy and should be in any serious student’s library.

Louis Vierne


Louis Vierne (1870 – 1937) is best known as a composer and organist at Notre Dame in Paris, France. He was born in Poitiers, nearly blind due to congenital cataracts, but was discoverd at an early age to have a gift for music: at age two, a pianist played him a Schubert lullaby and he promptly began to pick out the notes of the lullaby on the piano.
After completing school in the provinces, Louis Vierne entered the Paris Conservatory. From 1892, Vierne served as an assistant to the organist Charles-Marie Widor at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Vierne subsequently became principal organist at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, a post he held from 1900 until his death (while performing a concert) in 1937. Though he held one of the most prestigious organ posts in France, the Notre-Dame organ was in a state of disrepair throughout much of his tenure. To raise money for its restoration, he undertook a concert tour of North America including a performance on the famous Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia. Some of his students include Augustin Barié, Edward Shippen Barnes, Lili Boulanger, Nadia Boulanger, Marcel Dupré, André Fleury, Gaston Litaize, Édouard Mignan, Alexander Schreiner, and Georges-Émile Tanguay.
Vierne made phonograph recordings of six works of Bach, three of his own compositions and three improvisations. Originally recorded by Odéon, they were reissued most recently by EMI in 1981 with two of the improvisations appearing again in 1994. Maurice Duruflé transcribed the improvisations as he had done with the recordings of Charles Tournemire.


Louis Vierne: Organist of Notre Dame Cathedral
by Rollin Smith, Pendragon Press, 2009.

Recorded in 1929, there is some noise in the audio on these video, but I believe they are worth sharing because it is Vierne himself improvising.

Louis Vierne – Marche Episcopale – Notre Dame, Paris
Louis Vierne – Meditation – Notre Dame, Paris
Louis Vierne – Cortege – Notre Dame, Paris

and while it isn’t an improvisation, there is a short video of Louis Vierne playing at Notre Dame here.

Veni Creator

In square notation:
or regular notation:
Veni Creator Spiritus is a hymn believed to have been written by Rabanus Maurus in the 9th century. It is sung during the liturgical celebration of the feast of Pentecost (at both Terce and Vespers). It is also sung at occasions such as the entrance of Cardinals to the Sistine Chapel, when electing a new pope, as well as at the consecration of bishops, the ordination of priests, when celebrating the sacrament of Confirmation, the dedication of churches, the celebration of synods or councils, the coronation of kings, the profession of members of religious institutes and other similar solemn events. Paul Hindemith concludes his Concerto for Organ and Orchestra with a “Phantasy on ‘Veni Creator Spiritus.'” Maurice Duruflé used the chant tune as the basis for his composition “Prélude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du ‘Veni Creator'”

See a list of other popular chant themes here.

Marcel Dupré – Veni Creator – St. Sulpice, Paris
Aart de Kort – Improvisation on Veni Creator – Schnitger organ of the Grote- of St. Michaëlskerk, Zwolle – from a concert on 6 August 2013

Kyrie Orbis Factor

KyrieOrbisFactorThe Missa Orbis Factor is Mass XI in the Graduale Romanum and is intended for use on Sundays throughout the year. The name for this Kyrie comes from the text of the trope Orbis factor, rex aeternae.

See a list of other popular chant themes here.

Pierre Cochereau – Kyrie XI ‘Orbis Factor’ – Introit, Chant and Sortie
Marcel Dupré – Improvised Double Fugue on Kyrie XI ‘Orbis Factor – Recorded 1957

Literary texts

Passages from works of literature also can provide inspiration for spontaneous musical composition. As the traditional home of the organ has been the church, passages from the Bible are probably the most frequent literary texts chosen as themes for improvisations. For example, the Stations of the Cross provided not just a theme for the composition of Marcel Dupré, but many other organists have chosen to improvise music for the same or very similar sets of readings.

Thierry Escaich Improv sur le “Chemin de la Croix” de Claudel – Notre Dame de Paris
Thierry Escaich- Improvisation on a text from Saint Paul