Recording improvisations

If there is anything that will tempt me to buy an organ recording, it’s one with an improvisation! More than the instrument or even who the performer is, I am always interested in hearing what sort of music someone else has created on the spot. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s not.

So, if improvisation is music made for the moment, should it be recorded?


While the capacity to record is much more available than it once was, we still don’t walk around recording all of our conversations. Our smartphones may record audio and video that we share through social media, but those are only excerpts of our day. Some moments, regardless of how wonderful they may be, just cannot be captured except in our memories.

As music made for the moment and for a specific audience, improvisations may not carry the same message or relevance to someone outside that initial performance. A movie may be a real thriller the first time we see it, but after we know the ending, it likely is not as exciting the second or third time through. What we thought was a fabulous improvisation, may not stand up to repeated hearings. It won’t be the same occasion. It won’t be the same audience. Philosophically, we can argue that improvisations are just moments of our musical life to enjoy while we can. Once they are over, they are gone.


For the study of improvisation, I believe it is extremely helpful to have recordings. Not only is it useful for us to hear other living masters that we may not be able to travel to hear live, the past masters such as Tournemire, Cochereau, and Dupré still live for us through their recordings. We spend hours analyzing written scores, considering the form, harmony, and counterpoint a composer put down on the page. How much time could we spend doing the same with improvisations? Any question we ask about a written composition can be posed for an organ improvisation recording.

If we wish to learn to improvise, recording ourselves and obtaining recordings of others can help us make progress. With the prominence of video recordings, we can see how people create the sounds that we hear. I remember buying a Messiaen piano score once just in order to discover how a certain sound I heard on a recording was made! With the multitude of tone colors available at the organ, seeing whether that solo is in the left hand or pedal may be a lot simpler than guessing from listening. While the musical affect may not be the same as when we first hear an improvisation, repeated listening give us the chance to learn vocabulary, grammar, and form. As children, I’m sure we all had a favorite book that our parents read to us over and over again. Through repetition, we absorbed words and an innate sense of language structure. The same can happen when we listen (or watch) an improvisation over and over.

Out of the Depths

Last night, I recorded my first CD. It is the program I played in Lent after I began here in 2015. On that program, I included an improvisation. Because I have gotten such joy from organ improvisation recordings, I am including one on the Out of the Depths CD.

The improvisation on the recording is not the one from the concert. I did choose to use the same theme: Wondrous Love. Now almost two years later, that is honestly about all I can remember from my original improvisation. If you ask me to improvise on that same melody two years from now, because of this recording, I will be able to do something similar. As the audience and occasion will be different, I probably would still do something different then. One theme lends itself to many different treatments, so even if we work with a them for a certain type of improvisation for some time, it never has to be the same way twice. How many different ways have you improvised on the same theme?

Recordings are useful and inspirational. Which improvisation recordings have you found most beneficial and why? How do you use recordings to further your studies? Some of the ones I know about are available through Amazon. Let me know if you have others I should add to my library!


Newsletter Issue 63 – 2017 02 16

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Harald Vogel

VogelHarald Harald Vogel is a leading expert in early German organs and organ music. As the director of the North German Organ Academy, which he founded in 1972, he teaches historical performance practice on the original instruments. He has been professor of organ at the University of the Arts Bremen since 1994.


Recital at Ascension
Last track is an improvisation.

Harald Vogel – Improvisation – Church of the Ascension, Seattle, WA This is the improvisation from the recording above.
Harald Vogel – Improvisation – Frederiksborg, Danemark

Jacques Taddei

JacquesTaddeiJacques Taddei (1946-2012) was organist titulaire at the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde from 1993 to 2012. He began as co-titulaire in 1987 and was the successor to Jean Langlais. His successor is Olivier Pénin. He also served as Director of the CNR de Paris (1987-2004), Director of Music for Radio France (2005-2006), and Director of the Musée Marmottan in Paris (2007-2012).

He studied organ with Pierre Cochereau and Marie-Claire Alain. In 1980, he won the Grand Prix d’improvisation in the Concours international d’orgue de Chartres.

Hommage a Pierre Cochereau
Includes Liszt “Ad Nos” and an improvised symphony.

Naji Hakim – The Improvisation Companion


I would dare to say that I owned the first copy of this book imported to the USA by Theodore Presser. I forget now exactly how I discovered it was in preparation, but I do remember contacting Naji Hakim directly in order to find out the publication schedule and how to order one. Improvisation method books were (and still are) such a rarity that I was very anxious to see what this modern day master would include in his text.

The Improvisation Companion is intended as a reference book for all musicians looking for a form of personal artistic expression on their instrument. While the organ is mentioned, the material is more generally related to aspects of composition (theme, development and forms) than to specific application at the organ. The two appendices cover the basic principles of harmonization and give a repertoire of themes. The title provides a very fitting description of the contents: there are no lessons or assignments here for the student to master. This is a catalog of ideas to explore and implement as the student explores the world of improvisation.

One of the most useful sections of this book is the second appendix containing themes. Hakim provides 15 themes for each of six different categories: Traditional songs, chorales, Gregorian chants, free themes, fugues, passacaglias, and literary texts. Another bonus included with the book is a CD of Hakim improvising live in concert at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. The recording includes a choral partita, Gregorian paraphrase, passacaglia, symphony, and a fantasy on a folkloric tune.

Anyone attempting to learn to improvise from this volume would likely find it to be a very difficult art to learn without the aid of a teacher or second text. However, for a student working through another text on improvisation, this proves to be a great resource of ideas and themes. Stuck on how to develop the theme? Try one of Hakim’s suggestions in Part III. Need a theme to work on for your exercise? Look in Appendix II. The Improvisation Companion makes a great secondary volume for a student’s course of study.

Johannes Mayr

MayrJohannes Mayr studied Church Music at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Stuttgart. Since 2009 he has taught organ improvisation at the Stuttgarter Musikhochschule. In 2011 he became organist at the Co-Cathedral of St. Eberhard in Stuttgart. He has won several improvisation competitions including first prize in the 1991 Montbrison Improvisation competition. He has also published a book on the organbuilder Joseph Gabler.


Organ Improvisations on Bach Toccata & Fugue in D Minor
Johannes Mayr is one of the organists included on the recording above along with Lionel Rogg, Barbara Dennetlein, Frederic Blanc, David Franke and others.

Johannes Mayr an der Jann-Orgel, St. Andreas Endersbach.
Bauer-Studios, Ludwigsburg 2012.
According to the entry at the Deutsche National Bibliothek, this includes an improvisation on ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’

Johannes Mayr – Happy Birthday – St.Eberhard, Stuttgart
Johannes Mayr – Improvisation on ‘Was Gott tut, das ist wohl getan’ – Schweiklberg

Franz Josef Stoiber


Franz Josef Stoiber is a renowned organist and teacher of improvisation. He has been organist of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg since 1996, and was appointed as full-time professor for organ and improvisation at Regensburg University in 2003. He studied with Jon Laukvik in Stuttgart and Peter Planyavsky in Vienna. He is very active as a concert organist and lecturer, and has made many CDs. He was recently involved in the design of the ground-breaking new organ in Regensburg Cathedral.

He will teach courses in improvisation in London and Regensburg during the summer of 2014.


Gehörbildung, Tonsatz, Improvisation
This book is in German.


  • Orgelmusik aus dem Regensburger Dom – Works by Reger, Renner and Improvisations (1999), IFO-records, Mainz
  • Glocken und Orgelimprovisationen im Hohen Dom zu Regensburg – (2002). Motette CD 12561
  • Orgelimprovisationen – Weihnachten. Göckel-Orgel in St. Peter zu Düsseldorf (2005). ORGANpromotion, Sulz am Neckar
  • Die Regensburger Domorgel – Works by Bach, Renner, Dupré and Improvisations – Rieger organ (2010). Motette 13791
  • Die Orgeln der Hochschule für katholische Kirchenmusik und Musikpädagogik Regensburg – Improvisation on “Lobe den Herren” and the Gregorian Antiphon “Cantantibus organis Caecilia Domino decantabat” (2010). HfKM, Regensburg
  • “Alles meinem Gott zu Ehren” – Works by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Improvisations – Kögler organ in the Stadtpfarrkirche St. Laurentius in Neustadt a.d. Donau (2013). Ambiente Audio
  • Glocken- und Orgelklänge aus dem Regensburger Dom – Improvisations on the Rieger organ (2013). Motette 50931

Franz Josef Stoiber – Suite francaise – Regensburger Domorgel
Hommage à Nicolas de Grigny (Plain jeu – Duo – Trio – Basse de Crommorne – Recit de Nazard – Grands Jeux) on Nun lobet Gott im hohen Thron

Jaroslav Tůma


Jaroslav Tůma was born and educated in Prague. He graduated from the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Musical Arts, where he now teaches organ performance and improvisation. He earned first prizes at both the Haarlem and Nuremberg improvisation competitions.


Organ Improvisations by Jaroslav Tůma
He has several other recordings available through ARTA Records.

Jaroslav Tůma – Entry in the 36th Haarlem Improvisation Competition

Jaroslav Tuma- Improvisation on Themes from Lefebure-Wely and Dvorak – Church Emersleben, near Magdeburg

Edoardo Bellotti

edoardobellottiEdoardo Bellotti has extensive teaching experience in several musical institutions and universities including the Conservatory of Trossingen and the University of Bremen in Germany, the University of Udine and the Conservatory of Trento in Italy. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Organ, Harpsichord and Improvisation at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

You can hear him on Spotify.


Promenade: a Musical Procession Through Paintings

Edoardo Bellotti – Improvised Elevation Re Fa Mi Re – Smarano
Jacques van Oortmerssen and Edoardo Bellotti improvise during the Smarano Academy

Ronny Krippner


Ronny Krippner studied organ and improvisation at the Hochschule für Musik in Regensburg and at Exeter University. He is Specialist Lecturer in Organ Improvisation at Birmingham Conservatoire and Assistant Director of Music at St George’s, Hanover Square. In 2009 he was both a finalist in the prestigious Organ Improvisation Competition in St Albans and a prize-winner in the International Organ Improvisation Competition in Biarritz. The DVD ‘Ex Tempore – The Art of Organ Improvisation in England’, featuring improvisations by Ronny Krippner, has received high critical acclaim.

He has several handouts for the study of improvisation available on his website here.


Ex Tempore: The Art of Organ Improvisation in England

Ronny Krippner – Improvisation d’un triptyque sur 2 thèmes Concours André Marchal – Biarritz, France
Ronny Krippner – Improvisation sur un chant Basque (1-2) – Biarritz, France
Ronny Krippner – Improvisation sur un chant Basque (3) – Biarritz, France
Ronny Krippner – Improvisation – King´s College School, Wimbledon

Sietze de Vries


Official website:

Sietze de Vries received his professional training from, among others, Wim van Beek, Jan Jongepier and Jos van der Kooy. He was awarded his undergraduate degree at the Groningen Conservatoire; at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague he completed his post-graduate studies with an endorsement for improvisation. In addition, he graduated from the Alkmaar school for church music with the Dutch church music diploma.

Between 1987 and 2002 he won fifteen prizes at various national and international competitions for both repertoire and improvisation. The pinnacle, and also the conclusion, of that period was his triumph at the International Improvisation competition in Haarlem in 2002. On two previous occasions he had been a finalist.

He has many recordings available here:
Many of these recordings have been shared on YouTube by the user Henk van den Brink.

DeVriesHarmonizingHe has written a book- Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising which covers basic theory while gradually moving toward improvising using I, IV, and V in easier keys. As the book advances, he includes harmonizing and improvisation on ii, iii, and vi as well as in minor keys and even church modes. Published by Boeijenga Music Publications. Available from the OHS Catalog here.

Sietze de Vries – Improvisation on Psalm 130 – Grote kerk, Brouwershaven
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation on’The Old Hundredth’ – Martinikerk, Groningen