Film accompaniment

For many years the pipe organ was used to provide accompaniment for films. The American Theatre Organ Society exists to help preserve and perpetuate the musical theatre pipe organ heritage that began in the early 20th century. Because the number of theatre organs has been greatly reduced, classically trained improvisers have started to accompany films on traditional church organs as one way to preserve and continue the art form. While film accompaniment may not require the contrapuntal skills to create a fugue, it poses other challenging demands for the improviser. Depending upon the movie, there can be long tension builds, sudden shifts of mood, and even the need to create a few sound effects. As an effort to catalog or discuss film accompaniment on the organ could be the focus of a whole other website, I have chosen to list below those organists already included here that also accompany silent films on a regular basis along with examples where available.

David Briggs
Scenes from The Phantom of the Opera

Thierry Escaich
Final Scene from ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Piano)
Freder’s Nightmare from Metropolis by Fritz Lang
Final Scene of Metropolis by Fritz Lang

Peter Krasinski
How Peter Krasinski Approaches Accompaniment

Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard
20.000 lieues sous les mers (Georges Méliès)
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

Dorothy Papadakos
often accompanies the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton & Harold Lloyd.

Pierre Pincemaille
Pierre Pincemaille – the film FAUST of MURNAU – Saint-Ouen de Rouen

Mathias Rehfeldt
Nosferatu (1922) – Full Movie

Timothy Tikker

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)
Timothy Tikker provides organ accompaniment for the 1931 version of the film included in this DVD.

Todd Wilson
Chandelier Falls from Phantom of the Opera

Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures
A Practical Manual for Pianists and Organists, and an Exposition of the Principles Underlying the Musical Interpretation of Moving Pictures
by Edith Lang and George West
Available through Forgotten Books or Amazon.

The Silent Film Sound & Music Archive also offers a free download of the above title as well as several other instruction books for movie accompaniment.

Competition and Twitter

This week I am attending the AGO National Convention in Boston. There will be several events that include organ improvisations during the week: a concert by Thierry Escaich, a Hymn Sing with Bruce Neswick and Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, a silent movie accompanied by Peter Edwin Krasinski, and several workshops and masterclasses. You can see the complete list that I compiled here. While I am always excited to see many familiar people and hear some fabulous playing, one of the highlights for me at the national convention is always the National Compeition in Organ Improvisation (NCOI).

After a preliminary selection round by recording, five candidates were selected to participate in the semi-final round. For this round, the candidates will have 30 minutes of preparation time with the themes and then will be required to play 1) a historically inspired improvisation based on a given hymn melody, chorale tune, or plainsong and 2) an improvisation on one of the given free themes, or on one given free theme and a secondary theme of the contestant’s choosing. Total performance time for these two improvisations is a maximum of 27 minutes. While that may seem like a long time to improvise, most candidates usually create a suite of variations on the hymn, chorale, or chant, so it becomes a little easier to fill the time requirement with short manageable movements. In fact, over the years, I’ve seen a few candidates have to end quickly in order not to play too long!

A maximum of three candidates will then be selected to continue on to the final round. The requirements for the final round are 1) a prelude, fantasia, or toccata and a fugue based on given theme(s), which may be sacred or secular and 2) a free improvisation based on a given musical theme or a given nonmusical theme (literary passage or artwork). Total performance time is again limited to a maximum of 27 minutes.

How many of these tasks would you feel comfortable doing now? Even if you aren’t able to hear the competition this week, the AGO has previous competition recordings available in the AGO Store. I found the recording from Nashville in 2012 listed in the Organ Music/Essays/Catalogs category. It also seems like you may be able to obtain other recordings from AGO National if you call and ask.

Now on Twitter

Because I received a request to report on the competition from someone who is not able to attend, I decided to set up a twitter account and live tweet the competition. I’ll eventually post a summary at, but if you’d like to follow along as it happens, I’ll do my best to make it informative and entertaining. With everyone following the World Cup, here’s my chance to be the announcer for the “American Cup” of organ improvisation. Follow me at @organimproviser to see if improvisation can be more exciting than soccer!

After a week of competitions, concerts, and workshops, I hope to have more practical advice for you next week.

Hoping you are having a fabulous summer of learning and fun!


Recent additions to




Newsletter Issue 9 – 2014 06 23
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
Sign up to receive future issues using the box to the right on this page.

Going Classical – The Beatles

The Beatles were an English rock band that formed in Liverpool in 1960. With John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, they became widely regarded as the greatest and most influential act of the rock era. According to the RIAA, the Beatles are the best-selling band in the United States, with 177 million certified units. They have had more number-one albums on the British charts and sold more singles in the UK than any other act. In 2008, the group topped Billboard magazine’s list of the all-time most successful “Hot 100” artists, and as of 2014, they hold the record for most number-one hits on the Hot 100 chart with twenty.

Not only because of their popularity, but also because of their compositional style, the music of the Beatles has been taken and transformed into the realm of traditional classical music. Pianist John Bayless provided my first encounter with this crossover combination:

Bach Meets the Beatles
Labeled as improvisations, I couldn’t help but wonder how much these performances had been practiced and developed before they were recorded. Regardless of the level of preparation, the combination of popular melody and classical style became a fascination of mine that continues to this day. I even worked up my own composition of a TV theme and Vierne: Louis Vierne Meets ‘The Munsters’!

Now that I’ve seen the performance of Penny Lane in the style of Bach by John Bayless at the Newport Music Festival, I am convinced that if they started as improvisations, John Bayless has played them enough that they have become compositions. He promises a score to “A Hard Day’s Night’ coming soon on his website and there are videos of others playing the piece now on YouTube.

So, even if we won’t be playing Michelle, any time soon at church, there are times in concert when organists do improvise on Beatles tunes:

Evert Groen – Improvisation(Sonate) on ‘Obladi-Oblada’ – Saalkirche, Ingelheim am Rhein

Evert Groen – Improvisation on ‘Hey Jude’ – Wirges Cathedral, Germany

Bert Rebergen – Improvisation on Rock & Roll/Yellow Submarine/Yesterday – Sionskerk Veenendaal

or even simply play Michael Jackson:
Albinas Prizgintas – Billie Jean by Michael Jackson – Trinity Episcopal Church, New Orleans

Now that we’ve had a little fun listening to others explore the Beatles and other pop tunes, is there something we can do to apply any of this to the hymns and chants that we are more likely to face on Sunday morning? What does John Bayless do to the Beatles’ tunes to transform them into the style of Bach? What elements of his performances can we identify as belonging to Bach? Are there textures or forms that we can identify and apply to other themes? I believe that listening to others improvise gives us a new window on both style and the creative process.

I once took a multiple day workshop from Thierry Escaich where he demonstrated the styles of many composers. What amazed me most was that regardless of whether he was playing in the style of Bach, Mozart, Brahms, or Cochereau, he always sounded like Escaich! It was a lesson not simply in the style of the composer, but the improviser as well! (If you will be at the AGO National Convention in Boston, you can here Escaich both perform and teach. He is someone not to miss!)

After listening to others and asking questions about what we hear, the nest step is always to go out and try it. Maybe you won’t be asked to improvise on the greatest hits from the Billboard 100 this week, but I would encourage you to look “outside the box” for inspiration. How many different ways can you treat the same theme? Which styles are you comfortable with? Which would you like to learn? Have some fun and expand your horizons!

May your summer be filled with listening fun!


PS If you’d like to hear a fabulous catalog of 20th century popular piano styles, check out Scott Bradlee’s version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star!

Recent additions to
I have decided to review a book or CD every Saturday. As one of the essential library items for any organist improviser, the first up is Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock.



Newsletter Issue 8 – 2014 06 16
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
Sign up to receive future issues using the box to the right on this page.

Gereon Krahforst


Gereon Krahforst was born in 1973 in Bonn, Germany. He studied composition, church music, piano, and music theory at the university for music in Cologne, musicology at the University of Cologne and received his diploma and masters degree in organ in Frankfurt. He has studied privately with Markus Karas, John Birley (before the university studies), and then with Clemens Ganz, and Daniel Roth. During and after those studies, he participated in masterclasses with Marie-Claire Alain, Thierry Escaich, Peter Planyavsky, Jon Laukvik (ancient music), Guy Bovet, Wolfgang Seifen, Tomasz A. Nowak, Franz Lehrndorfer and many others. Other significant mentors are Petr Eben and professional friendships with Jean Guillou, Marie-Louise Langlais and Stephen Tharp.

At the age of 26, he was appointed director of music and organist at the Minster basilica in Moenchengladbach, Germany, and at age 27, he worked as director of music at the Cathedral of Minden, Germany. At the age of 29, he was appointed cathedral organist at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Paderborn and lecturer (Gregorian Chant) at the theological seminary of Paderborn. In 2004, he was appointed lecturer and instructor of organ at the University of Music in Hannover. In 2011, he moved to Spain where he was organist at the Incarnation Church of the world-famous town Marbella at the Costa del Sol in Andalucia, playing the nationally significant “Órgano del Sol Mayor”; since August 2012, he has been cathedral organist and associate director of music at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

Improvises a free piece in the style of Robert Schumann – Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
Gereon Krahforst – Improvisation on the Paderborn’s Libori Hymn tune – Klais Organ in the Cathedral of Cologne

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

László Fassang

Fassang_368x800Official website:

YouTube Channel:
You can hear him on Spotify.

A native of Budapest, László Fassang was born into a musical family and began to study the organ at age thirteen under the tutelage of István Baróti. He graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in 1998, having studied piano under Ilona Prunyi and organ with Ferenc Gergely and István Ruppert. Fassang then entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied organ with Olivier Latry and Michel Bouvard, as well as improvisation under Loïc Mallié, Philippe Lefebvre, Thierry Escaich, and Jean-François Zygel. In 2002 he won the Improvisation Gold Medal at the Royal Bank Calgary International Organ Festival and Competition. He is represented in the US by Karen McFarlane.


László Fassang au grand orgue de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
Includes repertoire by Alain, Bach, Liszt, Vierne and an improvisation.

The Art of Organ Improvisation – The Four Seasons (Vol. 5) was recorded at the Palace of Arts in 2008 and released by the German company Organ Promotion.

Course Of The Moon: Live Improvisations
László Fassang, piano, and Lé Quang, saxophone

László Fassang – Improvisation on ‘Dies Irae’ – Biserica Reformată de pe Ulița Lupilor
Olivier Latry, László Fassang and János Pálúr – Sortie Improvisation – Notre Dame de Paris

AGO Boston 2014

The 2014 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists will be held June 23-27 in Boston. The convention website with complete information may be found here.

Listed below is information about the events at the convention that will include or focus on improvisation:

National Competition in Improvisation:

  • Semi-final competition round
  • Monday, June 23, 9am to 1pm
    First Lutheran Church of Boston
    299 Berkeley Street, Boston

  • Final competition round
  • Thursday, June 26 at 9am


  • 2012 winner concert
  • Robert Nicholls
    Arlington Street Church
    351 Boylston St, Boston
    Wednesday, June 25 & Thursday, June 26, 3:30 pm

  • Concert
  • Thierry Escaich
    Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
    1545 Tremont St, Boston
    Friday, June 27, 9:15 AM

  • Hymn Sing
  • Bruce Neswick and Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra
    Old South Church in Boston
    645 Boylston St, Boston
    Friday, June 27, 2:30 PM

  • Worship: Jazz Service and Concert: Silent Movie
  • Peter Edwin Krasinski
    Old South Church in Boston
    645 Boylston St, Boston
    Wednesday and Thursday, June 25 and June 26, 7:30 PM

Masterclass on Organ Improvisation

Thierry Escaich
Friday, June 27, 1:00 pm

Other workshops:
Tournemire’s Improvisation on “Victimae paschali”: Audio vs. Transcription
Kirsten Rutschman
Tuesday, June 24, 3:00 pm

Practical Aspects of Teaching Tournemire’s Improvisatory Style
Ann Labounsky
Tuesday, June 24, 3:30 pm

Improvisation Pedagogy: Sustainable Musicianship
Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra
Tuesday, June 24, 4:15 pm

Inspired Service Playing: How to Move From Here to There
Joyce Shupe Kull
Tuesday, June 24, 4:15 pm

Accompanying the Divine: Dramatic Improvisation in Liturgy and Silent Film
Peter Edwin Krasinski
Wednesday, June 25, 8:30 am

Extemporaneous Sublime: Indeterminacy and Transience of the Improvised Moment
Zvonimir Nagy

Thursday, June 26, 9:45 am

Harmony by the Numbers – Principles of Thoroughbass Fluency
Dean Billmeyer

Thursday, June 26, 11:00 am

Thierry Escaich

Thierry Escaich © François GibelliOfficial website:

YouTube Channel:
You can also hear him on Spotify.
Thierry Escaich has been organist at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris since 1997, having succeeded Maurice Duruflé.


Thierry Escaich: Organ Spectacular (Improvisations)

Souvenirs de l’opus 26 Live
Includes repertoire and improvisations

Thierry Escaich : Esquisses (feat. Eric Aubier, Ensemble Vocal Soli Tutti)
Includes compositions by Escaich for organ, choir, and trumpet with organ. The recording begins and concludes with improvisations.

Escaich: Le Dernier Evangile
This recording contains a work for chorus, organ and orchestra by Escaich and four improvisations.

Escaich: Live Improvisations
Thierry Escaich: Improvisations
Only available as used through This recording contains fur suites of improvisations for Chirstmas, Holy Week, Pentecost and Assumption. Recorded on the Daniel Birouste organ at St. Pierre de Chaillot in Paris.
There is an earlier release on the same record label where Escaich improvises and plays some of his own compositions at St. Germain-des-Prés in Paris.


Thierry Escaich
Le Chemin de la Croix, improvisations.
Thierry Escaich, organ. Georges Wilson, récitant (textes de Paul Claudel). Recorded at the Cathedral of Laon, 16 – 17 March 2000. Disque Caliope, 2000, CAL 9523.

Hommage à Pierre Cochereau
Improvisations by George Baker, David Briggs, Thierry Escaich and Loïc Mallié.

Duruflé: Works for Organ & Choir
This recording contains choral works of Maurice Duruflé, along with the Suite, op 5, and improvisations by Thierry Escaich.

Unlimited! (Music for Trumpet and Organ)
While both discs contain music for trumpet and organ, the second also includes several improvisations by Escaich alone.
Improvisation sur un texte de saint Paul
Thierry Escaich Improv sur le “Chemin de la Croix” de Claudel – Notre Dame de Paris

David Briggs

DavidBriggsDavid Briggs is organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Previously he served as Artist in Residence at St. James Cathedral, Toronto.
Complete bio.

David Briggs has a YouTube Channel. You can also hear him on Spotify.


Sounds French – David Briggs Plays the Organ of Blackburn Cathedral
Includes an improvised symphony by David Briggs as well as two improvisations by Pierre Cochereau transcribed and played by David Briggs.

Sounds Artistic
Includes an improvised suite of dances and Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.

Organ Spectacular
Includes improvised Prelude, Adagio and Chorale Variations on Ein Feste Burg.

Briggs: Mass for Notre Dame
In addition to the choral music of David Briggs sung by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Layton, David Briggs improvised other parts of the traditional mass when the organ would play without the choir singing.

Hommage à Pierre Cochereau
Improvisations by George Baker, David Briggs, Thierry Escaich and Loïc Mallié.

Fugue at St. Sulpice
Sortie at St. Sulpice
Offertoire at St. Sulpice
Sarabande Improvisée – St Wenzelkirche, Naumburg