Most people are amazed when they discover that an organist uses his or her feet to play notes (and has to do so without looking). And the more notes an organist plays on the pedals, the more impressed they tend to be. Variations for pedal solo, pedal cadenzas, and any other piece with a very active pedal part are crowd-pleasers and generate a lot of enthusiasm for the performer.
Recently I had the opportunity to hear an organ concert where the performer played the ‘Concert Variations on Old Hundredth‘ by John Knowles Paine. I may or may not have ever heard the piece before, but towards the end, there was a rousing variation with a very flashy pedal line that reminded me of the Charles Ives ‘Variations on America‘ (which was the model for the newsletter series on creating holiday variations). Probably because I sang Old 100th every week at the Presbyterian church where I grew up, I knew the harmonization well and was struck with how easy it would be to create a virtuoso pedal improvisation very similar to what Paine had taken the time to write down.
Work from the harmony
Since we are now in the Easter season, let’s take the tune Salzburg for an example today. (We will sing it this week with the text ‘At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing.’) Starting from the tune as harmonized by J.S. Bach (available as a PDF here), we can create a pedal line of sixteenth notes by ornamenting the tenor with lower neighbor notes. So the first two measures could become something like this:
The first note of each beat is the traditional bass note of the harmony and the tenor follows with a lower neighbor in order to fill out the rest of the beat. When the chord stays the same for two beats, you could borrow a note from the chord in order to keep from playing the same pattern twice. The second beat of the second measure in my example uses the C# from the alto and where there is a unison D for beats three and four, I fill out the harmony, keeping the pattern, but using different notes from the D major chord.
When there are half notes or eight notes in the bass, you’ll need to find a different figuration in order to fill the time. Here are some options for portions of the third line of the hymn:
Finally to finish off our virtuoso pedal variation, we need something for the hands to do. My recollection of the Paine variation is that both hands played the standard harmonization in short staccato chords an octave higher than normal. Ives gives the right hand the harmonized melody to play in full quarter notes and suggests the left hand should hold onto the bench! Try both and figure out which is easier for you. The great joy of this idea is that it is easily repeated and can be practiced almost like you would practice a written piece. I wrote out a complete example for the tune that you can download here. While I doubt it will become a classic in the organ literature, it will serve nicely as my postlude for this weekend!
May all your improvisations be fun and impressive!
Recent additions to organimprovisation.com: