Monday, March 20, 2006

Guess What? The Organists Have Been Improvising All This Time

Many of us classically-trained musicians are at least vaguely aware that improvisation used to be an important part of classical music.

The early-music movement has beaten into most of our heads by now the historical fact that in the Baroque period, keyboard players worked mostly from "figured bass" parts, which were essentially chord charts: the bass line and some numerical symbols, or figures, which indicated the harmonies. Everything else was left up to the harpsichordist or organist.

Our early-music friends have also taught us that singers and players of melodic instruments, such as the flute, violin, oboe, etc., added ornaments. And not just the occasional trill or turn, but often very extensive melodic eloaborations, especially in slow movements. Sometimes these added ornaments were planned in advance, it's true, but the best players improvised them.

And we learned in our music history classes that some of the Great Composers of the Past, such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, were as famous during their lives as performers as composers, and that they improvised. And during the Classical and Romantic periods, concerto performers would improvise (or so they claimed) cadenzas.

But most of us assume that with the dawn of the 20th century, all this musical creativity was seized by the Classical Composers Guild of the Western World and we performers were Henceforth Forbidden From Improvisation and Any Other Creative Input.

And, the assumption goes, the improvisational spirit, having died in classical music, was then reincarnated into a new form of music, Jazz. And for the 20th century and on into the next, Jazz = Improvisation and Improvisation = Jazz. (I actually saw that in a book on jazz. "Improvisation equals jazz.") Classical performers who got tired of playing Exactly What The Composer Wrote, Nothing More and Nothing Less would take up jazz. Or painting. Or cooking. Something, anything, that might provide for some creative self-expression.

Improvisation in classical music? A truly lost art.

But, seemingly in secret, as if they were monks guarding an esoteric, secret tradition, one group of classical musicians has kept the flame of improvisation burning these many years.

Who are they? These mysterious guardians of the tradition, these members of the secret Cult of Classical Music Creativty?


Organists? Really? Yes, really. (When I mention this to other classical musicians, those who aren't organists, of course, that's the response I almost always get. A stunned expression and then the word "Really?".)

Our organist friends have not just been improvising but writing improvisation methods and teaching improvisation classes and giving each other improvisation lessons for hundreds of years, passing the art down from one generation to the next. A well-trained improvising organist can improvise in just about any form. The most skilled can even improvise a fugue. ("You're kidding," people tell me. "A fugue? Really?" Yes, really. I came to an relatively early awareness of this, because back in my early twenties I had a boyfriend who could improvise a fugue and who liked to show off the ability. At least in the early stages of our relationship. Did I fall for him or just under his fugue-weaving spell? I've always gone for brilliant musicians )

Now, I understand why the jazzers haven't known about this. Not only has the jazz culture not been exactly the sort of thing to attract church-goers, but if you are playing in a club until two or three in the morning then driving home, you're not likely to make it to a Sunday morning service.

But what about us classical musicians? Maybe if more of us went to church more often, we'd have had a better collective awareness about this. Based on my scientific study (i.e., my recollection of my student days), organists and the rest of us dont' tend to hang out together all that much, so the topic doesn't come up in casual conversation. And even when organists and other musicians hang out and discuss something other than objects of sexual attraction and romantic fantasy (when young) or hassles of child rearing or recipes (when older), musical conversation is most likely to focus on specific pieces and perhaps performances--experiences which the participants in the conversation are likely to have in common or at least have a common interest in. "Did you read that Times article about all the manuscripts being donated to Juilliard," is much more likely to come up than, "I improvised a delightful voluntary Sunday."

The great French organist Marcel DuPré was famed for his improvisations and wrote a two-volume treatise on improvisation. (My long-ago boyfriend had studied improvisation with DuPré, which he made sure everyone knew.) The only currently in print books dealing with how to improvise in a common-practice period, classical style are texts on organ improvisation.

My favorite of these is Jan Overduin's Making Music: Improvisation for Organists. According to the back cover, Overduin is on the faculty of Wilfrid Lauer University in Ontario and has had an extensive performing career. His book is used at a number of schools, including (according to a friend who was taking an organ improvisation course there), the Indiana University School of Music.

Overduin presents a step-by-step approah to developing improvisational skills, or what I would call a vocabulary for improvisation. The chapters begin:
  1. Improvising Melodies
  2. Improvising on One or Two Chords
  3. Thirds and Sixths
  4. The Pentatonic Mode
  5. Bicinium [a composition in two parts, or lines--EE]
  6. I, IV, and V
  7. Harmonizing Melodies
There are 25 more chapters and several appendicies. Many of the techniques he presents can be adapted to other instruments. To the piano and other keyboard instrument with ease, of course, and to the cello and other single-line instruments to a lesser extent.

Gerre Hancock is perhaps the best known improvising organist actively performing in the United States. As his manager's website explains,
Improvisation has long been a subject of consuming interest to Gerre Hancock, who was fortunate to have studied the subject with Nadia Boulanger, Jean Langlais and Searle Wright.

A large part of the organ music for the services at Saint Thomas Church (where Dr. Hancock was Organist and Master of Choristers for more than thirty years) includes improvisation on various themes presented within the course of each day’s liturgical and musical numbers. Mr. Hancock enjoys improvising in the various classical forms, with particular emphasis on contrapuntal forms, especially fugal.

Dr. Hancock teaches improvisation at The School of Music of The University of Texas at Austin. He has also taught this art at The Julliard School in New York City, The Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University in New Haven, and The Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He is frequently invited to give master classes or lecture-demonstrations for chapters of The American Guild of Organists and other groups on this subject. Dr. Hancock has also conducted workshops of a more extended nature in a number of leading universities in the United States, and at various Church Music Conferences.

On his recital programs he is frequently asked to improvise from themes presented just prior to this part of the program. His improvisations have been widely praised and on countless occasions have earned for him standing ovations.

Hancock's book Improvisation: How to Master the Art is another excellent work on the subject. While Overduin's is in my view the best starting point for the beginner, Hancock's is essential for anyone seriously studying improvisation in the classical tradition.

Frederick Buromaster
, the organist and choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) in Indianapolis, is an artist whose improvisations I have enjoyed many times. Fred often improvises preludes to the communion hymn (my son used to sing in the Cathedral's Choir of Men and Boys and so I had occasion to hear Fred's improvisations many times).

And this brings up another reason why many of us classical musicians have not realized that all this improvisation was going on at the organ console: it's often not obvious. There are, after all, many composed chorale preludes that organists perform before hymns, preludes rarely listed in the bulletin. An improvisation that doesn't disintegrate into collapse, after all, could just as easily be a composed piece.

I first realized Fred was improvising these preludes when I happened to be sitting in the balcony at the rear of the comparitively small histroic building which serves as the Episcopal Cathedral of Indianapolis. I had a good view of the organ console, and I noticed that there was nothing but the hymnal on the music rack. And suddenly I realized that Fred was improvising!

After the service, I confirmed this with Fred, who was both pleased and somewhat amused that I had discovered this. And so there Fred is, improvising away pretty much every Sunday, and most of the parishoners, even most of the parishoners who are musicians, don't know that that's what he's doing. Even some of the choir members, it turns out, didn't realize it.

You see, it doesn't even occur to most of us that a classical organist might be improvising. We non-organists haven't realized there is this incredible tradtion of organ improvisation, and we've assumed that, like us, they just don't do it.

But do it they do! And we have a lot to learn from them.

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