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#1 elemimele

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Posted 28 November 2018 - 21:25

I'm just going to post two links; I'm curious about what thoughts others might have about these:

Exhibit A: Various people talking about improvisation 

Exhibit B: Sietze de Vries improvising on a psalm 

I'm curious about how I feel about these two side by side...


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#2 fsharpminor

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Posted 28 November 2018 - 22:03

Well I enjoyed both of those, and indeed have played that wonderful organ in your first clip I (I prefer it to the larger Anglican Cathedral organ, which for me is only the third best in Liverpool)  I completely agree with all the comments, I cant argue against anything they said. But I have to say the improvisation on the second clip was excellent, but still did generally follow the comments made on the first clip. I improvise often, but Im not up to that standard !!


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#3 Vox Humana

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Posted 29 November 2018 - 00:15

I agree entirely with fsharpminor. Frankly, I admire anyone who can improvise properly because I can't.

I tend to prefer listening to the Germans and Dutch rather than the French since their improvisations are typically more tightly structured and have clearer textures (something probably prompted by their organs). Maybe it also has something to do with the need to improvise chorale preludes that are intelligible to the congregations.

I'd love to know why the Germans and French are so adept at the skill and why, generally speaking, the average English organist is so bad at it. It is certainly something that one needs to practise. Are they taught it from the earliest stages of learning the organ?


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#4 elemimele

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Posted 29 November 2018 - 09:57

Yes, I'm inclined to agree. I am very struck by Sietze de Vries' very clear structure. The third little piece he played in the clip is very reminiscent of Orgelbuechlein I think. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but I feel that with a performance like that, if he'd been competing for Kapellmeister jobs in the early 18th C, he'd have been up there with Telemann, Bach and Walther.

I'm also unsure about the French; they make remarkable organs and are remarkable organists and composers, but the last time I found a clip of a French improvisation, there were two registrants making unprompted changes in registration, which suggests careful rehearsal and a clearly agreed performance. I'm not sure at what point improvisation gives way to "playing a composition of my own from memory". Both are admirable skills.

I'm absolute rubbish at improvisation, and as a congregational member, I know I'm not alone! I agreed with David Briggs' statements about the need for structure and development. I agree that a successful improvisation should have the audience wondering if it's an improvisation at all. In fact I'd go further: I think a really successful improvisation has the audience/congregation merely listening and enjoying without being aware that it is an improvisation. I think probably David Briggs would guess quicker than me, because as a very experienced professional, it must be very rare for him to come across a composition of which he's unaware: something novel is quite likely to be improvisation. For me, I can only go on the quality of the music as I don't have the global knowledge of repertoire.

I'm afraid I disagree much more with the Westminster Cathedral organist's comments. I personally don't feel any particular privilege to be part of a creative experience when I hear improvisation, and as a listener I'm not more tolerant - it's just music. I was alarmed about his comments about using more dissonant musical language than he normally would in a composition. I'm sure in his hands he knows what he's doing, and the dissonances are intentional, but to an inexperienced organist his comments could be taken to mean the sort of improvisation of which I've been guilty: the sort where dissonances happen because I play what I think is going to be the right chord without being 100% aware of what it's going to sound like, and then only realise truly what it does sound like after I've played it - and it isn't what ought to have followed the previous note, and then we have to panic about where the "music" goes next - so things progress in a random direction from misdirected chord to misdirected chord until I accidentally lurch into a recognisable cadence and grind to a relieved halt. I've experienced these improvisations as an audience/congregation member, and meet them with a combination of pained sympathy with the organist who's having to paper over a liturgical crack; I try to look polite when all I want to do is scream and run out of the building with my fingers in my ears! The sad thing is, I'll probably never know when I've been hearing really good improvisations, having not recognised them as such. I do feel gratitude when I'm aware someone's improvising and it feels safe.

I'm sure that if people are going to improvise, then they should be taught. I never was. I'm also sure that most of us leap in at the deep end, trying to do too much too soon. We try to improvise in full multi-part harmony without first learning how to make up a single line tune, or add a slow bass line to a very simple melody. It's like listening to a pianist playing Chopin, and sitting down at the piano expecting to do the same without first learning basic piano skills.

Anyway, Sietze de Vries is now high in my list of heroes. He's just such a pleasure to hear.

(edit: sorry, that's a bit of an essay. Just sorting out my thoughts...)


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#5 maggiemay

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Posted 29 November 2018 - 12:05

Interesting - thanks elemimele. Have just listened to the first one, and I agree with your fourth paragraph (about the Westminster CO’s comments and ‘accidental ‘ chord progressions :-) )

I’m almost tempted to suggest it’s a kind of double standard! I’m sure he doesn’t intend it in that way ... and of course there are different angles to this.

I was never really taught either - although for years I had to do it every Sunday, and you get moderately comfortable. Yes - you do need to be able to hear what is about to happen! I can do small-scale structure reasonably well, but fail at larger, longer pieces.

Sietze de Vries is great - I haven’t yet listened to the second clip, but have heard him before.
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#6 Vox Humana

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Posted 29 November 2018 - 21:16

My organ teacher was a very impressive improviser.  For three years I watched him improvising the choir into the stalls several times a week, morning and evening. Each improvisation was no longer than about 90 seconds, but each was absolute magic.  Each was a proper little composition - and his command of different harmonic idioms was amazing. Two I particularly recall are a passacaglia in 5/4 time in a very original harmonic idiom that I couldn't place and, bizarrely for the start of a church service, a delightful scherzetto on the horn call from Till Eulenspiegel. Sadly I never heard him improvise anything long and I suspect he would have objected to doing so on the grounds that a written composition was always going to be artistically superior. In any case, he admitted that he no longer practised improvising.  I wish he had given me some proper improvisation lessons instead of mere advice, but, frankly, he was a lazy old ### and at the time I was too naive to realise that I ought to be asking.

Martin Baker is among Britain's leading improvisers and I'm sure he knows exactly what he is doing. So far as dissonance goes, playing chords of the "plonk your fingers anywhere and see what happens" type is not likely to produce convincing music - except perhaps if your concoction is downright randomly atonal. Such music apart, modern harmony needs to have direction and purpose and to be consistent in style. It's a maxim of composition that you can't write in the style of, say, Kenneth Leighton (or Messiaen, or Bartok, etc) and suddenly introduce a bar in the style of Mendelssohn without it sounding out of place. Improvisers need to be just as consistent if the results are to be good. On the other hand, one does also need to learn simply to let one's self go in order to free the imagination.

Here's one of the top French improvisers - and there's nothing random about the harmony here.


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#7 elemimele

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Posted 29 November 2018 - 22:15

really enthralling... thank you for that. It certainly wouldn't have raised the faintest suspicion in my mind, I'd have listened and assumed it was something by one of the big French romantic organ composers. Very beautiful playing. Very demanding on her registrants to be in sympathy with what she's doing, too. St Sulpice is a frightening console (though I do love those semicircular tiers of stops; Cavaille-Coll was a designer without peer) and an amazing instrument.


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#8 Barry Williams

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Posted 01 December 2018 - 15:35

I was taught improvisation in a very structured way, (by Dr. E. H. Thiman).  First, I had to provide an answering phrase to his melody.  (There were two low pianos, back to back, and you had to sort what key he was in.)  Once that skill had been reasonably mastered, two part counterpoint was permitted, but only in simple style.  Improvisations were either in binary or ternary form.  A coda was permitted, but the coda had to have thematic material in it.

 

Improvisation in three parts followed, but always carefully controlled, and always in clear form, which had been decided on first.  Harmony invariably followed Handel or Stanley, which meant very few chords!  Complexities were eschewed in favour of crisp clarity, particularly over form and phrasing.  Anything approaching a large 'wash' of sound was not permitted.  Everything had to sound like real music.

 

Dr. Thiman's own improvisations were masterly.  They were often chorale preludes/postludes; some of his trumpet tunes were superb. 

 

I am unable to improvise that great 'wash' of sound which is impressive in a resonant acoustic and with a large instrument, during a church service, perhaps at the end of the Offertory.  Thus any improvisation skills that I might have are not especially useful in the course of divine worship. 

 

BF, BM & L says that the trouble with my improvising is that it always sounds likes someone else's composition!

 

Barry Williams


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#9 elemimele

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Posted 01 December 2018 - 22:07

... you may be doing yourself a disservice. I'm not sure great washes of sound are as overwhelmingly useful in divine service as all that, and not everyone has the acoustic or organ to make them work (St Sulpice has to be a special case; in fact French big romantic playing is all in all a special case). I love JG Walther's little chorale preludes: they are simple, structured, and remind me of the beauty of the melody from which they're derived, and presumably he saw them as of value in a church setting; I see no reason why improvisations in that style wouldn't work (at least for me, in the congregation). When I was supplying occasionally for village organists, being rubbish at improvising, I used to use some of the little practice phrases out of one of CH Trevor's tutor-books (I think I've got the right author??) as space-fillers if needed. Somewhere maybe someone has published a complete collection of things like that - if they haven't, it's an opportunity for some compiler/publisher. 

I like the sound of Dr Thiman's approach, as you describe it. It sounds rather arduous but logical, unintimidating in that it's stepwise growth, but above all it sounds like it would produce results.


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#10 SingingPython

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Posted 02 December 2018 - 13:17

I hate "big" organ infill in the middle of a service, whether in a cathedral or a small church it always feels out of place to me.  Spoils the mood!  I'm going to point my son to these clips though, I'll be fascinated to see what he thinks.  (He's always been an instinctive improvisor, but that instinct includes being able to manage his harmonies to a remarkable extent; he may now be getting some more guidance, looking forward to talking to him about his new organ teacher when he's home from school in a week!)


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#11 Vox Humana

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Posted 02 December 2018 - 17:08

I love JG Walther's little chorale preludes: they are simple, structured, and remind me of the beauty of the melody from which they're derived, and presumably he saw them as of value in a church setting...

 

Nearly all of Walther's chorale preludes are actually movements from partitas. C. H. Trevor cherry-picked the best ones for his anthologies - and who can blame him? As one plays through the partitas, one soon becomes aware that Walther's technique is very formulaic and his repetitive textures soon begin to pall. Very few of the partitas sustain one's interest from beginning to end. To my mind the best are Meinen Jesum, laß ich nicht and, although there are perhaps too many variations for its own good, Jesu, meine Freude.  As Trevor must have realised, Walther is best sampled in small, carefully selected extracts.

It seems that Breitkopf & Härtel publish a complete edition of Walther's organ works in four volumes edited by Klaus Beckmann.  This replaces an older Breitkopf edition by Heinz Lohmann, which is what I have. Lohmann's edition looks suspiciously like a rehash (somehow avoiding the C clefs) of Max Seiffert's old one for the Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst, which is available on IMSLP.  The separate upload of the chorales is better quality than that of the complete DDT volume.


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#12 elemimele

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Posted 02 December 2018 - 18:00

thanks for that information. I've never had anything like complete works of JG Walther, only odd bits in anthologies, so I'd missed out on his repetition/formulaic side. Come to think of it, it's quite a common feature amongst composers: I play a lot of recorder, where some of the best-known composers (Hotteterre, Chedeville, Boismortier) are guilty of enormous numbers of little dances all in the same key. The first is charming, the second sweet, the third sort of nice, and thereafter it'd be really nice to have something just a teeny bit different. But then others (Barsanti, my hero) never go over the same ground twice. Perhaps it's the measure of the truly great composer compared to the near-thing?

Thanks for the IMSLP tip, I'll go and look them out, if nothing else for interest and a bit of keyboard practice!


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#13 passacaglia2

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Posted 28 December 2018 - 19:25

Not keen on improvisations at organ recitals though I do see their function in the course of a service. Recitalists who improvise usually do it at the end, and often just ramble and make a lot of noise. I would personally rather hear one of the thousands of composed organ pieces which never get programmed. I've never heard Nielsen's Commotio for example in 50 years of attending recitals.  


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#14 elemimele

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Posted 17 January 2019 - 07:22

Normally I'd agree entirely, Passacaglia, though I'm finding a few real exceptions at the moment. Have just been listening to more of Sietze de Vries having just come across his improvisations on psalm 130. These are of special interest to me because nowadays I'm a recorder player more than an organist, and Van Eyck wrote a lot of psalm variations of great beauty and creativity; it's very beautiful to hear what an organist can do with the same tunes.

These really are de Vries at his best. In the past, improvisations were lost for ever. These are so well-structured and appropriate that they raise a moral dilemma: in 50, 100 years time, given that the recordings will still be around, would it ever be ethical for someone to transcribe them so they make the leap from improvisation to "composed piece"? Or is it better that they merely inspire others to improvise with similar style? But few of us can ever hope to reach this level unaided...

The real beauty of these is that they focus the listener's attention entirely on the tune, not on the organist, not on the organ, just on the psalm itself.


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#15 elemimele

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Posted 12 April 2019 - 20:33

Well, I have to admit this time I'm pleasantly surprised. I've just come across an improvisation by Gert van Hoef. Now this is not the sort of link I'd follow when in sound mind, but I was tired. Gert van Hoef is not my favourite performer: I'd got him listed as highly-skilled but devoid of any great feeling, and inclined only to play loud stuff. When improvising he tends towards the cinema organ, but without the charm of the real cinema. And this link is improvisation on Fuer Elise, a piece that sends most keyboard musicians on this forum running for cover. But actually the middle section of this is completely charming, and the rest isn't bad either! The piece plays to Gert's strengths, and Gert reveals hidden depths. Maybe I've been doing him, and Fuer Elise, a considerable injustice...


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