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How seldom one hears a  thoughtful and interesting improvisation! A matter for regret, considering the usefulness of the art as applied more especially to the forming of organ voluntaries and the fact that the generality of players devote little or no practice to the cultivation of what was once estimated as an important qualification in the equipment of church players. Of course, it may be argued that in times when but little organ music was available the same conditions did not exist as those which now obtain, when the necessity for ready skill in improvising is not so imperative; but, allowing that sufficient scope still remains, it is undeniable that far too little attention is paid to what is not only useful, but stimulating to the imagination and, as a regular exercise, of an improving tendency. Further, it may not infrequently happen that a good improvisation, by reason of its style and extent, will prove more appropriate to the general character of a church service than many a printed selection chosen at haphazard. A mere aimless meandering over the keys, in order to fill up a period of silence and keep something going, cannot be said to constitute an improvisation. What is understood and demanded by the term is a production of some definite design, logically worked out on the basis of a theme (or themes) and of such a coherent nature as to convey to the hearer the impression of an intelligible, well-rounded movement.

It will be readily understood that only those who possess a thorough theoretical knowledge and facility in applying the same technically, can expect to achieve anything satisfactory from a highly artistic point of view; but much of an acceptable nature may be done by those who, with a moderate theoretical qualification, accustom themselves by constant practice to think (as it were) extemporaneously and thus acquire that musical presence of mind which is so often of value. For, assuming that an organist is familiar with little more than the laws of harmony and part-writing and can modulate correctly, the practice of improvisation will make plain to him his own limitations, improve his work generally and, moreover, increase in him the power of concentration. The following suggestions as to a plain and workable scheme of improvisation are offered to those who may have but a vague idea as to how much may be accomplished by a methodical use of simple means. While by no means exhaustive they will,, nevertheless be found practical and in their turn suggest others.

Primary, an improvisation demands a Theme—not, of necessity an original one, but such as can be readily recognized during its development and of sufficient character and melodic Interest to arrest and retain the attention. This theme may be announced either in single notes or in three or four- part harmony. After its initial statement a short Codetta modulating into some nearly-related key will lead to its repetition with some variation in harmony. An Episode, constructed either of fragments of the theme or of new matter, can then be introduced. This should be followed by a Secondary Theme, the latter being contrasted rhythmically with the principal subject and in a different key. A short Bridge (or connecting passage) will then be necessary to lead back to the first theme, which at this point will be improved and varied by passing notes, etc., and by a new harmonic basis. A second Episode can now intervene and work back to the original key in which the secondary theme, varied somewhat, can be presented. A few measures by way of Coda will round off the movement and give it a conclusive effect; this Coda is necessarily constructed of some reminiscence of one of the two themes (preferably the first) and over a Tonic pedal. The following synopsis will give a birdseye view of such a scheme:

Principal Theme in Tonic.
Codetta, modulating to a nearly-related key.
Principal Theme slightly altered in harmony.
Episode (transient modulations).
Secondary Theme in a new key.
Principal Theme, slightly altered in harmony.
Episode, working back to.
Secondary Theme in Tonic.
Coda, on Tonic Pedal.

It should be borne in mind that an improvisation, from its nature, requires but few cadences, the different phrases and sections frequently overlapping, yet in such manner as will preserve the clearness of the rhythm and accentuation. Again, modulation to remote keys should be avoided in order to obviate that far-fetched effect which is so undesirable in a short and unpretentious improvisation. To these cautions must be added that of moderation as to length, since it is safe to say that only in the hands of an experienced artist are long improvisations successful and, indeed, not always then. The improviser may extend his experiments to (1) the occasional placing of either theme in the left-hand part under a harmony embellished with passing notes, arpeggi, etc.; (2) figuration; (3) a dominant pedal (fundamental or inverted), against which fragments of either theme can be smoothly and fluently constructed.

In this latter connection it should be mentioned that improvisations by young and inexperienced organists are often rendered insipid and mawkish by the prevalence of what has been termed “the third-and-sixth disease;” viz: the conventional stringing together of a series of common chord first inversions, a practice which has little to recommend it and which is the hall-mark, par excellence, of the tyro. Some players err on the side of volubility, saying but little of an apposite nature, but causing an impression akin to that produced by a man “talking against time.” Such methods are not only futile, but unworthy of a thoughtful improviser.

Those who have listened to the improvisations of such men as Guilmant, Lemare, etc., will remember the progressive interest in their efforts and the evident design (none the less preconcerted because instantaneous) in their workings. The facility of such players is, of course, to a considerable extent a natural gift; but it also implies both a thorough acquaintance with all artificial forms and a constant practice in applying them readily.

Finally, judicious registration will do much to render even a simple improvisation effective. Here, as always, the principle of fitness must be in evidence. The nature of the themes, the proposed style and length of a movement, etc., should guide the player to select only such combinations as will be in keeping with his material. On the other hand, monotony is undesirable, even in a short effort, sufficient color and contrast in registration being required to relieve the ear in much the same manner as those produced by the vocal inflections of an orator. Obviously, the subject of improvisation is a large one, possessing many phases of possibility, and the ideas above suggested are meant for those only who, having some knowledge and natural ability, are ambitious of extending their qualifications to a practical application. Of the higher forms of improvisation it is not my present purpose to speak, further than to say that they comprehend a ready use of Free Counterpoint, Canon, Fugue, skill in figuration and every device known to musical form, but essentially that heaven-born gift of originality which is, and must ever be, a vital factor in creative work of any kind.— William Reed.


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You are reading Improvisation. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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