Sunday, September 16, 2007

Improvising at the Organ, Part Two: Source Material

Awhile ago I posted a small primer on organ improvisation. Now I would like to publish several posts about more particular aspects of this subject, the first being the source material for organ improvisation.

As I mentioned on the first post about improvisation, modern standards of originality have become quite stifling, to the point, in my opinion, that this constant need for novelty has contributed much to the deformation of art. It seems important in considering source material to remember that one need not completely reinvent a piece of music in order to improvise upon it worthily. It does not take much to make something familiar unique enough to be of interest. (More on this in later posts.)

With that in mind, here are some places one might look for source material.

1. The Graduale Romanum. (Index for the 1974 Gradual can be found here.) Particularly in places where the singing of the Propers is not permitted by certain liturgical outlooks, it is worth the organist's consideration to improvise on them as found in the Graduale Romanum. For instance, the Introit could be the basis for an improvised prelude, the Offertory antiphon for an Offertory piece, with or without other sung music. Likewise for Communion.

In places where, in keeping with paragraph 116 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Propers are indeed sung, the organist can also improvise festive intonations for them.

2. The antiphons of the Divine Office, found in the various Antiphonales and also in the Liber Usualis. These antiphons are a rich treasury that goes largely ignored in the parish setting--even in more traditional parish settings. They make great source material for independent pieces, most especially at the Offertory or Communion, or as prelude or postlude.

3. The hymns of the Divine Office, also found in the Antiphonales and the Liber Usualis. These are the hymns that should be heard in our churches. Although it may not be practical to sing them in every case, the organist can nevertheless introduce the parish to these tunes via improvisation. Last year, for the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, I improvised on the Vexilla Regis as the processional for a traditional "organ Mass" which I played. It was quite a striking and fitting way to begin the liturgy. The strophic form of the hymns makes for a wide array of improvisatory possibilities--fugues, variations, arias, etc.

4. Motets and/or popular hymns used in the Mass. For instance, if there is a hymn followed immediately by a motet by the choir, the organist can improvise a bridge between the two pieces, which makes for a much more smooth transition. Set it up so that the last chord of the improvisation gives the choir its pitches. This circumvents the awkward picking out of pitches at the keyboard that sometimes impinges on the beauty of a liturgy.

I would like to add that preludes, etc. on popular hymns are not the most integral to Catholic worship, in my opinion, for what it's worth. It seems to me that every free opportunity to promote the proper music of the liturgy should be used, so I personally keep popular hymn improvisation to a minimum. You are, of course, free to ignore me on this, but there it is.

5. One can--and, I believe, should--improvise at least from time to time on ideas that come up in the sermon. (Yes, that means you have to stay and listen to it.) On August 19 I heard an excellent sermon at the cathedral here in Philadelphia. (That was the week of the Gospel, "I have come to set the earth on fire...and to divide," etc.) This sermon ended with the invocation, "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love." So that day, they got Veni Creator as the Offertory improvisation. This helps to reinforce what the priest just said, and it let's him know that you're listening, which is good to do occasionally.

6. Of course, ultimately, one can use any appropriate sacred theme.

7. An improvisation on an original theme. Be sure you can remember it, or write it down. It's important to do this frequently; it keeps the musical mind fresh. If this is intimidating at first, just do it in practice sessions. "Babble" at the organ and see what happens.

So there you have it. Get yourself the above resources and go to it.

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