In today’s classical music tradition, improvisation no longer plays the huge role it once did. It is extremely rare to find an improvised piece of music within any mainstream classical concert, except possibly as an occasional encore. Yet, it is still very much the bread and butter of a church organist. It is no secret that the organ is inextricably linked with the Western church, but very few people, churchgoers or otherwise, know what a church organist actually does. That is however the topic of discussion for another time – I’ve decided to make improvisation this article’s focus.
Whilst supporting congregational singing is at the heart of every church organist’s job, improvisation is also a significant part of the job description. The amount of improvisation that an organist is required to do of course varies, as different churches have different requirements, and different countries have different traditions. But at the very least, we are required to improvise music to fill in otherwise silent gaps that inevitably exist in any service. On the other hand, in the French tradition, the organist improvises for the majority of the service – with the most extensive improvisations often occurring before and after the service.
An organist will often draw on themes from the hymns/chants of the day to build their improvisations from, but it is not uncommon to find an organist exercising their sense of humour within an improvisation by including secular/popular themes in it. Whilst organists certainly can, and will as that article demonstrates, use popular music as themes for improvisation with various aims, concert organists without the constraints of the church do often use such themes in recitals to entertain their audience, as this video of Olivier Latry improvising on Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter demonstrates.
A good amount of creative inspiration is of course needed for a successful and interesting improvisation, but preparation and education are also key components. Going back again to the revered French school of improvisation – during his time at the Paris Conservatoire, Marcel Dupré would not admit students into his organ class unless they could accompany a Gregorian plainchant, improvise a verset on a plainchant, improvise a fugue in four voices, and improvise on a given theme spontaneously. This required the student to have an extremely sound knowledge of music theory, especially of the relationships between all the keys, and counterpoint, as Monsieur Dupré particularly valued the importance of contrapuntal writing.
Much of these skillsets are still required in churches all around the world, and you will often hear organists improvising for anything they’ve been asked to do (quite often this request will come in just before the service starts, leaving them with little time to prepare!). In fact, improvisation really is at the heart of Western classical music. The great Johann Sebastian Bach was first and foremost renowned as an improviser in his day, and there is the popular story that he challenged the famous French harpsichordist Louis Marchand to an improvisation duel in Dresden – but the contest never took place, since Marchand had fled before the contest even began, as he realised that he was in for an embarrassing defeat! Indeed, many of the greatest composers were also great improvisers, such as Handel, Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt to but name a few.
Unfortunately, improvisation doesn’t have the same archaeological record as written-down compositions do – and this might have contributed to its decline in status within the Western classical music tradition. But I would argue that it ought to be a part of musical education again, as being a musician is not simply about interpreting, but also about creating. Perhaps not all of us have the creative spark to sit down and compose a sonata, but with adequate education, all of us certainly have the means to sit down and improvise, maybe even on the theme of Old MacDonald had a Farm!