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by Gary D. Penkala

Matthew Koraus Glancing through the latest issue of The American Organist, the journal of the American Guild of Organists, I caught sight of page 14. Here were listed the five semi-finalists of the AGO National Competition in Organ Improvisation (2013-2014). What immediately struck me was the picture and paragraph on Matthew Koraus, one of the finalists and a CNP composer. Congratulations to Matthew!

What was less obvious, but quite impressive on closer examination, was that three of the five finalists played in Catholic parishes:

  1. Christopher Ganza — Saint Charles Borromeo Church, Oklahoma City OK
  2. Matthew Koraus — Church of Saint Patrick, Huntington NY
  3. Samuel Soria — Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles CA

This is a great tribute to the Roman Catholic Church, since, as the mother of Western classical music, she most obviously is also the source of organ improvisation. Perhaps that lowly monk, playing the incipit for the next chant, found the "courage" to flesh it out a little, and the first improvised intonation was heard.

We Catholic organists listen in awe at the magnificent tradition that still exists in many French parishes of improvisation during the Liturgy. Craig R. Whitney wrote some twenty years ago in the New York Times:

Thus does France keep alive a tradition that has long made its organ virtuosos admired the world over. Marcel Dupré astounded American audiences in the 1920's by improvising whole organ symphonies on themes listeners submitted before his concerts, a tradition continued by such other French virtuosos as Pierre Cochereau and Jean Langlais on overseas concert tours in later years. Daniel Roth, a successor of Dupre at the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris, continues the tradition there. Mr. Roth improvises during Communion and the offertory at Sunday Mass, frequently using a Gregorian chant melody suited to the particular day of the liturgical year to improvise a postlude. Improvisational settings of such tunes have been a mainstay of the French classical organ repertory for centuries, but with Gregorian chant out of favor in most French parishes since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's, some fear the French tradition could weaken.

Here he improvises a Sortie (Postlude) after Mass at Saint Sulpice based on a Gregorian chant. There are also less "astounding" but equally appropriate improvisations:

  • A seventh grader at Saint Gertrude School in West Chester OH, based on the chant Te splendor et virtus Patris for the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel
  • John Riley's simple improvisation on the tune Truro
  • Thierry Escaich at Saint Etienne-du-Mont (Paris)

As a Catholic organist, standing in that same line of monks to masters, is there improvising that I can do during Mass? Dr. Vidas Pinkevicius explains why you might try learning to improvise. Here are some humble suggestions of my own:

  • Know theory — study as much as you can. Understand chords, inversons, chord progressions, relationships among chords (circle of fifths)
  • Study form; understand completely what composers have written in their music. You can't imitate what you don't understand.
  • Start with music in front of you, then move away from the music.
  • Play a hymn introduction, starting with just the melody; add more parts with each phrase. While this is not technically "improvising," it's a first step in moving away from the printed page.
  • Reharmonize a verse of a hymn.
  • Play some fill after the Communion Hymn. This is a good place to start improvising, since it's generally slow (allowing plenty of time to think). First off, break the tempo — beginning improvisations do not need to be at the same speed as the sung hymn.
  • Establish a flashy, yet simple, toccata pattern in the manuals and play a hymn tune in the pedals. This is an easy way to create a postlude.
  • Try it — first at a practice, and then (quick prayer), for real!

Here's a six-part series of videos of a Workshop on Improvisation given by Michael Joseph at Saint Joseph Cathedral (Manchester NH):

Finally, here's Jeremy Filsell improvising on the Moeller Organ at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.

Think small — dream big. You, too, can improvise!

Article written 12 May 2014

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