When we speak of the Church’s great treasury of sacred music our minds naturally turn to Gregorian chant or the polyphonic works of Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd. Perhaps we are reminded of the great Viennese Masses of Haydn and Mozart or the many incredible works of modern composers such as Sir James MacMillan or the Orthodox Arvo Pärt. Those are all incredible names and works of consummate art, but in all my life I don’t think I have ever heard it mentioned that the art of improvisation, done well, ranks alongside the greatest works of Palestrina or Mozart.
In a real sense, being in possession of the improvisatory arts means that the organist has arrived at the pinnacle of his craft, the apex of fluency in musical speech. Just as any great orator eventually had to give a speech of his own creation extemporaneously, so the great organist, to arrive at such a title, had to create music worthy of his instrument extemporaneously. The great organist is a great communicator.
One of the beautiful aspects about organ improvisation is that it fits the actions of the Sacred Liturgy in a way that pre-composed music can’t. It is one thing to play a Bach toccata and fugue following Mass when there is no time restriction, but it is another have to play to the exact time of the Offertory or Communion, or any of the other appropriate times in Mass or the Office. Not only is there a time constraint, but there is the constraint imposed by the Liturgy at that precise moment, for the music must not only “fill time” but needs be a beautiful and worthy offering to the Almighty, perhaps a meditation on the Proper of the day or simply an aid to the elevation of the mind and heart.
Just as there are schools and methods for the teaching of painting or sculpting or architecture, so too are there schools and methods for learning to improvise. These methods won’t ensure you’ll be the next Pierre Cochereau, but neither will schools and methods of painting ensure that you’ll be the next Caravaggio. However, every organist should be able to become tolerably adept at it. In the midst of Covidtide and the lack of choral and congregational singing I have had to rely almost entirely upon improvisation and quite frankly, it has been an absolute joy! If you would like to hone your improvisatory skills I would suggest approaching improvisation in the same way you would the art of oratory.
Oratory is first and foremost about communicating an idea or point that is worth communicating and doing it effectively and beautifully. So to begin with, you must have an idea worth communicating. Perhaps it is the joy of the Incarnation, the sorrow of our Blessed Mother at the Cross or the glory of the Resurrection. If you want to communicate the joy of the Incarnation you might even choose between the reverential joy encountered in the prologue of St. John’s Gospel or the simple joy of Mary as she looks upon her Son and Savior lying in the manger, but it must be something worth communicating.
The musical idea you choose to do so could be anything. It might be a snippet of chant, a melody from a carol or hymn or an impression created by notes or chords or chord progressions. Really the possibilities are infinite, but you as the artist must take that kernel and develop it effectively if you are going to be able to communicate, and this is where you must gain technical knowledge of the inner workings of music in order to expound on your musical idea.
I would begin by learning to harmonize the major scale in all 12 keys, followed by the minor scale (in its various forms) in all of its 12 keys (or simply start with one key). This sounds daunting, but once you have done it in one key you simply transfer the same chord progressions to the other 11 keys and you’ve got it. This gives you facility with the language of music. You could also learn the Church Modes or the Whole Tone Scales, but once you’re able to speak the language then you’re a third of the way there.
The next step is to become familiar with the many formal structures of musical rhetoric. These could be as simple as a hymn prelude (or chorale prelude) or bicinia or something as complex as a formal four voice fugue. Or you could simply take a passage from scripture and create a musical impressions of it, in which there is no formal structure. These are large scale forms (among many others). There are also many smaller devices for use within these overarching forms, just as a formal speeches might contain any number of literary devices such as alliteration, parallelism, etc. for use in driving home their points. You can learn them one by one.
Lastly, you must communicate beautifully and this is difficult because I think it is part inspiration and part absorption from others who improvise well. Pray to the Holy Spirit (I am serious about this!), learn great organ repertoire (and learn from it) and listen to as much great improvisation as you are able. Thankfully YouTube is host to thousands of videos of stellar improvisers like Daniel Roth, Olivier Latry or Otto Maria Krämer, to name just a few.
The most famous improvisation method book is probably the Dupré Complete Course in Improvisation, but if you click here, there is a complete list of various improvisation books you might find helpful.
I would add as a post-script that at some point you just have to start improvising. You won’t sound like Messiaen your first time (and maybe you never want to sound like Messiaen) but that’s alright. Your improvisatory skills might never rival those of Daniel Roth, but even if you were to make it half way there, think of how good you would be. Start simple, but start. As Gerre Hancock, that great American improviser once noted, “Salvation is only a half-step away!”