Suppose you have notated the chords, their inversions, modulations and cadences in your organ piece. How can you use this information? What can you do to ensure that these chords become your own? Not just the composer's who created them but also yours.
This is where many music colleges and schools lose their student interest and because of this they later can view the chordal analysis as useless. By simply analyzing the chords and never actually doing anything with them is a waste of time and energy from the student's point of view. I propose that we go beyond analyzing chords.
Some of the most important steps you can take here are memorization and transposition of these chords. I'm not talking about the memorization of the entire piece, just the chordal progressions - harmonic outline or a skeleton.
What happens when you memorize a chordal progression of some 8-10 chords? You are beginning the internalization process of the musical language of this piece (and of this composer).
Just like learning any foreign language, first you have to translate the words into your own language so that you understand them (in music - that's a chordal analysis). By learning the names of the chords, their inversions, modulations and cadences, you will truly understand the musical meaning of the piece you are playing.
After translating the words, you have to memorize them so that you remember them later and prepare to use them. In musical realm you can also memorize chordal progressions so that you can recollect them. It's important that you only memorize the chords and not the entire piece with all the notes (unless you want to but this is not the purpose of this post). Entire piece is just an elaboration of the basic harmonic outline.
But internalization doesn't stop with memorization. When you are learning a foreign language, you have to apply the words and expressions to various situations. In music, this is best achieved by transposition. Here you have to transpose the chordal progressions from memory into as many keys as you can. Sometimes even changing the mode from major to minor and vice versa (whenever possible).
By memorizing and transposing enough chordal progressions you will internalize the harmonic language of your favorite composer and you will be just one step away to actually using this harmonic language in your own improvisations and/or compositions.
When I was introduced to this concept by Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra back in 2000, it was an eye opener for me. I hope you are equally excited as I was back then.
Imagine that you decided to do a detailed chordal analysis of your organ piece but don't know where to start?
Here is what I recommend - start small. If you haven't done any analysis before, don't attempt to analyse a chorale fantasy by Reger, choral by Franck or some other piece from late Romantic period with highly chromatic harmony. Even large-scale Bach pieces usually have lots of modulations and advanced chords.
Instead try your hand with a simple menuet or two. It doesn't matter that usually menuets have only two parts (one for each hand) - the chords and the harmonies can always be implied from other notes in these parts within the measure.
Just like you would not start playing an organ with an advanced composition, in analysis, too, moving in baby steps is the right strategy. Often menuets have simple three-note chords, modulations are predictable and easy to spot, and chords change very regularly. Therefore, the menuets are perfect for this matter.
Take a pencil and notate the key after the key signatures and the last note in the left hand part, chordal function (tonic, dominant, subdominant etc.) and inversion. Notate the shortenings of each chord that you know under the notes (T5, S6, D46 etc.). You can also use Roman numerals (I5, IV6, V46 etc). Remember first to look at the bass note of the chord to decide on the inversion.
A few people have asked me to create a video course which would teach chordal analysis. I'm thinking it would be most helpful if people would send me their pieces their are currently practicing or thinking of learning and I could analyze the chords and modulations for them with additional explanations. This way you could learn exactly what you want and need.
If you would be interested in such a course, please let me know. If enough people raise their hands, we can start pretty soon, I think.
Have you ever tried to analyze harmony in some of your organ pieces? Not a general structure, form, thematic development and tonal plan but actual functions of each chord. I don't think there are too many people doing it.
There are 3 major reasons - lack of time, lack of knowledge, and lack of motivation. Let's take a closer look at each of them.
Lack of time. Here I don't mean that a person doesn't have time to practice. No, instead he/she would play so many new pieces that looking deeply at some of them is too much trouble. Of course, some people don't even find enough time to play their pieces, not to mention doing careful analysis. When they do practice, they usually only play the pieces they are working on.
Lack of knowledge. Obviously that's a big issue. In order to examine the chords, harmonies and modulations, you have to have a certain training in music theory. Not necessarily in advanced music theory but some basic skills. I think that a lot of people simply wouldn't know how to do it (curiously, not even every music teacher has adequate training in music theory).
Lack of motivation. If you are to do something as obscure as analyzing chords in your organ piece, you certainly have to have enough motivation to do it. A proper motivation comes from seeing the value of chordal analysis which in person's mind has to be greater than the trouble of this procedure.
We as teachers sometimes are guilty of making the process of analysis look too difficult and too intimidating to the student. Sometimes the assignments are too dry and theoretical with little practical application which may take away all the motivation and curiosity from the student for years to come.
Because very few people choose to go through the trouble of examining each chord, you would be in an advantageous position, if you would do it. Precisely because of that you could become a person whom your peers could look up to. Your organ playing will change, too, because you will start to think like a composer.
There are many organ teachers who ask that their students train themselves in singing any parts of their organ pieces. What can singing any line of your organ composition do to your musicality? In order to answer this question we have to look deeply into what's happening in this process.
First of all, we must understand that singing a part implies that you don't play it on the organ. In other words, if the piece has 4 parts, you can play any combination of 3 parts and sing the remaining one.
When you are doing that, a curious phenomenon is taking place - you are developing your musical hearing, more specifically, harmonic hearing, which is one of the most valuable assets any musician can have. This means that you are acquiring your skills to listen for specific harmonies, because the organ texture constantly produces different chords. These chords could be openly visible as in 4 part writing or they could be hidden and implied in a solo part and 2 part texture.
If you haven't trained yourself in singing a line while playing others in a polyphonic piece, when you first do it, you will soon discover how incredibly difficult this task is. The challenge increases with the number of parts and with the rhythmical independence of voices.
To make this task easier, you don't have to start playing other parts right away. Learn to sing separate voices first. Just like learning to play a piece you work in small fragments on solo parts, combinations of 2 and 3 parts before putting all parts together, assume the same systematic approach while singing each line.
Do this experiment with any 4 part polyphonic piece that you are working on. Practice all voice combinations of 1, 2, 3, and 4 parts and sing any part in each of them. The key is working in small fragments of about 4 measures slowly and repeatedly - until you can do each step fluently at least 3 times in a row.
At the same time when you are doing this experiment, take another similar piece and learn it in your usual way without singing. I think the results will pleasantly surprise you.
Women organists often have to play the organ with the shoes which have rather high heels. At first they seem to be very uncomfortable because there is a danger to slip on the pedalboard and hit the wrong notes all the time. Is it possible to make the playing with such shoes more comfortable and secure?
It's difficult for me to tell for sure because I don't use such shoes but from what I have observed when some of my organ students play is that it gets easier with time.
One student recently came to the lesson with a new pair of shoes. I asked her how she felt (she was playing chorale prelude "Wir glauben all an einen Gott" by J.L.Krebs with double pedals). She performed it with some pedal mistakes, more than usual, actually.
The next week her pedal playing was better and the week after that - almost without mistakes. So I think it takes about 3 weeks of daily practice to adjust to new heels and new shoes in general. She confirmed this idea.
There are some women organists who play organ with extremely high heels flawlessly. How do they achieve such perfection even playing pieces which have passages of pedal scales and arpeggios?
The answer might have some variables but generally, pedal preparation always helps to make the pedal technique automatic and mistake-free. It takes about 80 repetitions of the same passage to make it second nature over the number of days.
Last week, just before Bach's 329th birthday, I asked the readers of this blog to submit their answers to the question of why do they like Bach and his art.
I would like to thank personally not only each and every one of you who replied but also who considered. Each answer is amazing on its own right but when we put all of them together - we get something remarkable, I think (If you feel the urge to share this post with some of your friends, don't hesitate - they will thank you for it).
Here is what I received - not in any particular order (the language is original):
Patti Whaley, UK:
Bach sets the world to rights. Everything else may be crazy, chaotic, misguided, or disappointing, but Bach never lets you down. A Bach fugue restores order to the cosmos.
John Higgins, Australia:
It is incredible how Bach's music has lasted the test of time, surely this is the final proof of greatness! His music can be appreciated by anyone, yet it contains layer after layer of intelligence, creativity, and structure. Bach wrote his music for the glory of God and the uplifting of the human spirit, surely God has honoured him for this.
In all the complexity of his polyphonal work the individual voices seem to be alive like little children which play together, each one at its own pace, but continously uniting in a rhythmic manner. By this you feel life under your hands. And Bach almost never manages to come to an ending, his music continues and continues and continues, ... until he finally almost forces an ending. By this you feel eternity under your hands.
Jaydee Price, South Africa:
Bach is undeniably a colossus amongst composers - both past and present and his supreme genius transcends all boundaries known to man, be they natural or spiritual. Our human life-span is far too short to fully comprehend, experience, fathom or quantify the mind-boggling contribution that Bach has made to our lives and to our music. I will forever be inspired, amazed and enthralled by this great man, who has given credence to, and also unequivocally answered Shakespeare's question: "If music be the food of love..." Bach has also proven that music is additionally an inexhaustible source of inspiration, refreshment and sustenance for the soul...
Leon Green, USA:
Bach gives confidence that with regular work, even less than stellar talent can produce stellar work.
Christo Kritzinger, South Africa:
The fact that, for over 300 years Bach has influenced the lives of thousands of people and this is still happening every single day, makes him in my opinion a world hero. Only the genius BACH could do that.
Rachel P., California, USA:
Anyone who is seeking not only meaning in the human condition but also Christian belief as a transformative experience of that condition has a resource in Bach’s faith inspired works, paradigmatic in the St. Mathew’s Passion and the Mass in B minor. Here Ludwig Wittgenstein, insight is relevant: Bach said that everything he achieved was the result of industry. But industry like that presupposes humility and & an enormous capacity for suffering, strength then. And anyone who in addition can express himself perfectly, simply addresses us in the language of a great human being. MS 137 40b: 28.5.1948
Lucas Tomlinson, USA:
I recently came across a book titled "Bach's Dialogue with Modernity" written by John Butt. In it he discusses how Bach is able to simultaneously hold modern and pre-modern ideals in his settings of the Passion narratives. I find this quite compelling in Bach and look forward to discovering more of this.
Tony Forward, UK:
Such skill is a gift from God so it is fitting that such music is a gift back to God.
Ferenc Lakatos, Slovakia:
Since a few days ago I had my birthday, I will link the events together :-) About Bach I heard first time from my father, who was his admirer and being violinist played almost daily his Sonatas et Partitas, so I had Bach's music in my blood from my childhood - till now I am considering his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin as the absolute top of music at all....His Chaconne can take you to heaven.My father also adored organ music - he tried sometimes to touch the keys of organ in our town church, but he stayed violinist. Hence, I fell in love with organ when I was very young, and organ for me was equal with Bach and his unbelievable beautiful music. I often listened together with my father Bach's organ music and when possible we visited churches and cathedrals to enjoy something special, not intended for everybody - this is a pity, because people who do not know him, or do not like his music, they lose a lot - a whole wonderful world.... So, why do I like Bach and his art? - because he and his music is an integral part of me, like drinking, eating or breathing...
Jack Kenefick, Ireland:
One special thing about Bach is his unique ability to write such special bass lines for pedal. I refer specifically to O Mensch Bewein and note the in-step pedal motion passing between root notes, 1st inversions, 2nd inversions and the occasional surprise.
Michael Grieve, Australia:
I love Bach's music because it reflects all of our human emotions. There is Joy, Happiness, Reflective Meditation, deep sorrow - Is est volbracht listen to Marion Anderson T.
Rachel Keehner, USA:
Bach is the past musician/composer I am inspired by the most, even as my studies have introduced me to the lives and work of an increasing number of composers and musicians. The connection between his faith, life, and music is strong, and his work presents both technical complexity and musical artistry in profound ways. I find his legacy to be one that acknowledges the past while pointing forward and inspiring the future.
Peter Hallam, UK:
His music is like an ever flowing stream that passes through the changes of scenery, with varied tempi and often unfathomable depths.
Gerrit Gerrit, South Africa:
To me J. S. Bach’s music is like a beautiful glass object – one chip though and it all shatters.
Martin, Martin Australia:
Two young church organists got married March 21, 1963 determined to keep alive their musical endeavours. Each year they prepared one of the 48 preludes and fugues and played as a duet, on piano and organ, on their anniversary. One partner passed away before they could perform number 40. The other maintains the practice and completed 48 two years ago. To them, the preludes speak of initiative and innovation; and the fugues of the give and take, and final balance of married life. The anniversary is a time of happy reflection and sincere gratitude to Mr Bach for his embedded marriage counselling.
Anne Kimball, USA:
The music is so well thought out that when I play it, I feel what it must be like to be an artistic genius. I have to be totally focused to play his music.
David Gotch, USA:
Well, first off, here it is March 21st, and I haven't really started what I wanted to start doing today. I want to write a Quodlibet of some sort (probably for a string quartet), in the style of Bach. Yes, four different themes going at once. I need to get some inspiration for doing just that. So, I am going to attempt to listen to a bunch of Bach's music today, and start that Quodlibet ASAP. Now, the reason that I LOVE Bach's music is that it is very often a total blend of mathematical AND artistic (lyrical?) sounds occurring SIMULTANEOUSLY. There are composers who have written mathematical types of compositions, and there are those who have written artistic (lyrical?) types of compositions, but to my knowledge, NO composer has done that, or at least done that as WELL as J. S. Bach has. All said, Bach's music is like hearing the mathematical logic of Einstein COMBINED SIMULTANEOUSLY with the beauty of a great Rembrandt painting (expressed in musical terms of course). WOW. TOTALLY AMAZING!
Erwin Vijfvinkel, the Netherlands:
I like Bach and his art, not because of the mathematics behind it, but because the music expresses my devotion to God and simply touches me over and over again.
Heidi Miller, USA:
I like Bach and his art not only because of the genius of his music, but because his music touches that part within me that is connected to God. No other composer does it for me in so profound a manner.
Angelika Brandt, USA:
Bach's music transcends humanness. It exhilarates my body, mind, and spirit. As a Lutheran church organist, it takes me to the throne of God where I make my humble human offering.
Afonso Torres, Portugal:
Bach is perfection itself. Bach was great and yet humble. Bach is amongst us, musicians; if we listen carefully we can hear his breath: music itself. One speaks of Bach as if he was a king but Bach never was a king. Bach served the King of Kings and he was great.
Rory O'Brien, Ireland:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Meanwhile, we feel grateful for Johann Sebastian Bach and his music.
Serena Tan, Singapore:
I just realised Bach has the same birthday as my mum. His music brings joy to me and makes me want to learn more about the pipe organ.
Daniel Tsukamoto, USA:
Bach has a way to thread music themes in such an intricate way that it makes sense afterwards. Fugues are his specialty.
Frank Mento, France:
I like Bach because he is so profound and complex. I think no other composer has ever attained the degree of structural complexity and architectural beauty as Bach.
Michael Rowlands Jr., Irving, Texas, United States:
I Love Bach because of his mastery of Counterpoint and emotion in his
music. And the Fact that he was a Godly musician. :)
Paulius Grigonis, Lithuania:
I regard Bach's music with awe because of its spirituality and depth. Whenever I take on to play his pieces, I view it with great responsibility.
Tristan Krahn, Abbotsford, Canada:
I Enjoy Bach's music because it was incredibly proficient and complex for the era it was written in and set the standard for future generations of musicians. I have spent part of today listening to Glenn Gould's second recording of The Goldberg Variations and Gould's only organ recording which was 9 of the thirteen parts of The Art of Fugue. I enjoy these pieces because they show the complexity of the genius of Bach's compositional abilities. Goldberg in particular shows just how dedicated to his craft he really was by taking an aria and composing thirty different variations on the original piece. It gives me the drive to create such things in my own art, to be able to create then create mutations of my creation that are different but incredibly similar to the original piece.
Bach's music absorbs me in an evanescent vortex where nothing exists but
pure harmony, away from all this planet's troubles. When it stops, it is
like a crash-landing, but somewhere inside me a memory remains and makes me
Steven Monrotus, USA:
Bach was a comprehensive musical genius and arguably the greatest musical mind who ever lived. If all the great music of the world, except for Bach’s, were to be irretrievably lost, music would still survive. All great music since him can trace its origin back to him, and all great music before him merely leads up to him. With some composers, when you know one of their pieces, you know them all. With him, when you know one of his pieces, you know only one. His masterpieces speak across the centuries to all people, everywhere.
Vidas Pinkevicius, Lithuania:
I think its totally amazing how Bach can unify people from so many countries, age groups, occupations, political views, even religions. Bach transcends all of us.
Thank you so much for your answers. It's been a great idea to ask you this question and share all the answers with others. We could do this more often. Thank you for being a member of Secrets of Organ Playing community.
Bach's Schmucke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 654 was one of Felix Mendelssohn's favorite compositions of this composer. Robert Schumann remembered him saying that "If life were to deprive me of hope and faith, this single chorale would replenish me with them both."
Would you like to learn this beautiful piece by watching me play and by practicing together (if the tuning of your instrument allows it)?
Yesterday I recorded this chorale prelude in a very slow practice tempo from up close so that people could watch me playing and copy what I'm doing. It's like looking over my shoulder when I practice and people can practice together with me. The score is freely available, too.
More importantly, I subdivided this chorale prelude into one-page chunks for practicing one page a week, so if the piece is 3 pages long, it would take 3 weeks to learn it.
Each page has 5 lines of music, so if one learns only one line a day (and repeats the previously learned material), then it really takes 5 days a week of practice to stay on track with this schedule.
Although I play all parts together, you can work in solo parts and in two-part and three-part combinations before putting everything together in each line.
Because I play very slowly, you can copy my ornaments and my articulation (articulate legato), too.
Here are the videos for Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3. Although I played from the Bach Gesellschaft edition with the alto clef for the left hand part, I also prepared a pdf score with the usual treble and bass clefs.
Enjoy them but more importantly, I hope you will do something with these series.
Bach had an interesting approach in teaching his students harmonization. His students had to begin with pure four-part continuo realizations.
From there he taught them harmonizing the chorales. But not supplying the three lower parts, as usual. Instead he wrote the bass for them and they only had to supply the alto and the tenor.
It makes sense. When the bass is given, the process is already half finished. All the students had to do was to see what kind of harmony did the bass notes imply and from there to add the two missing parts.
Finally, he asked them to create the bass themselves. This means they were ready to supply the choral tune with the three lower parts.
Apparently Bach even often composed in this order. In his autograph of the Orgelbuchlein chorales preludes, often the bass notes are more prominent. The alto and the tenor appear to be squeezed in later on.
Do you see what it means? It means that Bach already had a piece finished in his mind when he created the bass line.
Try supplying the alto and the tenor parts for this chorale and you will find out how much easier it is to work in this order as opposed to creating all three lower parts right from the beginning.
In 1741 M. Theodor Pitschel from Leipzig left a curious report about what was Bach's customary routine before improvising in public:
"The famous man who has the greatest praise in our town in music, and the greatest admiration of connoisseurs, does not get into condition, as the expression goes, to delight others with the mingling of his tones until he has played something from the printed or written page, and has thus set his powers of imagination in motion... The able man... usually has to play something from a page which is inferior to his own ideas. And yet his superior ideas are the consequences of those inferior ones." (Quoted in Christoph Wolff's landmark book).
It's an interesting approach first to warm up with the music which has been composed before and then try to improvise based on the themes or style of that music.
Leaving the concept of inferior and superior aside, it's like a musical sermon when a priest or a pastor first reads the excerpt from the Scripture and later elaborates on it's main themes.
You can try it for yourself. It really works. It gives you the starting point from which you can build your own ideas.
You can even take it one step further, by playing a piece that you are currently working on and later put the score further from you (not too far for you to lose the general feel of the music and not too close to really see the notes). When you only see the general shape and texture of a composition, you can elaborate on it with your own improvisations. My professor Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra used to ask this from me during lessons.
PS So far more than 20 people have sent me their answers about why they like Bach and his art. If you like Bach but haven't written a few sentences about it, you can do it here until tonight. After today I will share all of the answers in a special article.
In 1802 Johann Nicolaus Forkel wrote the first biography about Bach. I find the following passage from his book truly remarkable:
"It is owing to this genuine spirit of art that Bach united his great and lofty style with the most refined elegance and the greatest precision in the single parts that compose the great whole, which otherwise are not thought so necessary here as in works whose only object is the agreeable; that he thought the whole could not be perfect if anything were wanting in the perfect precision of the single parts; and, last, that if, notwithstanding the main tendency of his genius for the great and sublime, he sometimes composed and performed something gay and even jocose, his cheerfulness and joking were those of a sage.
It was only though this union of the greatest genius with the most indefatigable study that Johann Sebastian Bach was able, whichever way he turned, to extend so greatly the bounds of his art that his successors have not even been able to maintain this enlarged domain to its full extent; and this alone enabled him to produce such numerous and perfect works, all of which are, and ever will remain, true ideals and imperishable models of art." (Quoted in Christoph Wolff's landmark book).
PS So far 15 people have sent me their answers about why they like Bach and his art. If you like Bach but haven't written a few sentences about it, you can do it here until Sunday evening. After this weekend I will share all of the answers in a special article.
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