Many organists who fall in love with Bach’s organ music at some point may have heard about his extraordinary skills in improvisation, stories how he improvised a complex six-part fugue in front of Frederic the Great, King of Prussia or elaborate chorale fantasia which lasted almost half an hour for Jan Adam Reincken, the organist of St. Catherine church in Hamburg.
Upon remembering such accounts, I used to think that it was impossible to achieve such mastery for regular organists. However, my opinion started to change when I first heard organists like William Porter and Edoardo Belotti improvise at Gothenburg International Organ Academy (Sweden) back in 2000. These were the people who thought that everything that was composed theoretically could be improvised as well.
They were especially interested in reconstructing the improvisation techniques of the 17th century. At the same Gothenburg International Organ Academy, I met Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra who taught improvisation in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach. Her deepest passion was to discover and reconstruct Bach’s improvisation pedagogy. Her discoveries were supposed to be published in the form of a book in 2001.
I had a privilege of studying improvisation and organ performance under P.Ruiter-Feenstra at Eastern Michigan University for my Master’s degree. However, we had to wait for the appearance of her book about ten years. This book, „Bach and the Art of Improvisation“, (Ann Arbor, MI: CHI Press, 2011) “represents a lifetime of experience and experimentation, teaching and researching, performing and improvising”, as Joel Speerstra writes in the Foreword of this book.
In this article, I will give a short review Volume One of the book „Bach and the Art of Improvisation“ by Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra (please note that Volume Two is forthcoming).
Volume I is devoted to Chorale-based improvisation and consists of 7 chapters – Chapter 1: “Improvisation as Extemporaneous Composition”, Chapter 2: “Tenacity, Touch, and Fingering”, Chapter 3: “Thoroughbass and Cadences”, Chapter 4: “Chorales and Harmonization”, Chapter 5: “Counterpoint and Chorale Partitas”, Chapter 6: “Bach as Teenager: the Neumeister Collection”, and Chapter 7: “Bach at Forty-Something: Dance Suites”. Volume II will focus on improvisation of Free works and Continuo.
The approach that P.Ruiter-Feenstra uses in her book is rather unique among other books on improvisation. It is not only a textbook with exercises but much more than that. The students who will be studying this book will acquire a comprehensive knowledge about various 18th century performance practice aspects, such as articulation, fingering, and pedaling etc.
In Chapter 1: “Improvisation as Extemporaneous Composition”, P.Ruiter-Feenstra sets the stage for the entire book and presents what we know about Bach and learning, contexts and definition of 18th century improvisation.
In addition, she writes about improvisation pedagogy of Bach’s time in this chapter. Remarkable is her approach to existing compositions, as models for improvisation and her method of improvisation pedagogy what she calls the cycle of Construction-Deconstruction-Reconstruction.
In Chapter 2: “Tenacity, Touch, and Fingering”, the author introduces Bach’s mindset towards the process of learning and invention. In addition, she informs the reader about the basics of early keyboard technique, articulation, fingering, and pedaling and gives numerous exercises. She also writes about the importance of the clavichord technique for any keyboard instrument of the day: spinet, harpsichord, regal, positive, and organ.
Here P.Ruiter-Fenstra gives an account of the experiment with two groups of students when teaching improvisation. Group A was taught early fingering first before commencing improvisation studies. On the other hand, Group B practiced improvisation right from the start and skipped the fingering section.
The results were surprising: at first students of Group B were better than students from the other group on improvisation, but within 10 days Group A was improvising with more confidence, fluency, and sophistication that Group B.
This experiment clearly shows the need to combine the studies of historical performance practice with practical improvisation. In fact, the author believes, that applying early fingering principles helps the students to achieve the fluency in improvisation.
In Chapter 3: “Thoroughbass and Cadences”, P.Ruiter-Feentra introduces the principles of Bach’s thoroughbass playing as described in his “Precepts and Principles for Playing the Thoroughbass or Accompanying in Four Parts” and other sources.
From this point onwards, the author’s improvisation pedagogy is based on the principles of thoroughbass. This chapter presents us also the concept of cadences with numerous examples and their applications on most popular chorales of the day.
In Chapter 4: “Chorales and Harmonization”, the author shows what kind of system Bach used to harmonize the chorales. For example, instead of using the term “modulation” for excursions into different keys, P.Ruiter-Feenstra introduces the term “Mode shift” which she believes was an original procedure that Bach’s contemporaries, like Johann Gottfried Walther and Niedt used.
The modulation in the Baroque period meant a completely different idea – “the manner in which a singer or instrumentalist brings out a melody”, as the author states. This is a major difference between our traditional understanding of harmony and 18th century composition and improvisation pedagogy. Based on this system, there are numerous chorales given to practice and harmonize.
It is important to point out that this chapter also deals with the concept of affect, and different harmonizations of the same chorale tune according to the meaning of text. By the way, the Doctrine of Affect in the Baroque period was a theory stating that different modes, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas or figures could evoke different feelings or moods.
In Chapter 5: “Counterpoint and Chorale Partitas”, the author discusses the role of counterpoint in creating chorale partitas as presented by Johann Joseph Fux. However, she admits that Bach’s system and the one that Fux used was not without differences.
Nevertheless, Bach new and owned counterpoint treatise by Fux and his method of Species Counterpoint is still valid for improvising chorale partitas. In addition, the author also looks at Bach’s Two-Part Inventions from the counterpoint perspective and they serve as models for improvised inventions.
Another feature which I find especially valuable is the overview and a catalogue of rhetorical figures. These melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, formal, and affective figures all have their precise names in Latin or other languages. Especially practical are tables of the two four-note and three note figures with specific names for each one.
Upon memorizing and mastering these figures an improviser will acquire a great tool that he or she can use not only for chorale partitas but for improvisation of other forms as well.
Chapter 6: “Bach as Teenager: the Neumeister Collection” deals with Bach’s early compositional style and gives models and techniques from this collection to improvise chorale preludes in the same manner.
At the end of this chapter, the author discusses the principal stylistic features and principles of Bach’s later, and compositionally and technically more advanced chorale preludes. Such compositions are presented in the Orgelbuchlein, Schubler, and Clavierubung III collections. They too, serve here as models for improvisation.
In Chapter 7: “Bach at Forty-Something: Dance Suites”, P.Ruiter-Feenstra discusses the main types of dances that were part of the traditional dance suite. She even gives an example of the French drawing of the choreography with a dance melody.
When we think about dance suites we usually have free works in mind. However, the author, citing examples and models from contemporary sources introduces the idea that dances could be improvised even on a chorale melody.
Therefore, she gives precise directions and steps to improvise the main dances of the period: allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet, and gigue. The models for these dances are taken from Bach’s English and French suites, and works by Buxtehude, Bohm, Duben, and Niedt.
In conclusion, I believe the book “Bach and the Art of Improvisation” is indispensable for every serious student of historically-based improvisation. Not only organists, but also pianists, harpsichordists, and other keyboardists will have the benefit in studying the principles given in this book.
After studying such comprehensive information, techniques, and exercises in Volume One, the true fans of improvisation will eagerly wait for the appearance of Volume Two which will focus on improvisation of interludes and cadenzas, preludes, fantasias, continuo playing, concerto improvisation, thoroughbass fughettes, and finally, improvisation of fugues.
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