Playing a hymn harmonization in four parts with the soprano voice on the solo manual might be fun to listen to and to play. However, did you know that once you can do this, you are only a few steps away from creating a beautiful ornamented chorale melody?
This in a sense is a technique that North German Baroque composers, such as Dieterich Buxtehude used to create ornamented chorale preludes. I'm sure that after learning about this technique you will be anxious to try it out on your favorite hymn tune.
When you have your favorite hymn tune in front of you, naturally you can harmonize it in four parts and put it into soprano or tenor or the bass with or without the solo registration. But you can do something else, too.
In this video, I will show you what can you create using just one chorale phrase. If you apply this procedure to the entire hymn tune or a chorale, the result will be quite unexpected and colorful. This will be sort of like a preliminary step to create a real chorale fantasia.
Are you bored with your hymn improvisations on the organ? Do they sound the same all the time? Today I'm going to tell you about the special trick which will allow you to make your hymn improvisations much more colorful. Watch this video to find out.
On the first day of Easter I was invited at the Vilnius university St. John's church to play during the mass where I performed a few improvisations. One of them - for the offertory - I would like to introduce to you today, because it demonstrates an interesting situation when the improvisation has to be adjusted to the changing liturgical situation.
Because I was preparing for the improvisation recital on the most famous Easter hymns which will be tomorrow, that day I planned to improvise the piece in the form of a modulating rondo based on the three Easter hymns: Wer nun den lieben Gott (A), Gelobt sei Gott (B), and Alelluia by Palestrina (C).
The main refrain which should occur 4 times was supposed to be Wer nun den lieben Gott, and the entire rondo structure would look like this: A (G minor), B (G minor), A (D minor), C (Bb major), A (C minor), B (C minor), C (G minor), and A (G minor).
This plan, if executed fluently would sound quite nicely, because Bach used it in one of his most famous preludes for organ (Eb major, BWV 552). But what to do, if the improvisation has to be shortened unexpectedly, when for example, a certain part of the liturgy lasts shorter than usual?
That's exactly what happened to me - in this video you will hear how the improvisation has to be completed before I finish this plan - as I was playing the ending of the second B part (the third episode from the end), I saw in the organ mirror that the priest is ready to start his prayer for the Offertory part of the mass.
Because I wasn't ready to return to the original key of G minor, I had to do it very quickly, if the piece should be ended on time.
Therefore after starting the new episode C, even at the end of the first sentence I created a final cadence in G minor and finished the improvisation. At the end of this video you can hear that it was done just in time, because the priest started to read his prayer for the Offertory right away. In my case, the final version of this improvisation could have been more complete (if there was more time to do it), but at least I ended after the end of the musical idea.
So if you are ever in a situation like I'm here describing, I think it's not really important on which part of the improvisation you are on, because the best way is simply to return to the main key as quickly as possible and create a final cadence. But try not to end the improvisation or a written down composition abruptly and without warning, as sometimes might happen to some organists.
Launching today: my new Hymn Harmonization Workshop. It's for people interested in learning to harmonize hymns and chorals in four parts. Check it out if you want to develop a skill in playing your hymns without hymnal harmonizations spontaneously.
This course will greatly enhance your service playing because you can then provide alternate harmonizations. Besides, hymn harmonization is one of the first steps in learning organ improvisation.
It took me many years of struggle to learn to harmonize hymns and chorales on the spot. You can be smarter - you have this course.
This video is an example of how you can leverage your transposition skills to create a rather lengthy improvisation on any hymn tune you like. Specifically, this is a famous Christmas carol "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing".
The text of this hymn was written by Charles Wesley in 1739 who was the leader of the Methodist movement in England in the 18th century and is best known for more than 6000 hymns he wrote.
The original opening text was a little different: "Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings" but Wesley's co-worker George Whitefield changed it to the one we use today. The modern music of the hymn was adopted from Felix Mendelssohn's cantata that he wrote in 1840 to commemorate the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg (hence the name of the hymn tune - Mendelssohn).
At any rate, here is the tonal plan of this improvisation: F major, C major, A minor, D minor, G minor, B flat major, E flat major, A flat major, B flat minor, and F major (with Coda).
This straightforward plan leaves a powerful impression on the listener for several reasons - the fluency of performance, the tune is lovely and familiar and the key changes make the harmony quite colorful (especially when you change the major mode to the minor and vice versa). It works best if every verse is played on a different registration.
A chorale fantasia can be described as an organ piece based on any preexisting melody, such as hymn, chorale or Gregorian chant tune in which each of the tune phrases are treated more than once in different voices using a wide variety of techniques. The fantasia can be contrasted with the chorale prelude in which the tune is played only once.
So what is the process for learning to improvise a chorale fantasia?
1. Take a hymn tune and create a two-part note-against-note counterpoint. The tune can be played in the top or the bottom voice. The most appropriate intervals for this step are major and minor thirds and sixths, perfect fifths and octaves. Avoid parallel fifths and octaves by using contrary motion between the voices as much as possible.
2. Harmonize a hymn tune in the treble clef only using the primary three-note chords and their inversions (the Tonic, the Subdominant, and the Dominant).
3. Harmonize a hymn tune in four parts (SATB) in the treble and the bass clef.
4. Enrich your harmonization with chords of the secondary three-note chords, their inversions, four-note chords, their inversions, tonicizations, and modulations.
5. Transpose your harmonizations into 5 closely related keys of the major or minor scale: the Dominant and its relative, the relative of the Tonic, the relative of the Subdominant and the Subdominant.
6. Repeat step 5 with the tune in the tenor (played with the solo registration on the different manual) and in the bass parts (with the reed in the pedals).
7. Repeat step 6 with the tune in half notes (the chords can change in quarter notes when appropriate).
8. Repeat step 7 adding non-chordal notes in eighth-notes, eighth-note triplets and sixteenth-notes.
9. Create a bicinium for two voices (the tune can be played in any of the voices with the solo registration).
10. Create a trio for three voices (the tune can be played in any of the voices with the solo registration).
11. Add imitative introduction and interludes in two and three voices between the chorale phrases. A single voice phrase can be used at the beginning.
12. Add diminutions in the voice that has the tune in four parts.
13. Add chordal echos for each of the chorale phrases.
14. Add melodic echos for each of the chorale phrases in three parts.
15. Add echo passages in sixteenth-notes for each of the chorale phrases in two parts.
16. Combine steps 9-14 to create a full-length fantasia.
So where to start?
Pick 10 hymn tunes that you like and practice step 1 on your instrument. Make sure you take a very slow tempo and don't advance to the next step with another set of 10 hymn tunes until you can play the current one at least 3 times in a row fluently.
Ever wondered how to turn those nice hymn tunes into improvisations which would greatly enhance your church service playing? They can also develop your creativity and advance your improvisational skills.
I use a very simple system to learning to improvise hymn or choral preludes. It's very similar to studying counterpoint. Here it is:
1. Note against note for 2 voices
2. 2 notes against one for 2 voices
3. 3 notes against one for 2 voices
4. 4 notes against one for 2 voices
5. Mixed counterpoint for 2 voices
1. Note against note for 3 voices
2. 2 notes against one for 3 voices
3. 3 notes against one for 3 voices
4. 4 notes against one for 3 voices
5. Mixed counterpoint for 3 voices
1. Note against note for 4 voices
2. 2 notes against one for 4 voices
3. 3 notes against one for 4 voices
4. 4 notes against one for 4 voices
5. Mixed counterpoint for 4 voices
Here is what I mean by 1, 2, 3 or 4 notes against 1:
That's a piece for two voicesof but while one voice has 1 note, another has 1 or more at the same time. In other words, while one voice moves in quarter notes, another moves in quarter notes, eighth notes, eighth note triplets or sixteenth notes. This can be in two part prelude (what I call a basic level), three part prelude (intermediate level) or four part prelude (advanced level).
What is mixed counterpoint?
While one voice moves in quarter notes, another voice - is completely free and can move in any rhythm (a combination of quarter notes, triplets, sixteenths or even syncopations).
Try this system with any hymn or choral tune that you want. Spend some time on each step with a number of hymns and remember to put a tune in any voice.
To help you supercharge your studies in hymn improvisation, I have created a 16 week training program Organ Hymn Improvisation Level 1 which teaches to improvise hymn or choral preludes on any tune on a basic level.
By the way, do you want to learn my special powerful techniques which help me to master any piece of organ music up to 10 times faster? If so, download my organ practice guide "How to Master Any Organ Composition".
Improvisation of the French toccata always fascinates both organists and listeners - it's fun, exciting, fast, and loud. If played well, it leaves everybody in awe. Today I would like to discuss some ways how you can improvise a short toccata at the end of the church service.
Preferably such improvisation will be based on the exit hymn at the close of the church service. Here are a few of my recommendations (there are countless variations of such improvisations, but this is good for starters):
1. Place a hymn tune in the pedals.
2. Use easy figuration in sixteenth-notes which fits 5 fingers well: right hand descending (5321), left hand ascending (5321).
3. Play a short introduction of 2 measures in the hands on the first phrase of the tune.
4. Use a fixed harmony (chords) - 7th chords, 65 chords, 43 chords, 42 chords, for example.
5. Change the chords regularly (one chord for every phrase, for example).
6. When the pedals enter with the tune in equal note values, aim for step-wise motion in the hands - it's easier to control.
7. Remember to keep the same mode - then no matter what you play in your manual part will sound well with the pedals.
8. If you want to have more variety in color, change the mode every 4 measures or so - your tune doesn't have to stay in the same mode all the time.
9. Once you play the phrase of the tune in the pedals, repeat it in the manuals (without pedals).
10. End with a short CODA on a Tonic pedal point (the last note of the tune) repeating the last fragment several times in ascending transposing sequence (in major or minor 3rds).
11. Choose a loud registration with mixtures and reeds (if available) based on 16' stops.
BONUS TIP No. 1: Although it will be a fast piece, practice repeatedly REALLY slowly in fragments so that you are always in control and let your mind direct your fingers (and feet) and not otherwise.
BONUS TIP No. 2: Write down your improvisation on paper and see what can be improved. Having your own completed piece notated on staff notation is an incredible achievement in itself.
BONUS TIP No. 3: Actually you can start upside down and write your toccata on paper first and improvise later (it's more difficult but you will thank yourself later for doing so).
Remember to analyze real French toccatas (Boellmann, Widor, Vierne, Gigout, Durufle, Messiaen etc.). There you will find even more exciting figures, textures, harmonies, and models. But start small and only expand when you feel like you mastered the current version.
By the way, do you want to learn my special powerful techniques which help me to master any piece of organ music up to 10 times faster? If so, download my video Organ Practice Guide.
How to Use Hymns to Develop Hand Independence and Enhance Your Service Playing in 6 Easy Steps? (Part 2)
This is Part 2 (steps 5 and 6) of the article about how to use hymns which help you to achieve hand independence in your organ playing. You can read Part 1 here (steps 1 through 4).
5. Take the tune in the left hand and use the thirds and the sixths in the right hand and repeat the steps 1 through 4. By now probably you are starting to realize that we are developing your left hand technique while the right hand plays the hymn tune only. This step will teach you how to play faster notes in the right hand as well. Now play the hymn tune in the left hand as written but add an extra voice in the right hand, first note against note as in step 1. You may sometimes use the notes from the bass line in your right hand, but it will not always sound nice.
By the way, the technique when you invert the voices and play the top voice in the bass and vice versa is called invertible counterpoint. Invertible counterpoint is indispensable polyphonic trick to use if you want to create any imitative polyphonic piece, as invention, fughette, or a fugue. As I mentioned before, this technique will not always work with your hymns, because there will be instances when you will find the interval of the fifth between the original bass and the soprano voice which in inversion will become a forbidden fourth (it is not actually forbidden, but its use is greatly limited and specialized).
At any rate, the best way to construct your new soprano line in this step is to use the thirds and the sixths against the bass which always sound nice and sweet. After note against note exercise becomes easy, play two against one, three against one, and finally, four against one as you did in the steps 2 through 4.
6. Alternate motion between the hands. Steps 1 through 5 will develop your hand independence and teach you about a special kind of polyphony – contrasting polyphony - where voices are independent but very different both melodically and rhythmically. However, if you want to move your hand independence and polyphony to the next level, step 6 will do exactly that. It is called imitative polyphony when voices are independent but at the same time they have much in common – they imitate each other either melodically or rhythmically or both.
In order to achieve that, try to alternate movements between the hands. For example, in measure 1 let the soprano move in faster notes, in measure 2, this will be done by the bass part etc. You see, one voice is stationary while the other moves; then they switch roles. After practicing this way for a while, you can alternate the motion every 2 beats and later even every beat. By the way, one hand can play step 2 and the other step 4 as well!
By practicing this way you can create nice choral partitas or variations which will also enhance your service playing. You can use these variations for hymn introductions or preludes. As promised, these steps will help you to develop your hand independence using two voice texture or bicinium, of course, but without knowing, actually, you will be improvising as well. In order to achieve the greatest results, I recommend you choose at least 10 different hymns and work your way through each of the above steps at a slow tempo. Do not proceed to the next step unless you can play slowly (but fluently) the previous step at least three times in a row correctly.
By the way, would you like to know more about any aspect of hymn playing on the organ? Please share them in your comments below and I will do my best to answer your questions.
By the way, do you want to learn to play the King of Instruments - the pipe organ? If so, download my FREE video guide: "How to Master Any Organ Composition" in which I will show you my EXACT steps, techniques, and methods that I use to practice, learn and master any piece of organ music.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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