Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
V: Let’s start episode 393 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. And this question was sent by Ariane. And she writes:
I would like to finish my pedal course and move on to a hymn improvisation class, perhaps the one on the lowest level - which one would that be?
V: So, Ausra, Ariane is our Total Organist student, and obviously, she wants to take those courses which are the most beneficial to her. And now, she is on the course to finish the pedal work, and moving to the hymn improvisation class, and I have created, in the early days, this level one course of Organ Hymn Improvisation Master Course. Would you like me to tell our listeners about it?
A: Sure! Go head.
V: So, this course is a video based course, and I recorded those videos in my church, Vilnius University St. John’s Church, with the hope that people can develop the skill of playing two part chorale improvisations. Just two part, for this level. Does it sound doable?
A: Sure, I think it’s much easier to control two voices, comparing with four, for example.
V: In our Organ Playing Master Course, it’s of course just one voice at level one. You start with solo voices, but with hymn improvisation, one voice would mean, probably, just a theme, and the theme itself is not improvised.
A: Sure, you really need to have some support melody.
V: So, I’m treating this course like a counterpoint in practice course. You know, in counterpoint, we have 5 species of counterpoint, and this system is devised to be very systematic for learning later types of polyphonic writing such as fugue.
V: Do you like counterpoint, Ausra?
A: Yes. I like it. It has strict rules.
V: Which pieces are your favorite?
A: Do you mean written counterpoint?
A: I never thought about it in such a way. And what are yours?
V: Maybe we should first talk about what those pieces are, right?
A: Sure, tell us!
V: The first species of counterpoint, and the beginning of my course, is when the chorale notes move at the same time as the counterpoint melody moves. In other words, note against note counterpoint. One on one. So, then we have some rules, like to move in opposite direction than the melody to avoid parallel fifths and octaves. What else…. To play in sweet sounding intervals, such as thirds and sixths. And that basically creates a very basic simple disposition of voices, and the melody could be in the soprano or in the bass as well. Do you think, Ausra, that Ariane could benefit from this beginning?
A: Well, I think any musician could benefit from this beginning, because most of the musicians at some point of their life actually have done exercises in this species of counterpoint.
V: But, usually, they do in written form, only.
A: Well, it’s just a matter of how advanced you are, because to write it down is easier, because you have time to think. When you’re playing it, performing it on the instrument, then it’s harder. It’s sort of a hard level, but I think it’s beneficial.
V: And even later in life, if your skills are more developed, it’s very good to go back to your basics. For example, I find it very fascinating to put a hymnal or chorale book in front of myself and just improvise those species of counterpoint.
A: Because, although the rules seem so simple, it’s not as simple to do things when you actually start doing it, because the simpler rules are the hardest to achieve a really nice result.
V: And in second species, we have two notes against one. So, against one chorale note, you have two counterpoint notes. There we have not neighbor notes, passing notes allowed.
A: And that gives more possibilities already.
V: Mhm. And in species number three, we have four notes against one, like imagine a whole note in the soprano, and quarter notes in the bass, or vice versa. So we deal a few weeks with that. And then, the fourth species deals with syncopations, where you create dissonances, like intervals of seventh or second or ninth or a fourth, in this case it could be dissonant, too.
A: So basically, it teaches you to do suspensions.
V: Yes, syncopations are about suspensions. And we finish this course with mixed species in number five, and there you can combine all those previous movements in quarter notes, in half notes, and in syncopations as well.
A: It seems like when you’re learning these five species of counterpoint, you could actually improvise a nice set of variations.
V: Even in the first level, when you have…
A: ...only two voices…
V: Only two voice, you already have two variation possibilities. And on the organ, you can actually expand with different registrations—it’s very beautiful, too. Imagine playing the chorale melody with the Reed and the counterpoint with a Principal, for example. And then you switch with another Reed in the bass, and with a Flute combination in the soprano, for example, and it sounds really convincing, even at this level, note against note. I’ve tried it before, and even did live streams on Facebook, and people reacted nicely to that, and not only people, but myself, I’m listening from a distance, sort of, as a listener, and I would think that in a service environment, this could be done, even at the liturgy, too.
V: But of course, after a few weeks, you move to the second level, and you can do two notes against one. That’s like a jump to the next level, and very exciting. So guys, we hope that everyone who is interested in chorale based improvisation, can take advantage of this course, because it’s just a foundation—level one. From there, you can add a third voice, obviously, or you can do ornamented chorales, where the chorale melody is no longer stationary, but in itself it can have species, like two notes, like chorale melody can move in half notes, or in quarter notes as well. That’s another creative path to take. And in species number five, in that level, both voices could move in imitation and in unpredictable ways, creating polyphonic duets, not unlike Palestrina and Olando di Lasso would write. And for organ composers, it would mean Samuel Scheidt, easily, and, of course Sweelinck.
A: Yes, they all were masters of counterpoint.
V: Right. Thank you guys, this was Vidas,
A: And Ausra,
V: Please send us your wonderful questions; we love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
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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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