Last Saturday I played an improvisation recital in my church (Vilnius University St. John's church). The idea was to improvise on the chorale tune "An Wasserflussen Babylon" - the famous melody that Johann Adam Reincken from St. Catherine's church in Hamburg used to create a long chorale fantasia. Probably out of huge respect to Reincken, in 1722 J.S. Bach improvised in front of him on the same tune for half an hour and received the following compliment from the old master:
"I thought that this art was dead but I see that it lives in you".
Without any intention to surpass Bach or Reincken I wanted to try to improvise an hour-long recital based on this chorale tune only. We could all imagine that it could be done for an hour if we use different chorale melodies and create a number of various pieces but is it possible to use just one melody for an hour and still make an interesting music for the listeners? In other words, is it possible to create a long chorale fantasia that the listeners would appreciate?
I didn't now that of course ahead of time but since these sort of musical experiments, challenges, and adventures are my daily bread, it seemed like a great idea to try out and see what happens.
The style and the techniques for this improvised chorale fantasia were taken from the models of Franz Tunder (1614-1667) who was a predecessor of Dieterich Buxtehude in Lubeck's St. Mary's church.
Incidentally, this year the entire organ world celebrates Tunder's 400th anniversary (as well as C.P.E. Bach's 300th anniversary) so I hope you will do something interesting with his numerous pieces. I already played one recital with Tunder's music this spring - it takes two hours to play his entire organ works so maybe I will do the second half later this year.
So anyway, I had to keep track of the time during my improvisations. This is because it was only one long improvised piece as opposed to some 10 shorter compositions played from the scores. I didn't want to bore my listeners and play too long.
In order to keep track of the time, I brought a timer from home and put it next to me so that I could see when to end. Now, this particular timer has one peculiar feature - it beeps shortly when the time limit is getting close to the end (I think 5 minutes is the mark). More importantly, the timer beeps much longer when the set time interval has ended.
Obviously, this is no good when someone plays a public recital. It would be quite a distraction both for the listeners and for me. So instead of setting the timer for one hour, I set it for two. This way it would be very simple - once I see the timer move to about 1 hour, it would mean I would need to prepare to end my improvisations.
By the way, if you are wondering why couldn't I set the timer to go forward instead of backwards - here's why: it counts only up to 20 minutes and then starts from 1 again. That could be possible too by simply counting three rounds of 20 minutes to complete the recital on time in about one hour. But this seemed a little risky - I had previous experiences when I would start to wonder (during improvisations) is it close to the end of the 2nd or the 3rd round?
Anyhow, at the beginning of the recital I set the timer to 2 hours and began to play. At first I played the chorale-tune harmonization and then began my improvisation with the prelude-like introduction (with imitated sections for more interest).
About 5-8 minutes into the recital all went well until I noticed that the timer doesn't move - it shows 2:00 all the time (so much for keeping track of the time accurately that day).
Luckily, I had my smartphone with me in my right pocket which I had to take out and put in the place I could see. As you can imagine, everything had to be done quite smoothly without disturbing the flow of the music which meant I had to play with my left hand and pedals only while working on getting the smartphone from the pocket with my right hand.
Here is Lesson 1 which might be applicable to you as well: make sure you can play without one hand during the public performance.
For the right-handed people, left hand is the secondary choice and it takes some practice to get used to do it. Such playing might be quite useful not only when you perform an improvised music but also when you play from the score - sometimes the pages might fall apart and you have to use one hand to sort them out and put them back on the music rack. Another reason to do it is when you have to turn the page with one hand and continue playing smoothly with the other.
In case you are wondering how I felt or how it went for me, I have to say, it seemed a little funny, that's all. Deep down I knew it all be fine in the end.
The reason the timer wasn't working was that I didn't push the Start button. When I thought about this after the recital was over, I felt so stupid - all I needed to do was to push that Start button the moment I found out that the timer wasn't working (but I didn't understand that on time). Oh well, that's part of the experience - adventures are always waiting for you just around the corner.
I will have a few more useful lessons to share with you soon so stay tuned for the continuation of this series.
To end this article, I want to point out that since some of my current Total Organist members didn't have a chance to update their subscriptions to the half-priced versions until Sunday night, I have to extend this special offer for a couple more days to anyone who wants to subscribe now (right now we have 33 active members).
Also after subscribing, some people had technical problems loging in into the member area. This is all fixed now - it was my fault the way protected member area was set up but tech support at Sentrylogin kindly helped me with this.
Would you like to say "Thank You" to us? Buy Us Coffee.
Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
Do you have a unique skill or knowledge related to the organ art? Pitch us your story to become a guest on Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast.
Don't have an organ at home?
Download paper manuals and pedals, print them out, cut the white spaces, tape the sheets together and you'll be ready to practice anywhere where is a desk and floor. Make sure you have a higher chair.