In my last two articles, I’ve provided four reasons to improvise at the organ and three improvisation approaches. Today, I’ll give a bit more detail on the specific methods I use to improvise. I’ll also share some recordings of my actual improvisations at Masses, along with explanations of the choices I made.
Please keep in mind that I’m very much a student organist. Nothing I provide here should be seen as a best practice of organ improvisation. I provide these resources in the spirit of encouraging others to take the plunge and try some improvisation. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
My Standard Approach for Weekday Masses
My parish currently has four Masses each weekday and eight on Sundays, so I never lack chances to play. I tend to play a Mass every day (except during Lent, obviously) and improvise almost exclusively. Time doesn’t permit me to polish up well-formed improvisations for each of these Masses, so I have a toolkit of approaches I can use to improvise on the spot.
I’ll typically look at the propers ahead of time on my phone using the Chant Tools app. I’m finally comfortable enough to start developing ideas without sitting down at a keyboard. When I head into Mass, I know what to expect and can harmonize the chant melodies on the fly.
I tend to play the melody in the right hand on a solo stop while harmonizing in the left hand on strings or flutes. I generally use 8-foot and 16-foot flutes in the pedals. Sometimes I’ll feel adventurous and play the melody (slowly) in the pedals while harmonizing on the manuals.
Our church organ has three manuals, so I have the luxury of being able to set up contrasting registrations and then jump from one to the other in the middle of a chant. This is especially satisfying when there’s a bit of text that I want to emphasize in the middle of a chant. For example, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the Communion chant is Matthew 16:18:
“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
For the “gates of hell” part, I jumped to Cromorne as a solo voice because I think it sounds a bit menacing.
By the way, I made my greatest strides in improvising after I learned how to play accompaniments for Mass XI (Orbis factor) that were written out with only the names of the chords under the chant notation. Something about this process got my brain thinking like an organist, and now my hands and feet more or less follow.
On to the samples. My apologies for the audio quality.
Sample #1: Tulérunt Jesum (Lk 2:22)
I love the propers for the Feast of the Holy Family—especially the short and sweet Offertory and Communion. They make their point in one simple sentence and leave you so much to ponder. At the Offertory, we have:
“The parents of Jesus carried Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord.”
In the week leading up to the feast, I practiced harmonizing the chant with a few tweaks. But then, on Saturday, I was out driving around with my wife, and an entirely new melody popped into my head. It was upbeat and innocent. It reminded me of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus making their way to Jerusalem for the Presentation. From there, I figured I would improvise a middle section with a fuller registration to represent Simeon’s voice. It would begin in major as Simeon described Our Lord as “A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Lk 2:32) But then it would go into minor as Simeon made his prophecy. The improvisation ends with an 8′ flute representing Our Lady as she goes away pondering the notion of having her heart pierced by a sword. And as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big Seven Sorrows guy, so I couldn’t resist ending with a Stabat Mater quote.
Here’s how it all turned out:
Sample #2: Descéndit Jesus (Lk 2:51)
The Communion for Holy Family is equally concise:
“Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.”
I imagined using a slow, sustained approach but didn’t nail down much beyond that. And then on Sunday, it hit me: why not put a descending line in the pedals as a subtle way of illustrating how Jesus “went down” with them?
This one turned out a little differently at each of my several Masses that day. I think this rendition was the best:
Sample #3: Manducavérunt (Ps 77:29-30)
This one is a lesson in why I believe it’s important to read the text—and read it in context—before preparing an improvisation. The Communion chant for Quinquagesima Sunday is:
“They did eat, and were filled exceedingly, and the Lord gave them their desire: they were not defrauded of that which they craved.”
That sounds like a lovely thought. Why not use flutes and strings and make a comforting sound? Well, read on for a couple of verses, and you’ll find out:
“As yet their meat was in their mouth: and the wrath of God came upon them. And he slew the fat ones amongst them, and brought down the chosen men of Israel.”
Yikes. In context, this is a story of greedy Israelites doubting God’s providence. So I decided to give the solo voice a little edge and throw in some crunchy chords. The baby crying near the end really tied it all together:
Now It’s Your Turn
I hope these humble samples inspire you to explore at the organ console. With Laetare Sunday coming this weekend and Easter just a few weeks after that, now is the perfect time for you to get some ideas going for improvisation!