In a previous article, Robin Harrison did an Introduction to Organ Improvisation where he explained how a few organ improvisation techniques can help when you suddenly need to fill a gap in a middle of a service. In this article Robin discusses Organ Improvisation using One Chord.
No Music Shop or Books for Beginners, What Did They Do?
In the days before mass printing, how on earth did people learn to play the harpsichord or organ? Where on earth might they start?
Well I was lucky enough to have improvisation and composition teaching from Petr Eben who started me off in a similar way. First of all, he would ask me what I could manage with one note and ask me to try it using different octaves, different registrations, different manuals and so forth.
In the Renaissance (1400-1600) and Baroque (1600-1750), composers would explore chords first.
The One Chord Piece
The more options we have, the more daunting improvisation can seem. Therefore, let’s start with one chord.
You may well be thinking that it’s not possible to create a decent piece with one chord, but bugle tunes are exactly that. Bugles don’t have valves so can only play notes of the harmonic series. The lower notes of the harmonic series basically form a major chord and frequently would be used in second inversion.
Here’s an American Reveille example:
Organ Improvisation with One Chord
Try exploring different major chords. Different hand positions and different keys stimulate our imaginations in different ways and so can lead us to different ideas. Have you ever thought that a particular key sounds “bright” or “mellow” or “serene” for instance? Pastorale pieces are often in flat keys, fanfares in sharp keys.
Organ Improvisation Structure
With a limited number of pitches we need to consider how to create ‘form’ (structure) rather than waffle. So, it might be that you have three sections to make ternary form with the first idea returning at the end and a different idea in the middle, creating an ABA structure. You might choose to make the middle section higher and have a contrasting rhythmic pattern to distinguish it from the outer sections.
Here’s my Fanfare in G:
Improvising an entire voluntary on One Chord
Sounds crazy? I love a crazy challenge!
I start with a solo fanfare on the Choir and then repeat it on the Great with chords. In the middle section I try using two different manuals and create a homophonic (block chords) rhythmical contrast at a slightly slower tempo.
Finally, I return to the upbeat fanfare on the Choir and Great manuals.
Bored of only 3 notes?
Well, a fanfare isn’t always appropriate. Perhaps you are preparing for a Lentern service. In this case, you might choose a minor chord and want to embellish it.
Embellishments of a chord were known as “diminutions” in the Renaissance and Baroque. Sometimes these embellishments are written out and other times they are improvised.
It can be hard to learn about improvised embellishments, so I listen to particular singers, most often Nigel Rogers. Nigel was respected as one of the finest Early Music specialist vocalists in the 1970s-80s and his version of Nigra Sum by Monteverdi is simply divine.
Here’s a few ideas from that recording:
Typical patterns include:
- scales of an octave, or ninth, from a note of the chord other than the root (I demonstrate G minor, Bb to Bb and D to D using the natural minor scale: G-A-B-C-D-Eb-F-G).
- Leaps from one note of a chord to another and then stepwise movement within the leap. I use D down to G and then A-Bb-C-D.
- Passing notes, but unlike modern theory, you can have two passing notes between the fifth of the chord and the octave (in this case D-Eb-F-G).
- Dotted rhythms moving from a note of the chord to a note a step above (D-Eb, Bb-C, G-A).
I’ve then created a short improvisation using these ideas. I’ve used a cornet in the right hand (Flutes: 8’, 4’, 2⅔’, 2’, 1⅗’) and an 8’ flute in the left hand. I’ve used a soft 8’ and 16’ in the pedal and used the notes G-Bb-D and the octave G within the pedal part.
There are plenty of other composers that you could explore. In the French style, the Tierce en Taille and Basse de Trompete style pieces will provide great ideas.
You could visit IMSLP to research French Baroque (usually termed “French Classical” in the organ world) music such as that by Clérambault or De Grigny. Purcell’s vocal works such as “Sweeter than Roses” contain written out embellishments.
Isn’t it amazing what you can achieve with one chord? I’d love to hear what you can do too! Please share your videos or audio recordings in the comment section below.
Up next – Organ Improvisation with Two Chords
What will come in the next article? Let’s consider what we could do with two chords and, in particular, some Renaissance progressions.
The aim is to get as much as possible out of one chord and expand your imagination. The more creative you are with limited material, the better you will be with a greater harmonic resource.
Here is a teaser video on what is coming up next:
About Dr Robin Harrison – The Maestro Online
Dr Robin Harrison PhD BMus(Hons)/GradRNCM FNCM ARCO LTCL DipLCM PGCE(QTS) MISM is your supportive, holistic piano lesson, organ lesson, singing lesson teacher & vocal coach. He has 30 years of teaching experience and well qualified teacher with composition, piano, organ and singing diplomas alongside a conservatoire degree and musicology PhD.
Robin offers organ lessons for pupils of all ages from beginner organists through to Fellowship diploma organ students. An academy organ teacher for the Royal College of Organists (RCO), annual summer school organ teacher, masterclass deliverer, improviser, diploma paperwork examiner and aural trainer.
Dr Robin Harrison PhD BMus(Hons)/GradRNCM FNCM ARCO LTCL DipLCM PGCE(QTS) MISM is your supportive, holistic piano lesson, organ lesson, singing lesson teacher & vocal coach.