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DouglasCorr

Themes submitted for improvisation

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Yesterday's magnificent recital at St Paul's Cathedral by Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin was concluded, as one might have expected, with an improvisation on submitted themes. When I read this in the programme I thought - I hope the themes are not trivial ones. But sure enough they were: The Archer's signature tune and Teddy Bears picnic, both of which are quite long as well as being stupid in this context. Naturally astonishing music was spontaneously produced, but how much better would it have been if the themes had had some intrinsic musical value? I think about 50% of the times I've heard improvisation on submitted themes in the UK they have been really silly themes, of no musical value. Reducing the improvisation to an extremely clever circus trick like feat. I'm sure that masters of improvisation such as Tournemire would have regarded this as a mockery of his skill and stormed off. I think those who suggest themes should make their selection from short themes or fragments of themes from the great composers or from church music (e.g. hymn tunes). I wonder what other Message Boarders think?

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I think I tend to agree - interestingly the St Albans IOF is to recycle previous themes next time for its improvisation sessions.

 

A

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I remember a similar incident at Rochester some years ago with Olivier Latry.

The "Teddy Bears' Picnic" also figured on that evening, plus (if memory serves) "O come, O come, Emmanuel" (it being Advent).

A multi-movement, 25-minute symphony ensued, which, of course, brought the house down (figuratively speaking) despite the occasional "vamp till ready" bars while he considered what to do next.

But he obviously didn't know the Teddy Bears' Picnic, nor the humorous text that lay behind it, and one was left wondering how much better it would have been if he had.

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... But he obviously didn't know the Teddy Bears' Picnic, nor the humorous text that lay behind it, and one was left wondering how much better it would have been if he had.

 

...Or perhaps so much better if the theme had been different - and more serious.

 

There does seem to be a strange attitude to organ improvisation in this country, generally. The idea of improvising on The Archers (one of my most hated theme tunes) fills me with loathing. What a waste of talent.

 

This does rather highlight the fact that improvisation is often not taken seriously in this country. Either trite or 'amusing' (I use the term with the contempt it deserves) themes are provided - or else people can see no point in improvising, particularly in the context of a concert.

 

It must have been a thrilling experience to have been around at the time of Bach, Mozart or even Mendelssohn, and to be able to witness first-hand the creation of some of the most sublime pieces - a number of which now exist in the repertoire aa fully written-out works.

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I wrote an article for the Organists' Review in the last century concerning this. Obviously some never read it. Others have forgotten it. Some might have been born after it. But that's no excuse.

N

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In 1971, Marcel Dupre played at the Royal Albert Hall. I think it must have been his last public performance before he died. (Reginald Foort and Nicolas Kynaston also played). He gave a decidedly ropey version of BWV 565, but age disappeared in the extemporisation. One of the themes was 'Aupres de ma blonde'. I still remember that extemporisation - the banality of the theme didn't seem to be an impediment. Maybe the secular context had something to do with it, but about twelve years ago I was at a COA Conference at Truro and Olivier Latry played. It happened to be the day of the Helston Furry Dance - Elspeth and I went down in the morning to experience it - and I jotted down the tune in the evening for Olivier Latry to use. Again, maybe the context made it seem right. Reading the above posts, perhaps a scrap of plainsong would have been better, but it seemed pretty good at the time.

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Any chance of a bit more commentary on the recital itself and S-V C-C's playing and use of the St Paul's instrument? I presume she used the dome console.

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....improvisation is often not taken seriously in this country.

 

It must have been a thrilling experience to have been around at the time of Bach, Mozart or even Mendelssohn, and to be able to witness first-hand the creation of some of the most sublime pieces - a number of which now exist in the repertoire aa fully written-out works.

One can still - occasionally - experience similar thrills even in 21st-century Britain.

One of our former Assistants, now at a northern cathedral, caused our collective jaws to drop in amazement and admiration many times.

He would happily provide a Gospel improvisation in the style of the Mass setting, be it 18th-century Viennese, 19th-century French or whatever. His imitation Mozart and Duruflé were astonishing. Baroque-style chorale preludes were nothing unusual. A strict 5-part fugue on "Men of Harlech" finished Evensong on the anniversary of a particular Welsh military victory.

But for that, one needs not only technical mastery and an intimate knowledge of the many different musical styles, but also, as someone else once described it, "a brain the size of a planet" that can process information almost as fast as a PC chip - the kind of brain that gets you a double first in an unrelated subject. Such a combination of talents is rare, and one is incredibly grateful to have witnessed and heard it.

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I wrote an article for the Organists' Review in the last century concerning this. Obviously some never read it. Others have forgotten it. Some might have been born after it. But that's no excuse.

N

 

Some of us remember it - have the book and try at least to put into operation some of the wisdom therein!

 

A

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One can still - occasionally - experience similar thrills even in 21st-century Britain.

One of our former Assistants, now at a northern cathedral, caused our collective jaws to drop in amazement and admiration many times.

He would happily provide a Gospel improvisation in the style of the Mass setting, be it 18th-century Viennese, 19th-century French or whatever. His imitation Mozart and Duruflé were astonishing. Baroque-style chorale preludes were nothing unusual. A strict 5-part fugue on "Men of Harlech" finished Evensong on the anniversary of a particular Welsh military victory.

But for that, one needs not only technical mastery and an intimate knowledge of the many different musical styles, but also, as someone else once described it, "a brain the size of a planet" that can process information almost as fast as a PC chip - the kind of brain that gets you a double first in an unrelated subject. Such a combination of talents is rare, and one is incredibly grateful to have witnessed and heard it.

 

And he is still working such wizardry at that same northern cathedral.

 

JS

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Wayne Marshall presented Naji Hakim with the lugubrious theme music from Coronation Street at the Bridgewater Hall. He was only given the first phrase and, of course, he didn't know how it continued. He clearly wasn't impressed and made a comment to that effect.

 

Some of the St Albans themes have been so chromatic as to be completely unmemorable. Maybe the judges were able to pick them out, but most of the audience couldn't.

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One can still - occasionally - experience similar thrills even in 21st-century Britain.

One of our former Assistants, now at a northern cathedral, caused our collective jaws to drop in amazement and admiration many times.

He would happily provide a Gospel improvisation in the style of the Mass setting, be it 18th-century Viennese, 19th-century French or whatever. His imitation Mozart and Duruflé were astonishing. Baroque-style chorale preludes were nothing unusual. A strict 5-part fugue on "Men of Harlech" finished Evensong on the anniversary of a particular Welsh military victory.

But for that, one needs not only technical mastery and an intimate knowledge of the many different musical styles, but also, as someone else once described it, "a brain the size of a planet" that can process information almost as fast as a PC chip - the kind of brain that gets you a double first in an unrelated subject. Such a combination of talents is rare, and one is incredibly grateful to have witnessed and heard it.

 

A rare gift and a wonderful way of using the organ liturgiacally, in order to enhance the worship.

 

Could you tell me who this is, please - perhaps by PM?

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I remember when he was organ scholar at Chichester if I'm thinking along the right lines.

You are indeed on the right lines.

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The organist you refer to is remarkably good at this skill - I might add Tomkins to the list of styles heard springing from his fingers and planet sized brain. Also an improvisation on "Give me oil in my lamp" that was recognisable as such only to those who had set the challenge, but presented a more recognisable, respectable, theme to those who were not "in on it"; alas, I remember not what.

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I too was at the recital by Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin at St Paul's and was also a little disappointed by the themes. However, my disappointment was soon dispersed by her masterly handling of the themes and the improvisation itself. She started of gently and quietly, exploring the themes using just the Chancel Organ and (unlike so many improvisations) the themes were recognisable time and again and I think she played with them in an interesting way. Only at the end did she let the organ rip and I thought this was one of the best improvisations I have heard in a long time.

 

It was the same with the recital itself. All too often the St Paul's recitals seem to concentrate on using the Dome section as well as the West End section far too much. I think I heard more of the Chancel Organ than I have heard in a long time and she explored all the subtle tones available there without subjecting us to the full organ. So when she did play the full organ (or almost full organ) the impact was so much the greater.

 

I thought it was a memorable recital and didn't come away disappointed with any of it, not even the choice of themes for the improvisation.

 

John

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The organist you refer to is remarkably good at this skill

 

Why all the coyness about naming him? Would he be embarrassed?

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I recall SVCC giving a stunning recital at All Souls Langham Place a few years ago; Gerald Brooks gave her 'Kingsfold' to improvise on with spectacular results in what is a dry acoustic.

 

I did not attend the SPC recital-my loss-but I would have been irked with the choice of themes. An insult to both the artiste and audience. I recall a similar situation at Southwark some years ago when Naji Hakim was given 'London Bridge is falling down'

 

We deserve better. Improvisation is a serious discipline. Given that the likes of Choplin, Latry, Hakim and co spend week in and week out improvising on gregorian chant, this should be the basis of their imprvisation on the rare occassions that they give recitalls in the UK.

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It is always a difficult moment in a concert when an improvisation has been programmed. To some extent it is the performer's fault in putting this in the wrong place. I have frequently felt that when the improvisation is billed at the end of the concert the themes which are sometimes given in a flourished brown envelope are trite and looked upon as an encore moment. Nothing is worse for a theme to be recognized by the audience and not the performer when it suggests something quite the opposite. Nothing is more disconcerting to 'play it over' and hear laughter. However, the player as well as the promoter needs to take notice of what has been played before. Silly themes turn the perormer sometimes into a silly act which is demeaning and possibly degrading the actual discipline which has taken a life-time to hone and perfect to their best ability. One way to to put the brakes on such themes (often only seemed as 'fun' by the promoter) is for the performer to include such an item at the beginning of the concert or at the commencement of the 2nd half. I have given up saying that it will be on a given theme as it frequntly becomes insulting to advise people that the Teddy Bears' picnic (or picnique) or the like, is not quite the mood required after some monumental ouvre. Such thimgs are party pieces and should belong to the vin d'honneur afterwards.

Themes need to winkle out the musicianship of the player; the ingenuity of their ability to provide development as well as marrying all their talents with displaying the instrument. A tall order after playing a taxing programme. Also the improviser in my estimation should know when to stop if such simple tunes are proffered. Should an extended improvisation be made, then in my opinion it could take up the whole of the 2nd half. But then it should be in a good Form that does justice to talent, instrument and music. Improvisers are not to be thought of a classy circus act - just a class act!

As for brown envelopes being brandished - I prefer them to include crisp notes and not those on a piece of manuscript.

All best wishes,

N

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Why all the coyness about naming him? Would he be embarrassed?

 

I don't know whether he would be embarrassed; he might be. I don't know if he reads this Forum; I don't think he is a Board Member.

Not being sure of the etiquette, and not wishing to offend either him or others, I refrained from naming.

But I think that by re-reading the thread and noting the contributors' locations, the answer should be easily discoverable.

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Last Sunday I went to this year's opening recital at Farnborough Abbey given by the organist Neil Wright. As usual, despite an interior temperature that would make a freezer seem like an oven, I fell into a reverie, luxuriating in the Cavaille Coll sounds and wonderful acoustics. At the end of the programme there was an improvisation on submitted themes. Two themes were provided- the Grainger Country Gardens and a strange chromatic theme that I did not recognise. In fact I couldn't even remember the second theme! Which is an important point. An improvisation is of is nature only intended to be heard once, as it is created. So if the listener can't remember the theme, then it doesn't matter what the organist does, however clever and entertaining it may be. Clearly the improvisation themes need to be memorable, as well as being inspiring to the organist and without any trivial, distracting and inappropriate associations.

 

As it happened Neil Wright's improvisation was dignified and inspired - bits of Country Gardens came and went, but chromatic developments inspired by the second theme seemed to dominate the memorable performance. However as I couldn't remember the chromatic theme the logic of the development passed me by (ah, anyway there was still the Cavaille Coll sound.... :rolleyes::P )

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