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Improvisation - When Is It Bogus?


D Quentin Bellamy
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Among my souvenirs I have a cassette of roll-recordings by Edwin Lemare. Among the tracks are a couple of improvisations, and basically they comprise a 5 note phrase which resembles more or less nothing. From that Lemare improvised a piece which ended finally in a fugue and grand finale. All from that 5 note phrase. I am sure that this is the real thing.

 

Now to turn to a recital given in the Bridgewater Hall with Olivier Latry, which took place soon after its opening, and he finished his recital with an improvisation, based upon four well known songs of which the last was the French National anthem.

 

Now is this really improvisation or doodling about on a well known theme?

 

Wayne Marshall again "improvises" on well known songs or themes (notably Gershwin songs) and somehow people are greatly impressed, but it always leaves me with a question mark.

 

Is it real or is it B.S. ???

 

(Pardon me!) :ph34r:

 

Q

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Excramentum tauri.

 

I still think the ability of a performer to give a great improvisation depends very much on how adept they are at handling counterpoint.

 

Having said that not all themes lend themselves equally to fugal treatment (even Bach knew that) and it's in the nature of the beast that inspiration will run higher at some times than at others. There's a very good reason people like Latry schedule their improvisations at the end of a concert rather than at the beginning.

 

I have heard Latry improvise several times and have to say I'm still wondering what all the fuss is about. But I can also believe that I've just been unlucky. I also admit I'd be very happy to be able to produce anything half as good as even the least inspired of his offerings.

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Excramentum tauri.

 

I still think the ability of a performer to give a great improvisation depends very much on how adept they are at handling counterpoint.

 

Having said that not all themes lend themselves equally to  fugal treatment (even Bach knew that) and it's in the nature of the beast that inspiration will run higher at some times than at others. There's a very good reason people like Latry schedule their improvisations at the end of a concert rather than at the beginning.

 

I have heard Latry improvise several times and have to say I'm still wondering what all the fuss is about. But I can also believe that I've just been unlucky. I also admit I'd be very happy to be able to produce anything half as good as even the least inspired of his offerings.

 

If you have not already done so, purchase some CDs of Pierre Cochereau, Pierre Pincemaille or Frédéric Blanc improvising - they are, particularly the first two players, in an entirely different league. I also have several recordings of non-French players improvising, but I still think that these three are the best I have heard. (I found Jos van der Kooy improvising at the Westerkerk, Amsterdam quite boring - altogether different to his recordings of repertoire at Sint Bavo, Haarlem.)

 

I also have some older recordings of Dupré and Cochereau improvising during recitals at Cologne Cathedral (on the old Klais instrument). Although these were recorded about ten years apart, both players chose to improvise on Veni Creator. It is interesting to compare the two. In addition, I have some recordings of Dupré improvising, one at Nôtre-Dame (with themes provided by Cochereau) and also on his own salon organ (with its combination system modelled closely on the Jacquard loom). In the former, Dupré was quite old (it was recorded in the late 1960s) and so there are a number of mistakes and cilpped notes. In the case of the latter, it was recorded decades earlier. Dupré improvises a prelude and fugue. However, it sounds too perfect - and rather academic.

 

I recommend two Cochereau recordings:

 

The three-disc compilation (with repertoire on the first disc) l'Organiste de Nôtre-Dame (SOCD 94/96) and the two-disc recording Cochereau - Un Testament Musical. Integrale des vingt-cinq improvisations sur l'Evangile selon saint Matthieu (Nôtre-Dame de Paris, 5 février - 4 mars 1984) (SOCD 150/1).

 

In the case of the latter, the final recording was made barely thirty-six hours before Cochereau's untimely death. This recording shows, more than any other, the depths of drama, poetry and great beauty of which Cochereau was capable. Here are no light scherzi, or variations. There is much that is sombre, dark and powerful. There are also moments of light majesty and poignancy. There is, too, a certain bitter irony in the music of the last track (in which Cochereau is joined by a brass ensemble). To quote from the words of Msgr. Jehan Revert (Choirmaster in Cochereau's time): "As if he had a premonition, he used elements of the choral theme from J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, before sounding out, with all the fulness of the brass Hassler's unforgettable melody whose words are: 'Ardently, I aspire to a happy ending. I know there is a better life, where my soul is going.' That was the evening of the 4 March. During the night of the 5 March, his earthly heart ceased beating."

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I assume the Dupré Prelude and Fugue is the one I have on tape from a while back when he and Duruflé were Radio 3's "Composers of the Week". It reminds me of the tittle-tattle that Anthony Wood relayed concerning Christopher Tye: "much music, but little to delight the ear".

 

I have three CDs of Cochereau improvising: A Philips one with the Improvisations sur "Alouette, gentille alouette", the Suite à la française and the Bolero sur un thème de Charles Racquet, another with the 15 versets sur "Ave Maris Stella" and the Variations improvisées sur un vieux noël, and a disc of the Sunday offices at Notre-Dame (Lauds, Mass and Vespers) on which he improvises. The technique and imagination are truly phenomenal, but I'm not sure I could take too much of it. A little goes a long way since it's all in the same style. It's still great stuff to study though. The Ave Maris Stella versets in particular are stunningly good - the final Toccata leaves me open-mouthed.

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I assume the Dupré Prelude and Fugue is the one I have on tape from a while back when he and Duruflé were Radio 3's "Composers of the Week". It reminds me of the tittle-tattle that Anthony Wood relayed concerning Christopher Tye: "much music, but little to delight the ear".

 

I have three CDs of Cochereau improvising: A Philips one with the Improvisations sur "Alouette, gentille alouette", the Suite à la française and the Bolero sur un thème de Charles Racquet, another with the 15 versets sur "Ave Maris Stella" and the Variations improvisées sur un vieux noël, and a disc of the Sunday offices at Notre-Dame (Lauds, Mass and Vespers) on which he improvises. The technique and imagination are truly phenomenal, but I'm not sure I could take too much of it. A little goes a long way since it's all in the same style. It's still great stuff to study though. The Ave Maris Stella versets in particular are stunningly good - the final Toccata leaves me open-mouthed.

 

I agree, VH. The quality of the contrapuntal variations is also extremely impressive.

 

However, if you only purchase one more CD of Cochereau improvising, you should consider acquiring a copy of Pierre Cochereau improvise sur des Noëls (SOCD 152). The Sorite sur Adeste Fidelis is excellent - I have played the transcription a few times at my own church. Also, the original vresion of the Prélude et Variations sur 'Venez Divin Messie'is stunning. Whilst the transcription by DB (recorded at Truro) is a superb achievement, the original is incredible.

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I agree, VH. The quality of the contrapuntal variations is also extremely impressive.

 

However, if you only purchase one more CD of Cochereau improvising, you should consider acquiring a copy of Pierre Cochereau improvise sur des Noëls (SOCD 152). The Sorite sur Adeste Fidelis is excellent - I have played the transcription a few times at my own church. Also, the original vresion of the Prélude et Variations sur 'Venez Divin Messie'is stunning. Whilst the transcription by DB (recorded at Truro) is a superb achievement, the original is incredible.

 

Improvising a set of variations is I guess one thing... but we don't always get that. Sometimes I have listened to the extemporaneous hullaballoo that goes on in some recitals in the name of improvisation and felt that it was all a big con-trick!

 

I have an old cassette somewhere of Nigel Allcoat improvising a five or six movement Easter Mass (think it was on plainsong themes, but I'll have to go an hunt it out); and I have various Pierre Cochereau masterpieces too (again theme and variations play a large part). And at least there is structure. But there are other occasions where there appears to be no structure and perhaps this is the point where improvisation becauses aimless meandering? :P

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But there are other occasions where there appears to be no structure and perhaps this is the point where improvisation becauses aimless meandering? :P

 

This is also true of some compositions - which is rather less excusable. Take, for instance, Ireland's Elegaic Romance; this has no discernable structure or form, it just meanders around, with a few changes of dynamic - and then stops.

 

For that matter, several of Howells' Psalm Preludes have no form other than being the dynamic equivalent of a parabolic arch.

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This is also true of some compositions - which is rather less excusable. Take, for instance, Ireland's Elegaic Romance; this has no discernable structure or form, it just meanders around, with a few changes of dynamic - and then stops.

 

For that matter, several of Howells' Psalm Preludes have no form other than being the dynamic equivalent of a parabolic arch.

 

I sometimes think that the Liszt "Ad Nos" seems to meander around for ages going nowhere in particular....

 

(ducks for cover) :P

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This is also true of some compositions - which is rather less excusable. Take, for instance, Ireland's Elegaic Romance; this has no discernable structure or form, it just meanders around, with a few changes of dynamic - and then stops.

 

For that matter, several of Howells' Psalm Preludes have no form other than being the dynamic equivalent of a parabolic arch.

But surely most Lieder similarly lack form? Then there are large Romantic works that are, shall we say, discursive yet still are generally reckoned successful. Messiaen's later compositions have unifying elements that are no more detectable by the casual listener than those in a Fayrfax mass or Dunstable motet, yet they are held in high regard. Themes are a useful tool for the composer, and he abandons them at his peril, but I think that if we train ourselves to believe that they are a sine qua non we risk blinkering our musical appreciation.

 

In any case, I'm afraid you are wrong about Howells's Psalm Preludes. If you sit down and analyse them you will find plenty of thematic unity and development. It's sometimes a bit subtle, helping to bind and cohere in a way that is almost subliminal rather than in one that is as easily appreciated as, say, a symphonic development of themes. As for the more discursive material that these pieces also contain, well symphonies also have that.

 

Dare I also point out that the parabolic arch criticism is also one that could be levelled at a few Cochereau improvisations? :P

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[On a slightly different tack, do any of the more ancient contributors remember a BBC series on the Third Programme? It ran,so far as I remember, to six programmes in which well known British orgamists of the day improvised. I think Regimald Moore of Exeter Cathedral performed as did Charles Spinks. As a youth I was very impressed. I think the programme was designed to show that the French were not the only ones who could do it (even if they were the best). The broadcasts took place in the 1950's. It would be fascinating to hear them again.

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Sometimes I have listened to the extemporaneous hullaballoo that goes on in some recitals in the name of improvisation and felt that it was all a big con-trick!

 

I am tempted to relate a concert I went to very very recently, but had better not say anything incriminating, so the facts are as follows: the themes were Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Old Macdonald Had A Farm. It took slightly under 40 minutes and had 8 endings. It was very fast and very loud. You may fill the rest in for yourself.

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In any case, I'm afraid you are wrong about Howells's Psalm Preludes. If you sit down and analyse them you will find plenty of thematic unity and development. It's sometimes a bit subtle, helping to bind and cohere in a way that is almost subliminal rather than in one that is as easily appreciated as, say, a symphonic development of themes. As for the more discursive material that these pieces also contain, well symphonies also have that.

 

I am not convinced that finding the same tune (or fragments of one) throughout a piece qualifies as a form, certainly not in the same way that Elgar used leitmotiv form in The Dream of Gerontius (and a numbr of other works). Arguably with Howells, it may be incidental to the blurred harmonic effect which he was creating*.

 

Dare I also point out that the parabolic arch criticism is also one that could be levelled at a few Cochereau improvisations?  :blink:

 

Certainly! Although I can think of rather more which have a clearer structure. His Suite in eighteenth century French style was a very successful conscious copy of particular forms popular at the time, for example.

 

*Ralph Downes disliked the music of Howells - he objected to the 'blurred harmonies'.

 

 

 

OK - so why are the quote bits not doing thier proper job? I cut and pasted everything which I usually do.

 

:unsure:

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[On a slightly different tack, do any of the more ancient contributors remember a BBC series on the Third Programme? It ran,so far as I remember, to six programmes in which well known British orgamists of the day improvised. I think Regimald Moore of Exeter Cathedral performed as did Charles Spinks. As a youth I was very impressed. I think the programme was designed to show that the French were not the only ones who could do it (even if they were the best). The broadcasts took place in the 1950's. It would be fascinating to hear them again.

 

Yes - absolutely. I would dearly like to listen to these, especially Reginald Moore at Exeter. No doubt they were never kept in the archives.

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I am tempted to relate a concert I went to very very recently, but had better not say anything incriminating, so the facts are as follows:  the themes were Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Old Macdonald Had A Farm.  It took slightly under 40 minutes and had 8 endings.  It was very fast and very loud.  You may fill the rest in for yourself.

 

 

=======================

 

I shan't try and guess who it was, but I probably could.

 

Something which occurs to me, is the fact that Durufle spent a great deal of time writing down the taped improvisations of Charles Tournemire, which must say something about the quality and the obvious respect that Durufle had for Tournemire's abilities.

 

MM

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
*Ralph Downes disliked the music of Howells - he objected to the 'blurred harmonies'.

 

 

I was studying with HH at the time his 1971 Partita received its first performances at The RCO* and The RFH. He told me in no uncertain terms (with a more-steely-than-usual twinkle) that he believed these two organs to be the ugliest sounding organs in the capital, but that a performance is a performance and he was glad that the piece was being presented at all!

 

 

*Then at Kensington Gore, with a concert hall containing a Norman and Beard organ that had just been radically rebuilt to the design of Peter Hurford (among others) by HN&B.

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In any case, I'm afraid you are wrong about Howells's Psalm Preludes. If you sit down and analyse them you will find plenty of thematic unity and development. It's sometimes a bit subtle, helping to bind and cohere in a way that is almost subliminal rather than in one that is as easily appreciated as, say, a symphonic development of themes. As for the more discursive material that these pieces also contain, well symphonies also have that.
I am not convinced that finding the same tune (or fragments of one) throughout a piece qualifies as a form, certainly not in the same way that Elgar used leitmotiv form in The Dream of Gerontius (and a numbr of other works). Arguably with Howells, it may be incidental to the blurred harmonic effect which he was creating*.

It's hardly fair, I think to criticise Howells for choosing not to use themes in his Psalm Preludes in the same way as Elgar did in the Dream, which is on a completely different scale. The Leitmotiv approach would hardly be relevant, would it? And, frankly, if we're talking about Leitmotiven I might ask how much Wagner used them to shape his music - surely their "cross-referencing" function is quite different? But I think you are right insofar as Howells used themes to help meld and cohere the music rather than as primary drivers of musical argument and momentum. And they are, as you say, incidental to the effect of soft dissonance (a better description, I think than "blurred harmony"). I am even tempted to suggest that this is a large factor in whatever it is that prevents Howells being adjudged a great composer instead of merely a composer who sometimes achieved greatness (as Christopher Palmer so perceptively put it) - except that those pieces in which he did achieve greatness are not essentially different in approach (the Sequence for St Michael, King David, The St Paul's Service, The House of the Mind, Take him, earth are among the ones on my list; it is probably no accident that all of these pieces have texts).

 

Dare I also point out that the parabolic arch criticism is also one that could be levelled at a few Cochereau improvisations?
Certainly! Although I can think of rather more which have a clearer structure. His Suite in eighteenth century French style was a very successful conscious copy of particular forms popular at the time, for example.

Goes on a bit though, doesn't it? Theme and Variation form is a tricky one. Simply presenting a theme as a number of movements each with its own texture/registration by no means guarantees coherence. In many ways it actually makes coherence more difficult to attain. In this piece I don't think Cochereau actually achieves an effective musical architecture - but it was an improvisation and at least he maintains the listener's interest, so he is forgiven!

 

I wonder how you rate the Poulenc Organ Concerto. They don't come more themeless and formless than that! My music teacher at school disliked it for precisely that reason. My gut feeling tells me it hangs together very well, but I couldn't begin to explain why - possibly something to do with proportions? You can't explain it through thematic unity because there isn't any.

 

What I think you are really saying is that you don't like the parabolic arch structure (although it is a perfectly viable one) and that Howells's harmonic style isn't to your taste (it can't be "blurred harmony" per se unless you also dislike Debussy, Duruflé, early Messiaen...) This is fair enough. We're entitled to our views. I don't think we need to scratch around to justify our tastes. Or were you actually trying to make a more fundamental point?

 

*Ralph Downes disliked the music of Howells - he objected to the 'blurred harmonies'.

Like I said, fair enough! It's a perfectly valid opinion and Sidney Campbell would have agreed ("messy writing!")
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("messy writing!")

 

The same sort of "parabolic arch" criticism might go for Bridge Adagio in E, no? A minor masterpiece nonetheless.

 

A lot of improvisation teaching (aside from Nigel Allcoat, who seems to be much more disciplined and structural than most) centres around having an easily identifiable "block" whether of two notes or twenty, which you can modulate with, repeat, invert, etc etc etc. As long as people hear the "block" performing different functions on a regular basis (and you can remember enough to throw in some repeats, and there is some overall attempt to end in the same manner and key as the start) they will be convinced the structure is there. The art of the improviser is "the art of the illusionist" - PC, ND. I've had a David Briggs CD on in the car today (Sounds French - Blackburn Cathedral) and I'm utterly convinced that's almost entirely what's going on - Coch transcriptions, Franck 1, and then an exceptional symphonie de Briggs which holds water probably better than anything else on the disc.

 

As for Howells PsPr, I'm only really really familiar with Set 1 no 1 which I think is just a fantastic piece of work. The two principal themes are everywhere you care to look, more or less to the last note. My English teacher used to say that you can only judge any work of art - music, poetry, whatever - on the basis of how well it achieves what it set out to do. The Psalm Preludes aren't musically constrained/defined in the way chorale preludes are but are responses to textual stimuli, as it were, and so surely the order in which the painter applied the brush strokes to the canvas is of only miniscule importance?

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What I think you are really saying is that you don't like the parabolic arch structure (although it is a perfectly viable one) and that Howells's harmonic style isn't to your taste (it can't be "blurred harmony" per se unless you also dislike Debussy, Duruflé, early Messiaen...) This is fair enough. We're entitled to our views. I don't think we need to scratch around to justify our tastes. Or were you actually trying to make a more fundamental point?

 

Like I said, fair enough! It's a perfectly valid opinion and Sidney Campbell would have agreed ("messy writing!")

 

Well, not really - I do not mind the parabolic arch structure - for example, the Bridge Adagio works well (although there is a clear thematic unity, here).

 

Although one may not think so, I actually like a lot of the music of Herbert Howells - although this is mostly the choral music. I do like some of the organ works, but find the Psalm Preludes less interesting than, say, Take him, earth or the Requiem. Given the difference in scale between the first and the latter, this is hardly surprising.

 

I have no idea if I was trying to make a more fundamental point - I worked for eighty hours last week, and I have already worked about thirty hours since Monday.... I am not entirely sure if I like anything except alcohol and chocolate at the moment....

 

B)

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