Vater unser im Himmelreich

Georg Böhm wrote three settings of the chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich. This past weekend at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, I played the first one as prelude. With a rhythmic repeated chord accompaniment and ornamented solo presentation of the melody, it has inspired many of my improvisations.

The other two settings could also be models for improvisations, though the last is much more complicated. The second setting is a duo while the last one presents each phrase of the chorale in quasi-fugal imitation.

Herbert Howells – Psalm Prelude Set 2, no. 1

I first registered this piece for my concert at the Cathedral last March. The concert was played from the sanctuary console so that I could be visible to the audience. Up until this week, I had no easy way to transfer the pistons from one console to another. Here’s my first performance of the Howells from the rear console. Check back later for a demonstration of how I moved two levels of memory in less than 10 minutes.

Improvised Prelude on ‘Gather Us In’

Thanks to the snow storm, I was able to spend a couple of hours at the Cathedral today practicing. After some more technical exercises, I started flipping through the hymnal and improvising on different tunes. Marty Haugen’s ‘Gather Us In’ is an up-tempo tune that is more often associated with piano and guitars than the organ. I decided to slow it down and spice it up a bit for a more relaxing prelude style piece. Enjoy!

Bulletin Notes – Out of the Depths

Out of the Depths600Everyone has heard the expression that to sing is to pray twice. Music provides an additional dimension to our prayers that can add meanings beyond what the words alone can say. Instrumental music therefore can express thoughts and feelings that we may not have found the words to express.

The pipe organ with its variety of musical colors (especially the large instrument here at the Cathedral) has the capacity to convey a wide range of emotions. The US bishops make this clear in Sing to the Lord:

Among all other instruments which are suitable for divine worship, the organ is “accorded pride of place” because of its capacity to sustain the singing of a large gathered assembly, due to both its size and its ability to give “resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation.” Likewise, “the manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.” (STL, #87)

While we rejoice the triumph of Jesus Christ over death, there are many stories of pain and suffering also in the Bible: the slavery of the Israelites, the trials of Job, and even the crucifixion of our Lord. The concert this afternoon will explore how different composers have chosen to paint in music these songs of lament. Beginning with settings of Psalm 130 (Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord), continuing through the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and concluding with the death of Jesus on the cross, the program offers a wide palette of musical styles and emotions that I hope will bring you not into the depths of despair but into a deeper relationship with God. If you are able to be here, please come.

More information about the event including a complete program listing may be found here.

Vexilla Regis Duo

This is my first video recorded at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen in Baltimore. There are two identical consoles for the organ at the cathedral and pipes at each end of the building. This excerpt from my Suite in French Classical Style on Vexilla Regis was recorded from the console in the sanctuary using only pipes from the gallery. Watch carefully to notice the delay between my fingers and the audio!

Chorale and Festive Flourish

These two movements for organ and brass quintet were written for the wedding of my wife’s brother. The Chorale was written for the entrance procession, beginning quietly with a dramatic build for the entrance of the bride. The Festive Flourish was written for the recessional and is a joyous march with toccata figuration for the organ at the end.

The trailer from the wedding includes an excerpt from the Chorale.

Thoughts on NCOI

The Update

The rules for the next American Guild of Organists National Competition in Organ Improvisation have been released and are available here. While the competition has not been without changes in the past, this set of rules is a significant departure from previous versions. Even if I thought changes in the rules were warranted, I’d like to make some observations about the new rule set that seem to run counter to the spirit of an improvisation competition.

Time lag

Most competitions begin with a recorded round, leading to a selection of semi-finalists who will compete live in person. A smaller number of finalists is then selected to compete in one last performance evaluation. When there are only 5-6 semi-finalists, most competitions hold the semi-finals and finals a few days apart from each other. For the 2016 edition of NCOI, the semi-finals will be held at the regional convention almost a full year before the finals. For a competition focusing on creating music with minimal preparation, having a year between rounds might as well be having two different competitions.

Repertoire

The 2016 NCOI adds a repertoire requirement. To win the competition, not only will one need to improvise, four substantial pieces of repertoire must be learned. To ask an improviser to demonstrate technical ability and mastery of the instrument by playing a piece of repertoire seems reasonable. I know there are other improvisation competitions that demand repertoire, but in no other case does the time for repertoire become more substantial than the time required for improvisation. In the NCOI semifinal round, it could take a competitor longer to play the repertoire requirement than to meet the improvisation requirement!

Hymns

The other new requirements for the 2016 edition are hymns and figured bass. While competitors have been provided hymn tunes as themes for many past competitions, it is now a requirement for a competitor to actually play a hymn with people singing. Recognizing that creating hymn introductions and varied accompaniments is a skill that at least some organists practice every week, this seems to be a more reasonable new territory for NCOI to include. However, as there was a separate hymn-playing competition held in Boston, it seems much preferable to me to continue holding a distinct hymn-playing competition rather than folding this skill into the improvisation competition. While related skills are involved, I would still consider improvising to accompany a congregation as a small subset of the skills necessary to win an improvisation prize.

Figured Bass

While hymn playing may be the bread and butter of most organists’ playing duties, realizing a figured bass seems completely foreign to what most organists must do even occasionally. While improvisers may (should) learn to realize figured bass, it seems to me like asking the entrants in NYACOP to play scales and arpeggios for their assigned repertoire. Who would go to a performance competition to listen to scales and arpeggios or Hanon exercises? While I may be exaggerating slightly to make my point, if a candidate doesn’t know how to realize a figured bass, I feel pretty confident that they won’t be able to improvise variations on a given theme. I say don’t waste time asking for a figured bass, let’s hear the variations!

Preparation

While the rules for the timing of the preliminary round need some further clarification (Does the competitor get three 30 minute preparations or only one?), the significant change in preparation time is the availability to use the organ and the material that is provided more than thirty minutes in advance. Granting access to an instrument during preparation time makes it easier for candidates to verify or practice ideas before performing, but is still a minor change compared to the release of themes days or months in advance. For the preliminary round, the competitor is to improvise five contrasting variations on Vom Himmel hoch. The theme is already known, so there is plenty of time for an enterprising composer to actually write a set of variations, memorize them, and then perform them for the recording. With a few months of preparation, I am sure that the quality of variations heard by the judges will be better than in previous years, but I have no confidence that they will be able to select the best improviser from an exercise with this much preparation time.

Likewise where the themes are given three days in advance for the semifinal and final rounds, I become less assured that what we hear will be an improvisation. Having written a Prelude and Fugue (albeit short) in less than a week and even some compositions in a few hours, I certainly could plan out very carefully if not outright compose my entry. Anyone with sufficient skills to win the competition could certainly posses the skills to compose a piece that fast and either memorize it or bring rough sketches to the competition.

To counteract these potential composition practices, there are very particular rules about what a competitor may write on a piece of paper and bring to the console for the competition. Certainly as long as themes are given out days in advance, what sort of papers one can bring to the competition should be restricted, but what does it mean to compose full harmonies? Would writing out figures over a bass line or using guitar/jazz chord notations be a rule violation? If the goal of all these changes is to raise the level of performances, why couldn’t the competitor take part of the thirty minutes of preparation time to write out harmonies in whatever format he or she chooses? Restricting the paper brought to the competition seems to be a much cleaner rule than trying to tell someone what can or cannot be written down.

Adjudication

Sadly, too few organists practice improvisation at the level where they could consider entering NCOI. It is a difficult skill to master, and even more difficult to teach. With only a handful of master improvisation teachers in this country, in order to avoid any potential conflict of interest where teachers judge their own students, many times the best improvisers are left out of the judges pool. Having a problem finding qualified judges however is not solved by adding more people to the panel. I propose following the model of St. Alban’s, Concours André Marchal, Chartres, and Haarlem where the jury is announced in advance. Competitors are hidden from the judges during all rounds of the competition and are free to study however often they can beforehand with the jury members. Having well-qualified jurors seems much preferable to me than having more people on the jury (especially if they cannot improvise).

Final Round

The AGO has a long tradition of offering certification to its membership. Perhaps unknowingly, the AGO has just set up three levels of improvisation certification corresponding to the preliminary, semifinal and final rounds of the NCOI. When viewed through the lens of certification, each of the requests at the different levels seems appropriately graded and a reasonable way to verify that someone has a well-rounded skill set. Just as a math teacher would ask a student to show his or her work to get to the final answer, it seems perfectly reasonable in a certification process to verify that a candidate can cover all the required bases. At a competition however, repeatedly asking a candidate to do the musical equivalent of reciting a multiplication table is redundant and distracting from the primary topic of improvisation.

Coda

I understand that there was an age limit proposed initially in the 2016 rules for NCOI. A competitor in the 2014 NCOI succeeded in getting that removed by appealing to the AGO’s purpose of professional development and the lack of entrants selected for the competition above that age limit. While I hope the committee will consider my viewpoint for further revisions to the 2016 rules, I have no expectations that any further changes will be implemented for this year. The best suggestion I can make for this rule set would be to expedite the process and hold the final round in Charlotte in 2015 a few days after the semifinal round. Launch a new set of rules for 2016 in Houston with a panel of three judges selected and announced in advance with performance requirements similar to NCOI 2014. Remove the hymn playing (and figured bass) requirements from NCOI and establish a regional hymn playing competition that requires improvised introductions and accompaniments. (The winners of this competition could then provide a fabulous hymn festival for the following national convention!) Finally establish procedures to offer one or more certificates in improvisation as outlined above.

As a devoted supporter of the art of improvisation at the organ, I wish to support any effort to encourage more people to improvise and to raise the level of improvisation in this country. (After all, I started organimprovisation.com in my free time.) I hope AGO will take my suggestions and turn NCOI back into a competition and begin to explore the certification and other hymn-playing competition ideas I have offered here so that we may all work together to encourage spontaneous music making.

Glenn Osborne
www.wmglennosborne.com

Organ Performance Audios

As not all of my performances were recorded with video, I am including a few audio recordings for your listening pleasure below.

  • 1. Couperin - Listen now     
    François Couperin. “Elevation – Tierce en taille” from Messe pour les Convents.
    Cathedral of Auch, France. Organ from 1688 built by Jean de Joyeuse.


  • 2. Dupré - Listen now     
    Marcel Dupré. “Crucifixion” from Symphonie-Passion.
    Westminster Presbyterian Church, Albany, NY.


  • 3. Duruflé - Listen now     
    Maurice Duruflé. “Sicilienne” from Suite.
    First Presbyterian Church, Troy, NY.


  • 4. Grigny - Listen now     
    Nicolas de Grigny. “Offertoire” from Livre d’orgue.
    Cathedral of Auch, France. Organ from 1688 built by Jean de Joyeuse.


  • 5. Vierne - Listen now     
    Louis Vierne. “Cantilene” from Symphonie n. 3.
    Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence, France.