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Then if he went on playing, dwelling on a fixed idea, changing and loosely shaping it, someone would ask:
"What is that?"
"Nothing," answered the player. ...
"How can it be nothing," the other answered back, "since you are playing it?"
"He is improvising,"...
"He is making it up, can't you understand? He just thought of that this very minute."
"How can he think up so many notes right and left at once, .. and how can he say 'It is nothing' of something he is actually playing? One surely cannot play what is not?"
Thomas Mann in "Doctor Faustus" (1947)

Research: How does Anglican Organ Improvisation compare to Continental Traditions?

Improvisation – that is the simultaneous invention and performance of music – has always played an important role in organ playing. This is mainly due to the fact that organs are usually (although not entirely) found in churches and therefore organists are primarily required to respond to the liturgical flow of church services, which necessitates a high degree of flexibility and spontaneity in their playing. The skill of being able to create music on the organ ex tempore has been constantly cultivated in Europe and led to the development of different national schools of organ improvisation: French and German organists, for instance, not only improvise regularly in concert and liturgy, but also established a firm tradition of teaching improvisation in their respective countries.


Although a relatively large number of tutor books on improvisation is available, there has been a noticeable lack of research of these national schools of improvisation for the major part of the 20th Century. It was only within the last decade or so, that organ improvisation became somewhat more of a focal point of both musicologists and organists, and publications are now available on the subject of various Continental organ improvisation traditions. However, no research on the Anglican tradition of organ improvisation as found in England has been carried out thus far, and this thesis attempts to fill that gap. 

An Organist's Monopoly: Improvisation

It is probably true to say that improvisation is one of the most challenging and, at the same time, most fascinating disciplines of the organist’s art: being able to make up music on the spot, seemingly off the cuff, instantaneous. Once part of every professional musician’s training, the art of musical improvisation disappeared almost entirely towards the end of the 19th century and it is arguably organ and jazz music which kept it alive until today. But how does the concept of improvisation work? Is it really simply just like a Monopoly game (as Charles Waters suggested) where ‘success’ is only a question of luck/talent, or is it a skill which everybody can learn?

Howells Style Improvisation

Archform: Background - Foreground - Background

Howells Scale

Howells Signature Chords

Howellsian Cadences

Typical Motifs and Rhythms

Messiaen Style Improvisation: Mode 2

Octatonic Scale

Modal Triads

Modal Tetrads

Messiaen Toccata Model

Having Fun with Hymns

Hymn Introductions

Melodic Figuration

Hymn Extensions

Hymn Variations

Festive Hymn Preludes and Postludes

Hymn Partita





Baroque Style Improvisation

Buxtehude's Stylus Phantasticus

Handel Organ Concerto

Baroque Fugue

Trumpet Voluntary

The English Baroque Voluntary is the most commonly used type of organ

composition in the UK and consists – at least in most cases - of two movements:

slow & quiet – fast & loud. Organs in Britain in the Baroque era had no

(independent) pedal – therefore, composers like Handel would compose for manuals

only. The following improvisation blueprints were used in a BBC live broadcast from St George's Hanover Square on 1st April 2009.

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