David Estalote

Improvisation and Musical Language

Imagine if your use of the English language was limited to reading literature with little ability to converse with friends or express your thoughts in your own words. That is how most classical music making has been for the last century. Literature is great and we would be impoverished without the creations of history’s great masters, but we would be equally impoverished without the freedom and spontaneity afforded by a flexible mastery of a language. Likewise for music.

Classical music has an unfortunately popular image of being too uptight and too formal. The musician studies technique and learns written repertoire until he someday dons a tuxedo and renders note-perfect performances of said repertoire before a gray-haired audience who probably sips tea with their pinkies extended and shops at Bergdorf. All of  this is contrasted with the stereotype of the popular musician who has the freedom to rock out, hair blowing in the wind, unbeholden to The Man.

There is an element of truth to this perception of classical music. While it’s true that good music making requires much hard work and formal training, music should also be an enjoyable means of creative expression, and not just for professional composers. A renewed interest in classical improvisation would go far in bolstering music’s vitality and connection with one’s unique personhood. It makes music into a living thing, just as language comes to life when you have a sufficiently flexible mastery of it to have a conversation. Besides, who says tuxedo-clad recitalists can’t have fun? I have heard world-class organist Olivier Latry improvise on everything from Gregorian chant to the World Cup music to the theme for The Simpsons.

Up until about a hundred years ago classical music was thought of differently than it is today. It was not limited to the performer spending weeks or months memorizing staples of the repertoire in preparation for a formal recital. Musicians studied and performed works by other composers of course, but improvisation was also a cornerstone of musical training.

Virtually all of history’s great composers were fantastic improvisers, including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Franck, Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, most of whom were known first for their improvisations and later for their compositions. Bach improvised at the organ for hours in concert in every possible structural form. We have a few examples that provide a glimpse of his legendary skill as an improviser. The Ricercar a 3 from The Musical Offering was a three-voice fugue improvised from a long, chromatic subject given to him on the spot by King Frederick the Great.

Another example is the Fugue in g minor, BWV 542/2, which was said to be improvised in Hamburg (and afterwards written down) on a theme given to him by his friend and colleague, Johann Mattheson. As you watch this performance by this fine Dutch organist, imagine Bach improvising this fugue on a melody given to him only moments earlier.

It is no wonder that after challenging Bach to a public improvisation showdown in Dresden, French organist Louis Marchand snuck out of town in the middle of the night after eavesdropping on Bach practicing.

This pedagogical tradition has all but vanished in the world of classical music, although it still lives on in jazz. One exception is the European organists, where improvisation is used both in church services and formal recitals. My favorite is Thierry Escaich, organist at St-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris. He improvises in all forms and all styles from Western music history with an ease and energy that I’ve not heard in any other musician. Westsounds.com has a preview of the above CD where you can listen to Mr. Escaich’s Prelude and Double Fugue (!) on the Lutheran chorale tune O Gott, du frommer Gott, improvised live in a style reminiscent of Brahms or Schumann.

Contrary to the Romantic notion of the transcendent genius who channels divine inspiration, improvisation is a skill that can be learned through sustained, disciplined practice. Jean Langlais quipped that he could teach stones to improvise. Good improvisation is more like spontaneous composition (“composing without an eraser” as another Parisian organist, Pierre Pincemaille, puts it) than aimless meandering about the keyboard. The first step is to gain a solid footing with theory and composition. The best method I have seen by far is Harmony and Composition by Deborah Jamini. Once you have a good grasp of theory, a book like Making Music: Improvisation for Organists by Jan Overduin can help you apply your theory knowledge to keyboard improvisation. (While geared toward organists, the ideas can be easily adapted to the piano.) Then it’s a matter of practice and plagiarism as you steal – ahem – borrow ideas from the great composers to build your harmonic vocabulary. A fellow organist once told me that improvisation is like having a group of playing cards in your hand, where each card is a compositional device that you’ve practiced in every key beforehand. The more cards you acquire, the more choices you have while improvising. With enough effort your improvising will become gradually more effortless; through systematic practice you can achieve spontaneity.

Happy improvising.

Unity of the Heart and Mind in the Music of J.S. Bach

It is not uncommon in our culture to find the intellect pitted against feeling, or careful, nuanced thought against intuition and common sense. The United States has a long history of populist sentiments and suspicion of elitist intellectuals. Politicians today divide the country between the cultural elite and “real Americans” (one party disparges the cultural elite, the other the corporate elite). Some popular musicians deliberately avoid formal training for fear that it will taint their natural creativity. The abstract and academic are seen as artificial, as if learning somehow interferes with the expression of one’s natural self. This dichotomy between heart and mind did not exist for Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music is both intellectually dense and emotionally powerful.

Bach lived at a pivotal time in Western history. His lifespan (1685 – 1750) coincides with the heyday of the Enlightenment, a movement whose forces continue to shape our society today. Cultural trends were changing during his later years. As a reaction to baroque complexity, classicism sought structural clarity across many disciplines, from architecture to music. Classical influences in music produced the galant style, where simple melody and accompaniment textures replaced the rich, complex layering of many horizontal melodies known as counterpoint, a musical art dating back to the 12th century in the ars antiqua. Music written in the galant style was considered to be more natural and accessible. The complex and weighty was out, while the simple and frivolous was in. This new music, with its simplified harmonies (primarily emphasizing the tonic and dominant) and light, graceful melodies, had no higher aim than to please the audience and titillate the ear of the casual listener.

Bach considered the new style vacuous and continued on his own path, contrary to the fashion of his day. This brought scathing criticism (which sometimes stooped to outright mockery) from prominent musical commentators such as his former student, Johann Adolf Scheibe, who called Bach’s denser style of music “turgid and confused” and Bach himself an uneducated amateur. Even his own sons favored the new galant style, though they were more polite in expressing their opinions of their father’s music (though in his later years, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach returned to the more substantial style of his father).

Bach never wrote a verbal rebuttal to Scheibe’s attacks. The compositions of the last decade or so of his life, however, are a powerful refutation of his contemporaries and critics. Bach set out to show that music could be both intellectually satisfying and deeply moving. Clavierübung III (1739), Clavierübung IV, better known as The Goldberg Variations (1741), The Musical Offering (1747), the Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel Hoch, da komm’ ich her” (1747), the Mass in b minor (1749), The Art of Fugue (1745-1750), and “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” (1750) took contrapuntal art to levels unmatched before or since, and yet they are also some of the most profoundly beautiful compositions ever written. For J.S. Bach, those two things were not mutually exclusive, but were in fact organically linked.

In his book, Evening in the Palace of Reason, James R. Gaines describes this union of soul and mind in Bach’s final composition, Vor deinen Thron, tret’ ich hiermit (Before Thy throne I now appear), said to be composed via dictation from his deathbed:

Now, sightless, he set about composing a quietly eloquent variation in counterpoint for this text, Vor deinen Thron. The result was one of the most beautiful chorales he ever wrote (BWV 668). Set to the medieval integer valor–the tempo that of the human heart, each bar the length of one deep breath in and out–it is also in every other way a work of human scale and sympathy. Bach manages the remarkable feat of making each of the melody’s four sections into its own fugue, each time using the inverse of the subject as his countersubject, and as the work proceeds the counterpoint becomes ever more complex, “moving ever farther from the body into the domain of the spirit,” as David Yearsley puts it. “It is in this way a representation of the act of dying.” And yet even as it unfolds as a tour de force of the most intellectually demanding contrapuntal art, there is no aesthetic sacrifice to this technical achievement, no hint of “eye music.” From beginning to end, “Vor deinen Thron” is a song of hope and courage, with all the elaborate ornamentation of the earlier version stripped away.

Listen to the chorale:

Much of the thinking of our own culture assumes a division between the sophisticated and the genuine, the rational and the senusal, thinking and feeling. Ironically, this strand of anti-intellectualism can be partly traced back to the Enlightenment. In 18th century Scotland, around the time when musical tastes were shifting from the complexities of the baroque era (culminated in the music of J.S. Bach) to the galant style of the classical era, a thinker named Thomas Reid was expounding an epistemological framework called Common Sense Realism. As historian George Marsden notes,

Common Sense Realism said that the human mind was so constructed that we can know the real world directly. Some philosophers, particularly those following John Locke, had made our knowledge seem more complicated by interposing “ideas” between us and the real world. These ideas, they said, were the intermediate objects of our thought; hence we do not apprehend external things directly, but only through ideas of them in our minds.2

Over time, Common Sense Realism had a tendency to devalue nuanced thinking – after all, if truth is directly available to our intuition, what need is there for careful, rigorous thought? This leads to simplistic thinking, to trusting one’s gut in place of disciplined thinking in working through complex problems. Good instincts are then valued more than formal training.

In the late 18th century, a young nation was emerging in the New World which proved to be fertile soil for the ideas of Thomas Reid. Common Sense Realism fit nicely with our democratic, anti-elitist sentiments, and its populist effects are still strongly felt today. It is so ingrained in our culture that it usually goes unnoticed, such that most Americans would claim that they don’t have a philosophy but just use common sense. This mode of thinking and the galant style of the 18th century classical music both share the populist notion that everything should be directly accessible to the intuition, regardless of any cultivation of the mind through formal training.

We could benefit from studying the work of J.S. Bach and letting his statement of principle embodied in his late works challenge our assumptions that the emotional and the intellectual are mutually exclusive. It is ultimately a matter of unifying not just two abstract concepts, but of unifying the heart and mind of the inner person.


1. James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 251-252.

2. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 14-15.