The organ at Mass: percentage of prepared compositions vs. improvisations
  • I'm always intrigued by how different organists approach organ material in the context of the Mass. So today's question is: on average, what percentage of your solo organ playing at Mass is prepared voluntaries vs. improvisation (and we could further distinguish, if you like, between prepared improvisations vs. extemporaneous improv)? The question, of course, assumes that organ work is a notable component of your liturgical music program beyond accompaniment.

    I suppose I'll kick it off: I'm at about 85% improvisation (playing EF exclusively at this point), with the postlude often the only prepared composition. Our parishioners pray the Rosary before Mass, and various different people lead the Rosary each week, so there's no consistency to how much time I'll have for preludes. As a result, I'll typically improvise on the introit, leading it toward the key/tonality/mood of the processional hymn. During Mass itself, I improvise interludes and fills where needed (post-Gospel procession, after proper and any motets at Offertory, after the consecration, etc.). If I don't plan a particular chant or motet for Communion (aside from the proper chant), I'll often play a prepared composition at Communion, followed by improv on the Communion proper or another Eucharistic chant. I typically improvise on the Ite Missa Est or the Recessional Hymn during the Last Gospel. And then, finally, I'll play something prepared as a postlude. My interlude-type improvs tend to be extemporaneous, while a bigger prelude (or an occasional improvised postlude) I often take time to prepare by studying and playing around with themes and ideas, preparing registrations, etc.

    In my earlier days of playing for Mass, I used to exclusively play formal prelude, interlude, and postlude repertoire. But over quite a few years of doing this, I've found that improvising works well for a number of reasons: it can all be based on the chant or hymn melodies for the day or season; it can be tailored to fit any amount of time and any atmosphere; I find it easier to focus on what Father is doing and what's going on when I don't need to stare at a page; etc. Additionally, I simply find great joy in improvising on the organ. The Holy Spirit sends the most interesting inspirations at times! It certainly keeps it from becoming boring.

    Just curious if other organists find themselves playing more improvisations, or prepared compositions.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,516
    Mostly prepared. I don't play preludes for a number of reasons. Silence is preferred before mass and half a dozen or so of my choir will drag in late. I would fire them if I had replacements. I don't. I am usually handling the last minute crisis or drama that develops every Sunday morning.

    I am a great fan of French Baroque organ music. Much of it was developed for the mass and fits nicely into available times and spaces. I would find it hard to improve on it.
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  • Gamba
    Posts: 105
    4 NO Masses a weekend.

    Repertory for prelude and postlude; the former I always time and calculate backwards so that it’ll end when the tower bells ring for Mass. The latter begins right after the Ite, missa est, and accompanies the procession out of the chancel, so there is in fact quiet and many do stick around to pray and listen. If I know the week before will be hectic (an intervening day of obligation, or something else that would eat practice time) I’ll improvise the Sunday postlude and indicate that it is an improvisation in the bulletin. I try not to repeat rep within the three-year cycle, unless there’s a compelling textual reason to do so.

    The early (7a) Sunday mass is always a said mass, with organ improvisation before the gospel, at the Offertory, and during communion. If my car’s not starting right in winter, or my alarm doesn’t go off, I may improvise if I don’t arrive in time for the planned prelude.

    The high mass with choir/schola, I improvise as necessary around the motets/chants, for the incensing, remainder of communion, etc.

    And at the two masses without choir, I’ll improvise during Communion on the relevant chant, or with quotations of hymns reflecting the homily/readings after the antiphon is read, or sing the antiphon in Advent and Lent, when one can’t play.

    So I guess it’s nearly 50/50. If I couldn’t improvise, there’d be many awkward moments, but if I didn’t play rep, the PIPs probably would go a lifetime without hearing Vierne or Buxtehude, and that would be sad.

    Now at the high school mass, it’s nearly 100% improvisation. The servers and visiting priests are often less than punctual, or delayed in the confessional, and one never knows how many minutes after the hour we can start the introit, and the poor 60s Allen with inappropriate pedalboard makes everything sound like Wendy Carlos. The poor students will have heard every possible exploration of the modes of limited transposition before they hear any Franck....

    In past positions in touristy places where the flashbulbs and shouting start immediately after an exit hymn, I would always improvise a postlude (a grand-choeur or a toccata or some other loud thing) on whatever the last hymn was, since often I couldn’t hear myself and there was no way I could play rep properly.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 7,967
    Love both music on paper and music that appears as a result of angelic inspiration.

    Preludes and postludes usually composed in these, my later years in the craft, however, always ready for the unexpected breathe of improv.
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  • For opening voluntaries I always play something appropriate for the day from the literature. I make a point of ending it before the procession begins so that I can improvise my way into the hymn's introduction. It is highly to be recommended that 'prelude'-improvisation-hymn proceeds without a break so that the people just know (sense) without the interference of an announcer when to stand and begin singing. Voluntary- hymn introduction-hymn-introit should proceed as one seamless garment. (Down with announcers - Dante, I'm sure, could have thought of a fitting place for them.)

    For closing voluntaries I generally play something from the literature, though it's probably half and half literature or an improvisation on the last hymn's tune.

    Voluntaries at the Offertory are likely to be improvisations on an appropriate hymn or chant because these may more easily be tailored to the precise time allowed at any particular mass. Ditto voluntaries during communion, though if there is time an appropriate chorale prelude, or a French recit or tierce en taille, etc., may be played.
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  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,227
    Postludes are usually repertoire, and can vary based on the Mass, e.g. Sat. even gets no postlude because half the congregation are out the door before the distribution of Communion is over. Sun. early morning usually gets a short fugue of the relatively harmless variety (Pachelbel, Rinck, et al.)---we have ccd between the two Masses and most people won't stay for a long piece. The late a.m. High Mass (OF) gets something substantial like a Buxtehude Praeludium or Bach Prelude and Fugue
  • I am finishing up my first year as a DoM at an OF parish, and I decided that I was getting too dependent on the repertoire I have or improvising when I was too lazy to get out a postlude (usually in Ordinary Time). So I dug through my books for stuff I've never done, and during the weeks where the choirs are on break (starting with the week after Corpus Christi and lasting through Labor Day weekend), I'm doing preludes and postludes I've never played at a Mass before. And I deliberately gave myself some difficult stuff. I don't really have time to pick up other repertoire during the year with my other duties, so this is the time to do it.

    I also play Spanish Mass at a different parish. I virtually always improvise a prelude, but it's a piano Mass and everyone gallops for the door, so I generally don't bother with a postlude.