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Schemata and Rhetoric: Improvising the Chorale Prelude

in the Eighteenth-Century Lutheran Tradition


Blint Karosi

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in


Supervised by Robert Holzer and Patrick McCreless

Yale School of Music

New Haven


A lecture version of this thesis with live improvisations can be watched on:
Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:

Table of Contents


Chapter I: The Chorales ...13

Chapter II: Genres....25

Chapter III: Model-based Improvisations...66



Patrick McCreless defines rhetoric as the original metalanguage of discourse in the West,
[] that served the educated classes as the most prestigious and influential means of
conceptualizing and organizing language, and articulating how it can best be effective,
persuasive, and elegant.1 From the mid-sixteenth till the eighteenth century, rhetoric
was central to education across Europe and particularly in Germany. Rhetoric was taught
in every Lateinschule and served as the basis for cultured speech, persuasion and
organization of thoughts. Although the full extent of rhetorical influence on persuasion
and perception is little understood today, we know that rhetorical schemes were applied
to speech, writings and musical compositions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth
centuries. Lutheran sermons, for example relied heavily on the congregations knowledge
of rhetorical patterns and schemes. Preachers used poetry, rhymes and cross-references
for persuasion that drew on the congregationss knowledge of underlying patterns. In
music, composers organized musical themes according to rhetorical principles, such as
the stilus fantasticus organ fantasies by Dieterich Buxtehude, in which the development of
musical themes followed rhetorical schemes.

The late Renaissance saw the flowering of musico-rhetorical tradition that connected
rhetorical figures with musical diminutions. Seventeenth-century Figurenlehre mainly
focused on figuration and elocutio, the art of delivery and ornamentation. 2 Schoolboys
across Europe memorized multiplication tables for mathematics, grammatical rules for

1Patrick McCreless, Music and Rhetoric, in The Cambridge History of Western Music
Theory, edited by Thomas Chirstensen (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK,
2Such as Joachim Burmeisters Musica Poetica (1606), Michael Praetoriuss Syntagma
Musicum (1616) and Athanasius Kirchers Musurgia Universalis (1650).

Latin, and rhetorical figures for speech and writing. Musicians memorized diminution
patterns, musical schemes and ornaments that they could use to compose and improvise
music. In the Lutheran tradition, the musico-rhetorical system was infused with the
Lutheran Chorales. The present thesis will focus on this influence on chorale-based organ
improvisations in the eighteenth century.

In his Grosse-Generalbassschule Johann Mattheson describes an audition for the prestigious

organist position of the Hamburg Cathedral in 1724. The audition consisted of six
improvisatory tasks:
1. To improvise a prelude at the moment; nothing previously studied, which can
be detected at once. This Vorspiel should begin in A Major and end in G Minor,
and last for approximately two minutes.
2. To improvise no longer than six minutes on the chorale, Herr Jesu Christ, du
hchster Gut. The improvisation should specifically use two manuals with the
pedal in a pure three-voice harmony, without doubling the bass, so that the feet
do not know what the hands are doing, yet that each voice sounds optimal with
the other voices
3. To improvise in a fugue setting a given subject against its stepwise
countersubject, thoroughly completing the fugue, which can be accomplished in
four minutes, as the question is not how long but how successful the fugue is.
4. To submit, within four days, the same assignment in writing, as visual evidence
of his compositional skills.
5. To play a sung aria at sight from thoroughbass, and to accompany the aria at
first viewing correctly and completely, which will take approximately four
6. To conclude with a Ciaccona from the given bass, using the full Werck
(plenum), for approximately six minutes in length. 3

Quoted in: Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, Bach and the Art of Improvisation (Ann Arbor, MI:
CHI Press, 2001), 3.

Improvisation was crucial for garnering a Lutheran church position in the eighteenth
century. The ideal candidate for the Hamburg position would be not only an
accomplished organist, but also a consummate musician, or musicus, intimately familiar
with the theory and practice of the common musical style of his time. Only a musicus
would be able to execute these improvisational challenges. Matthesons second stipulated
task is of particular interest to us, for it emphasizes the importance of chorale-based
improvisations in Lutheran centers such as Hamburg.

The style of organ improvisations changed progressively throughout the eighteenth

century toward the simpler, Galant style. Chorale-based improvisations, however,
remained a focus for church organists. In 1787 Daniel Gottlob Trk published On the
Role of the Organist in Worship, in which he describes the improvised chorale prelude as
one of the main responsibilities of a church organist:

According to convention, the second chief responsibility of an organist [the first being
accompanying the congregation] consists of playing a good and suitable prelude,
which should be correct according to the rules of thoroughbass and composition and
appropriate to the contents of the hymn that follows. [..] the chief objectives of the
prelude are: to prepare the congregation for the content of the hymn, to make them
familiar with the melody, if this is needed, and to guide them at the same time to the
Trk compares improvised chorale preludes to sermons. A good sermon is prepared but
not written. Similarly, an improvised chorale prelude is successful when one is led to
believe the prelude has been composed beforehand. 5 He urged organists to familiarize
themselves with the components of the hymn, such as text, mood, key, and time

Johann Gottlob Trk, Von den wichtigsten Pflichten eines Organisten. (Halle, 1787).
Translated by Margot Ann Greenlimb Woolard as On the Role of the Organist in Worship.
(Lantham, Md: The Scarecrow Press, 2000).
Ibid, 34.

signature ahead of time, and to prepare their improvisations in advance. Trk outlines an
improvised prelude in detail:
First one selects a melodic idea (appropriate to the content of the hymn) that
simultaneously will serve as the introduction. After this theme has been developed
for a while, together with a few short interludes, one plays the first line of the chorale
melody quite slowly on a different, more fully registered manual (if the contents of
the hymn do not demand a somewhat more lively, but never rapid, tempo).
Meanwhile, the melodic idea or at least something similar to it is continued in the
accompanying voices. This is again followed by a shorter interlude, then by the
second line of the melody, and so on. At the conclusion one closes with the main
theme, or with a similar secondary theme.6

Trk probably describes the chorale prelude with ritornelli, a genre I will explore in
Chapter Three. This, and other typical chorale-based genres in the eighteenth-century
relied on two basic techniques: augmentation and diminution. An organ student in the
eighteenth century imitated and copied written compositions to learn harmony, voice
leading, counterpoint, diminution and augmentation, as well as musical vocabulary such
as formal and harmonic and melodic schemes. These students also memorized many of
these passages and learned to combine them in their improvisations. Through the process
of memorization, students learned basic techniques of augmentation and diminution,
which offered schemes for formal, harmonic and melodic development.

Theorists often compare musical improvisations to spoken language. The analogy is

especially useful when considering long-term memory in the process of acquiring
improvisational skills. It takes an elaborate study to clarify the distinction between
memorized and improvised patterns in spoken language or in musical improvisations.
To clarify the role of long-term memory and memorized patterns in the improvisational
learning process, I use a system devised by Michael Callahan in his dissertation

6Ibid, 64.

Techniques of Keyboard Improvisation in the German Baroque.7 Callahan borrows his three
labels, dispositio, elaboratio and decoratio, from classical rhetoric.8 He calls memorized
musical patterns on the structural level dispositio, on the harmonic level elaboratio and on
the musical surface decoratio. These terms designate memorized patterns on various levels
of musical structure: dispositio corresponds to large-scale form, elaboratio corresponds to
skeletal voice-leading structures and decoratio equates surface-level embellishments. The
correspondence between memorized patterns and an inherently layered nature of choralebased works will become clearer in Chapter Two. Memorization is crucial in Baroque
improvisation: the player must automatize musical schemes on all three decoratio,
elaboratio and dispositio levels.

Callahan explains this concept in the context of improvisational learning: A hierarchical

conception allows existing musical material to be digested on several levels
simultaneously; an improviser can consider its large-scale organization, its more local
generating principles, and its surface-level realization independently, and commit the
music hierarchically to memory.9 Each level corresponds to memorized patterns that are
ingrained in the improvisers vocabulary and stored subconsciously in long-term and
motor memory. Subconscious memorization takes a long time, often several years or
decades. Organ playing involves the whole body; it takes a long time until every limb
learns its part in executing memorized patterns. Memorization of schemes also takes
longer than in repertoire: an advanced Baroque improviser stores his musical vocabulary

Michael Callahan, Techniques of Keyboard Improvisation in the German Baroque (PhD.
Diss. University of Rochester, 2010).
8The five traditional parts of classical rhetoric were inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria
and pronunciatio. Inventio addresses the development of ideas for speech, dispositio their
linear arrangement and elocutio addresses their delivery.
Callahan, Techniques of Keyboard Improvisation in the German Baroque, 53.

on a subconscious level, and memorizes the process of development as well as individual

In my context, Callahans decoratio is the surface-level embellishment of either the
melodic or skeletal structures of chorale melodies. In many chorale-based genres decoratio
is the embellishment of one or more voices: the soprano, bass or the inner voices.
Elaboratio corresponds to the chorales harmonic framework that can be augmented or
compressed according to the different chorale-based genres, and accommodate various
decoratio patterns in any voice. Elaboratio is also associated with harmonic progressions,
sequences and common cadential patterns that can be altered in a similar fashion.10
Elaboratio is the most immediate generative level of improvisation: it connects surface
level embellishments with the requirements of genres. The interaction of elaboratio with
decoratio is the most challenging improvisational level. Dispositio is best understood as the
musical elements including form, tempo, style, registrations and types of figurations that
make any musical genre recognizable. In most cases, however, I use dispositio to refer to
musical form and sound: the formal and sonic requirements of a specific genre.
Improvisational learning essentially constitutes two phases: assimilation and execution.
The assimilation phase is a continuous process: an improviser enriches his musical
language with dispositio, elaboratio and decoratio patterns. The organist and scholar
Eduardo Bellotti describes three stages of the improvisational learning process as imitatio,
memoria and actio.11 Imitatio is the initial learning phase, where the student learns musical
patterns and acquires a firm grasp of the musical idiom through imitation of written
repertoire. The corresponding period in language acquisition would be the period when a

For a list of elaboratio cadences see Spiridion, and Edoardo Bellotti. Nova Instructio Pro
Pulsandis Organis, Spinettis, Manuchordiis Etc.: Pars Prima (Bamberg 1670): Pars Secunda
(Bamberg 1671). Colledara: Andromeda Ed., 2003.)
11Masterclass by Eduardo Belotti on March 6, 2014 at Yale University.

child repeats words and phrases without totally grasping the meaning behind each word.
Memoria is learning musical grammar: the theoretical rules of counterpoint, harmony and
thoroughbass. Memoria in improvisation consists of acquiring, practicing and storing
patterns into long-term memory, in which schemata are stored in their most abstract
forms, similarly to grammatical rules of spoken language. An improvising eighteenthcentury organist would use memorized patterns from repertoire, theoretical treatises and
the Lutheran Chorales. Improvised actio is the act of performance wherein the learned
idiom becomes an intelligible musical utterance.

Musical improvisation is similar to the sixteenth-century Italian commedia dellarte

tradition, where actors improvised dramatic works with pre-formed characters and
schemes. Eighteenth-century Lutheran sermons also used memorized rhetorical formulas
to persuade their listeners. Johann Kirnberger compares composition to rhetoric: The
primary attribute of a speaker is that he comprehend the grammar of his language, that is,
that he know how to express himself distinctly and correctly.12 The difference between
improvised music and written compositions is similar to the difference between spoken
and written word. In spoken word, grammar governs verbal utterances subconsciously, as
harmony and counterpoint work through motor memory, bypassing conscious decisions
and relying on tactile and acoustic interactions with the instrument. Improvised
performance is a subtle act of making decisions as a reflection on the sound of the

In his study of North German improvisational practice, William Porter examines the
relationship between performance practice, improvisation, repertoire and historical
instruments. He concludes that the interaction between written repertoire, treatises,

12Johann Kirnberger, The Art of Strict Musical Composition, translated by David Beach and
Jrgen Thym (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982).

historic playing techniques and historic instruments is central to the actio of improvising.
He illustrates this intellectual, tactile and sonic interaction in two charts:

Figure 1.1. William Porters Chart 1

Porter writes:
[This chart] is a representation of various factors involved in improvisation in
historical styles. The role of the instrument is even more interactive here [e.g.
when improvising] than when performing repertoire, as it helps the player to
determine not only how to play but also what to play. What to play, that is, the
improvisation itself, is decided by the player, influenced by the instrument,
improvisational method, knowledge of performance practice, and, significantly,
knowledge of repertoire itself. Improvisational method is also formed partly by
knowledge of the repertoire. It should be mentioned here that the temptation to
view the instrument as nothing more than a tool, a view particularly prevalent in
our day, is unfortunately a strong one with regard to improvisation. [] The late
twentieth century has seen the rise of interest in discovering more about original
and inherent characteristics of the repertoire and a corresponding respect for the


instrument as mediator of those characteristics; the realm of improvisation, on the

other hand, is frequently regarded as something much more personal and
therefore one in which the instrument plays a more subservient role to the
performer. Herein lies the primary challenge to the musician concerned with older
traditions of improvisation: to achieve the kind of interaction with the instrument
that accords it the role that we now recognize as appropriate for our performance
of repertoire.
Figure 1.2. William Porters Chart 2

Porter writes:
Chart two is a hypothetical representation of the relationship of these factors for a
seventeenth-century musician. It shows a relationship between repertoire and
improvisational practice that is mutually formative, and a relationship with
compositional studies in which the study of composition forms improvisational
practice as well as repertoire. 13

William Porter, Reconstructing 17th-century North German Improvisational Practice GoArt
Research Reports Vol. 2: (2000): 28.


Porters point about the role of the instrument in improvisation is worth noting. A good
improviser will necessarily adjust his style to each instrument. Therefore, the instrument
directly influences every level of improvisation, decoratio, elaboratio and even its style
period. The interaction between the instrument and the player determines the outcome of
each improvisation. Sonic, tactile and visual characteristics of the instrument thus
influence all levels: style period, form, ornaments, touch, agogic accents and
embellishments. Improvisations can be effective only if played with proper musical
expression, tasteful ornaments, good registrations and expressive touch. Organ
registrations are integral to the sonic characteristic to each instrument and will only be
briefly discussed in the present thesis.

Improvisation exists in many varieties. In figured bass accompaniment the left hand is
notated and the right hand is indicated with symbols that do not specify voicing or
tessitura. In thoroughbass accompaniment, a fixed bass line, with its associated harmonic
and voice-leading structure, determines harmony, while free voicings and figurations are
improvised. Eighteenth-century thoroughbass methods and figured-bass treatises aimed
to develop skills in embellishing a bass progression through memorized schemes. In this
type of improvisation, the player has the freedom in voicing and ornamentation. Such
decoratio-level improvisations consist of melodic and rhythmic invention relying heavily
on surface level patterns, rhythmic alteration. Figured bass accompaniment can be
extended to improvisation on ground basses such as ciaccona or a passacaglia. The ostinato
bass line provides a harmonic framework, on which different decoratio schemata may be
applied. Specifics of derivative, generative and constructive techniques will become
clearer in the following chapters.


Chapter I: The Chorales

Chorales have been central in shaping Lutheran culture and identity since the
Reformation. The core repertoire of catechetical hymns was composed by Martin Luther
himself, who set basic Lutheran doctrines to memorable melodies, often derived from
Gregorian chants or popular folk tunes. In the eighteenth century, hymns were essential
instruments to convey the Lutheran doctrines to laymen and laywomen in a form they
could remember and apply to their lives. An example of this is Christopher Boyd Browns
account of Joachimstahl, a Lutheran village in the sixteenth-century.14 Brown provides a
compelling study of the role of the Lutheran chorale in forming and preserving the
communitys Lutheran identity amid the persecution of Lutherans during the CounterReformation era. Similar to the townspeople of Joachimsthal, Lutherans in the eighteenth
century sang hymns on the streets, in their homes, and in churches and schools as they
taught their children and counseled one another in difficult times. Lutheran families used
hymns in their daily devotions and informal musical gatherings, called Hausmusik.

After the Reformation, Hausmusik became a popular pastime for Lutherans.15 This
activity originated with Luther himself, who was a prolific composer and lute player,
regularly hosting friends and relatives at his home for music making. These gatherings
had a twofold purpose: for a participant to refresh the soul from other kinds of
studies16 and to familiarize oneself with the doctrines of the Lutheran faith as expressed
in catechetical hymns. By the end of the seventeenth century, as Hausmusik grew in

Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the
Reformation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Johann Wohlmuth, Starck Virginal Book (1689) (Budapest, HU: Magyar Tudomnyos
Akadmia Zenetudomnyi Intzet, 2008), preface.
Robin A. Leaver, Luthers Liturgical Music (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).


popularity, instrumental tutors were in great demand and easy keyboard pieces found
their way into publications with explicit methodological and performing purposes. The
Chorales became the focal point of music education for amateur and professional
musicians, reflected in keyboard methods such as Daniel Speers Grundlicher kurtz leicht
und nthiges Unterricht der musikalischen Kunst, published in 1687. It opens with a
theoretical section about singing, then moves on to continuo playing, playing on string
and wind instruments, compositions and easy pieces for performance. Another keyboard
method in a similar vein was the 1689 Starck Virginal Book, which was assembled and
composed by Johann Wolmuth (1643-1724). It was intended for the education of the
eight-year-old Johann Jacob Starck. The volume consists of sixty-one short pieces in
two-stave notation for a keyboard instrument, mostly in two or three voices. The pieces
are arranged in order of increasing difficulty, covering a great variety of musical styles
from preludes, folk dances, popular melodies and Lutheran chorale settings. The
following example is a simple, three-part harmonization of the chorale Wenn nun den
lieben Gott with bare essentials:

Figure 1.1. Johann Wohlmuth: Wenn nur den lieben Gott

& b # n b b #

# b

? b n

b b




Besides chorales, the method also explores various styles and keyboard textures that
helped students to become familiar with the commonalities in form such as cadential
patterns and ornamentation. Through short preludes, dances and folk tunes, students
discovered stylistic clichs with their associated kinetic sensibilities at an early age. The
following example contains the very essentials for a prelude:
Figure 1.3. Johann Wohlmuth: Prelude #2

j j j j j


& j j j j



J w

The piece consists of the opening scalar motion followed by an arpeggiated figuration,
both voices alternating motion of down a third, up a second, closed off by a V-I cadence.
The following prelude is structured around an ascending -3/+4 sequence with circular
motives in both hands:
Figure 1.4. Johann Wohlmuth: Prelude #5


Both preludes and chorales in the Starck Virginal Book use idiomatic patterns and simple
harmonic progressions that students could have easily memorized and used for
improvisations. By practicing simple pieces from methods such as the Starck Virginal
Book, students might have become familiar with historical fingerings associated with
certain figurations and hand positions and burn them into their motor memory. This
learning process is the kinetic assimilation of musical grammar into ones keyboard
technique, which starts ideally in early childhood. In her book Bach and the Art of
Improvisation, Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra posits that historical fingerings, pedal technique
and articulation are crucial elements in improvisational learning. 17 Feenstra compares this
type of grammatical learning to childhood language acquisition:
If a person does not learn proper grammar as a child or in foreign language
studies, he will not hear when his syntax is incorrect. He may struggle for a
lifetime to speak and write correctly. If he comes from a home where proper
grammar was spoken, or assimilates correct grammar in language studies, he will
eventually be able to use appropriate grammar easily and intuitively.18

As shown in early methods such as the Starck Virginal Book, Baroque students started
assimilating Figuren as applied to chorales at a very early age. Such short pieces with
figures and their associated fingerings would have armed them with the confident
technique that Feenstra describes. Through examples similar to Starcks preludes and
chorale settings, subconsciously assimilated schemes built up to constitute musical
grammar and vocabulary.

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, Bach and the Art of Improvisation (Ann Arbor, MI: CHI
Press, 2011), 20.
Ibid, 4.


Musical instruction in the Baroque era started with figured bass, harmony, counterpoint
and the harmonization of memorized melodies. For organ students, thoroughbass
accompaniment was central to the improvisational learning process. Reading figured
bass, keyboard students learned harmony from an unspecific notation style, where only
the bass line is notated and harmony is indicated with figures. Keyboard students also
learned to decorate bass progressions with elaborate diminutions, as was also done in the
Italian tradition of unfigured bass harmonizations.

In his volume The Art of Partimento, Giorgio Sanguinetti describes education techniques
in the Italian Partimento tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.19
Partimenti are compositions notated as unfigured bass lines above which the keyboard
player applied realizations in the right hand. Partimenti were more than thoroughbass
exercises. They document the composition methodology of the conservatories in Naples,
in which students would learn how to recognize and embellish skeletal voice-leading
patterns in bass exercises using solfeggi, vocal exercises to memorize upper-voice patterns
on common basses. The Italian Partimento tradition relied heavily on memorization,
where the player first learned how to recognize a schema on the page and how to
embellish it according to his masters instructions. Robert Gjerdingen understands the
realization of an unfigured bass as an applicatio of a specific memorized schema, not the
harmonization of the bass line itself. Gjerdingen describes this process as embellishing
not of the bass but of the implicit parts of a particular schema, meaning what was to be
played by the right hand on the keyboard. 20 Indeed, exercises in partimenti aided the
player in recognizing, concatenating and memorizing stock progressions with the aim of
using them in free improvisations and compositions. However, even with their

Giorgio Sanguinetti, The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2012).
Robert O. Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style (New York: Oxford University Press,
2007), 45.


meticulous rules (regole), Partimento masters failed to record explicit instructions on how
to generate these surface-level diminutions as such. Unfortunately for contemporary
musicians, most Italian masters exclusively conveyed this kind of instruction orally. The
ultimate goal of the Partimento School was imitative counterpoint - the Partimento fugue.
A partimento fugue consisted of cues for motivic imitations on a single bass line and
required consummate experience in thoroughbass and counterpoint.

Many rules concerning bass harmonization have survived in the regole di partimento; one
of the most important is the Rule of the Octave. The RO defines harmonies to be played
above certain scale degrees in the bass emphasizing their tonal context. Stable scale
degrees are harmonized with stable harmonies (^1, ^4 and ^5), unstable tones are
harmonized with passing 6 or 6/5 chords. Sanguinetti describes two ways to accompany
a scale in the bass: The first associates each scale degree with a sonority, which may be
modified according to the local circumstances, whereas the second uses the same
harmony on several scale degrees.21 The example below depicts an ascending and
descending major scale with associated harmonizations:

Figure 1.6. The Rule of the Octave according to Fenaroli.

& 44 w
? #4








21 Giorgio Sanguinetti, The Art of Partimento: History, 56.







& w
?# w













The RO is a powerful tool for tonal coherence, as it defines each degree in the scale with a
unique relationship to either the preceding or following chord. For example, the major
triad on ^1 of the major scale is followed by an unstable 6/4 chord on ^2 that is followed
by a 6 chord on ^3. The stability of these chords defines the position of the bass in the
scale. Although the RO applies to a complete scale, sections of it can be used to
harmonize scalar passages in chorale melodies. Because many chorale melodies feature
stepwise motion, the RO is extremely useful for harmonizations when placing the chorale
melody in the bass.

J. S. Bach gives an ascending bass line harmonization with 5-6 progressions and 7-6
suspensions on a descending scale:22
Figure 1.7. J. S. Bachs harmonization of an ascending scale

? 44

An organist would use similar 5-6 progressions when harmonizing a stepwise ascent in
chorale melodies, such as the opening ascending scale in Freu dich sehr:

Johann Sebastian Bach, J.S. Bach's Precepts and Principles for Playing the Thorough-bass or
Accompanying in Four Parts (Leipzig, 1738): Translation with Facsimile, Introduction, and
Explanatory Notes, translated by Pamela Poulin. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).


Figure 1.8. Bachs scheme applied to Freu dich sehr in the bass:

& 44

Describing his fathers teaching method, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach emphasized that
the realization of a thorough-bass and the introduction of chorales are without doubt the
best method of studying composition, as far as harmony is concerned.23 Bachs teaching
method, as represented in Precepts and Principles is characterized by a set of concise prose
rules that are modeled after Niedts Musical Guide, with accompanying exercises that
invariably are in four voices. Bachs insistence on four-part thoroughbass accompaniment
results in voice-leading problems that arise only in four voices. Below is Bachs realization
of his 5-6 progression for an ascending scale in the bass:
Figure 2.39. Bachs realization of an ascending scale

& 4



This bass-harmonization exercise avoids parallel fifths and octaves with suspensions and
chordal skips in inner voices. The skipping voice is in the tenor, and in measure 3 in the
soprano. Four-voiced harmony was integral to Bachs instruction, and unlike Handel or

23As quoted in the preface of Precepts and Principles by Christoph Wolff.


Niedt, he insisted on keeping the four voices all the time. Niedt advises the student to
reduce the number of voices for sixth-chord progressions: where a sixth is written above
the bass note, only the sixth is played, the octave must be omitted both in composing and
in playing. 24 This was common practice at the time and the Italians also dropped a voice
when there was a succession of sixth chords. Four-part voice leading was the essence of
Bachs teaching method and his immediate circle of students adopted its aesthetic in their
theoretical writings.
In this way, students learned how to apply memorized cadences and recognized schemata
from looking at a single bass line. In Germany, a Lutheran organist could extract
schemata from hundreds of chorales that he became familiar since his early childhood
education. These schemata became automatized through practice and became part of his
zibaldone of memorized voice leading patterns. Joel Lester stresses the importance of
developing automatized voice-leading skills for different harmonic progressions in the
context of the Partimento tradition, describing a bass-harmonization with improvised
schemata: the pupil learned voice-leading patterns that could be applied to realizing
figured basses as well as to improvising. 25
The concept of musical schemata is key to our understanding of improvised music in the
eighteenth century.26 Robert Gjerdingens schemata are stock harmonic patterns for
composers to use in their compositions. They were taught by the Neapolitan meastri
through unfigured bass progressions, called the partimenti. Through partimenti keyboard
students learned harmony and counterpoint and many musical patterns applicable to a

24Friedrich Erhard Niedt, The Musical Guide, translated by Pamela Pulin, (Oxford, UK:
Clarendon Press, 1989), Ch. 2, rule 8.
Joel Lester, Compositional Theory in the 18th Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1992), 64.
Robert O Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style (New York: Oxford University Press,


given bass line. Recognizing schemata, or common melodic patterns, is an essential skill in
harmonizing melodies and improvising chorale preludes. German composers traveled to
Italy to perfect their art in the renowned Italian tradition. One of them was Johann David
Heinichen (1683-1729) who wrote the treatise Der General-Bass in der Komposition, in
which he discussed how to harmonize pairs of tones in a bass. He combined several pairs
into a larger pattern that he termed a schema. 27 His scalar schemata were similar to the
RO, but influenced by his travels to Italy to perfect his knowledge of the Italian style.
Schemata enabled eighteen-century composers to be incredibly prolific, while
maintaining a consistently high quality in their music. Gjerdingen illustrates schemata
with gray ovals containing abstract features:
Figure 1.9. Gjerdingens Do-Re-Mi Schema

Gjerdingens ovals above include the most important musical features of a schema: the
order of stages, scale degrees for the melody and for the bass with figured-bass numbers
to indicate harmony. Gjerdingen writes:
Standard music notation overspecifies a prototypes constituent features. The
schema [] is a mental representation of a category of Galant musical utterances,
is likely in no particular key, may or may not have a particular meter, probably
includes no particular figurations or articulations, may be quite general as to the

Johann David Heinichen, Neu erfundene und grndliche Anweisung zu volkommener
Erlernung des GeneralBasses (Hamburg, 1711), 15.


spacing of the voices, their timbres and so on. All that useful indeterminacy would
vanish were the schema to be presented as a small chorale in whole notes,
probably in the key of C major with a 4/4 meter. 28
A typical schema often found in Lutheran Chorales is the Do-Re-Mi. The soprano in
this pattern represents a scale fragment harmonized with the most logical (^1-^7-^1)
bass progression. Many chorales also include long passages with stepwise, diatonic
motion. In the eighteenth century, major and minor scales gradually replaced the older
church modes. In the eighteenth century stable scale degrees (^1, ^3, ^5 and ^6) were
harmonized with stable harmonies, whereas less stable scale degrees (^2, ^4) were
harmonized with passing harmonies such as ii, vi, VI, vii or inversions of V7 chords. The
Do-Re-Mi schema represents this type of harmonization, where the unstable 2^ is
harmonized with an unstable chord in the bass. One of the most popular Lutheran
chorales in the eighteenth century, Freu dich sehr O meine Seele, consists mostly of scalar
motions. At the opening phrase one can easily recognize the Do-Re-Mi schema:

28Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style, 453.


Figure 1.10. Harmonization of Freu dich sehr A) Chorale in alto part B) in soprano part

The two harmonizations above represent two possible realizations of the Do-Re-Mi
scheme. Example B represents the conventional way of harmonizing the chorale melody
in the soprano, whereas in example A, the melody is in the alto part. The melody of the
first version can be played on a solo stop with the thumb on a reed or the sesquialtera
creating dynamic and timbral contrast to the other voices.

Gjerdingens two-voice representation of the Do-Re-Mi schema no longer describes

completely what is happening in example A, where the soprano voice acts as a descant
above the chorale melody. The melody is prominently part of the harmonic skeleton that
still preserves the opening schemas recognizable features. Even though both
harmonizations belong to the many possible elaboratio frameworks associated to this
melody, example A suggests registral flexibility. Flexible voice-leading skeletons are
similar to the exercises in solfeggi taught by Partimenti maestros. They insisted on their
students practicing cadential progressions in all inversions and in open and closed


positions.29 With this in mind, we find that the nature of the elaboratio in chorale-based
works is best understood as both harmonic and contrapuntal, with significant registral
flexibility for the voices.

Other schemata can be detected in the first phrase of Freu dich sehr O meine Seele. The
descending fourths in the bass line in measures 2 and 3 are typical of the Romanesca:
Example 1.11. The Romanesca

The Romanesca scheme can harmonize any diatonic descending motion in the top voice,
or in any of the upper voices. The descending chorale melody would instantly trigger the
Romanesca schema for an eighteenth-century improviser, who would be able to flip the
voices. The closing cadence with scale degrees 6^ 5^ in the soprano, understood in
modern music theory as a half cadence (or an inauthentic cadence) as harmonized in
figure 1.10 B, is another example of a schema, which would automatically trigger one of
the many interchangeable cadential patterns and final cadentiae found in many
eighteenth-century treatises.

Following the Dutch tradition of Psalm variations, I have observed Sietze deVries
teaching his students to harmonize a chorale melody in each of the four voices, in closed
and open hand positions.


Chapter II: Genres

The Prelude

Preludizing, according to Daniel Gottlob Trk, was one of the chief responsibilities of the
eighteenth-century organist.30 A number of eighteenth-century treatises provide
instructions on how to improvise preludes. Most authors give models in wide varieties of
bass progressions and cadential patterns and they also focus on diminutions,
augmentation and bass prolongations. Figuration increases activity on the musical surface
and thus has the potential of prolonging tonal areas. Prolongation via surface figurations
is a crucial technique in eighteenth-century keyboard preludes. Friedrich Erhard Niedts
Musical Guide [1700/1721] is a comprehensive treatise for bass accompaniment with a
strong focus on diminution techniques.31 Niedt starts with figured-bass realizations,
cadential patterns and modulation schemes embellished mostly with arpeggiated figures.
His discussion of preludizing and modulating through different keys introduces a concept
that modern music theory understands as the phrase model. The phrase model groups
together three essential harmonic functions in tonal music: the tonic (T), predominant
(PD) and dominant (D).32 The phrase model can be expanded with ornaments and
diminutions in the top voice or the bass, thus expanding vertical harmony. The following
example shows the three fundamental harmonies embellished with RH and LH

30Trk, On The Role o the Organist in Worship, 57.

31Niedt, The Musical Guide.
32Christopher Bartlette and Steven Laitz, Graduate Review of Tonal Music (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapters 6-7.


Figure 2.1. Niedts Bass realizations

& 44

? 44

& 4

? 44

To increase rhythmic activity in the bass line, Niedt provides examples for diminutions
connecting structural intervals:
Figure 2.2. Niedts bass diminutions

The following example outlines a bass progression for an improvised organ prelude: 33
Figure 2.3. Niedts scheme for a prelude

? w


5 65
3 4 43

5 6 5
3 4 43


? w





5 65
d 4 4d

b b


6 5
4 4 d



4 d


b w

5 6 5
d 4 4d


5 6 5
3 4 43


4 3

In this prelude, Niedt uses three types of harmonic prolongation: 1) the opening chordal

33Niedt, The Musical Guide, 50.


skip followed by a passing tone is a bass prolongation; 2) the figures in measure 2

represent Niedts Cadenz-Clausulae, an expansion of V with a 6/4 chord followed by a 43 suspension; 3) in measure 3, the double neighbor motion expands the tonic. 34 The
tonic expansion in measure 1 and the Cadenz-Clausula followed by a double-neighbor
motion facilitates a smooth modulation with descending thirds. The prelude connects
Cadenz-Clausulae with a -4/+1 sequence that is repeated until it reaches the T. The
sequence can be illustrated as follows:
Figure 2.4. Reduction of Niedts schematic cell

? w



For the following prelude realization, I used a double neighbor motion in parallel sixths
for a sixteenth-note decoratio pattern as advised by Niedt in Part II:35

Figure 2.5. A possible realization of Niedts prelude








& # # # #

Similar surface-level embellishments provide the improviser with a vocabulary of

34Niedt, The Musical Guide, Ch. 11.

Niedt, The Musical Guide, 108.


schemata for improvisation of preludes on common bass progressions.

Spiridiones Nova Instructio contains hundreds of motivic RH patterns of simple cadences
and sequences. Baptized as Johann Nenning, Spiridion a Monte Carmelo (1615-1685)
was a German monk who traveled frequently and lived for twelve years in Rome where he
assimilated the Italian style. The Nova Instructio pro Pulsandis Organis Spinettis
Manuchordiis is comprised of four parts of approximately fifty pages each.36 Spiridions
treatise is extremely practical; it relies exclusively on musical examples and contains
almost no written instructions. His musical examples are arranged in increasing
difficulty, which the students are expected to memorize, transpose and concatenate,
advancing from simple cadential patterns to complex diminutions. The volume starts
with diminutions over a V-I cadence with more than sixty RH variations. Only a few bars
are notated; the student is supposed to follow the logic of the pattern and apply it to the
elaboratio framework of the bass progression. The first volume is comprised of short
cadential patterns such as the Finalia and the longer Cadentiae, and longer, transitory
Passaggi are presented in the fourth part. Spiridion instructs his students to memorize and
play these examples in succession, bridging various transpositions of Cadentiae with
Passaggi: when a cadentia has been transposed two or three times, a different cadentia or
a brief passagio should follow, after which the first cadentia is to be repeated in another
key.37 Spridions instructions are extremely pragmatic for an improviser wishing to
improvise preludes in a similar fashion to Niedts. Spiridions examples show flexible
voice-leading structures with interchangeable upper voices that make students practice
common progressions in various hand positions associated with sophisticated motivic
patterns in the style. Spiridions examples are not simply realizations of figured bass
structures; they are motivic realizations of a three- or four-part skeleton in which each

36Two volumes are available in a modern edition: Spiridion, Nova Instructio Pro Pulsandis
Organis, Spinettis, Manuchordiis Etc.: Pars Prima (Bamberg 1670): Pars Secunda (Bamberg
1671), ed. Edoardo Bellotti (Colledara: Andromeda Ed., 2003).
37Niedt, The Musical Guide, preface.


voice, including the bass line, is subject to motivic treatment.

Spiridion introduces the four crucial components of the eighteenth-century musical

language: cadences, sequences, imitation and harmonic prolongation. He instructs
students to memorize and combine these patterns in an improvised piece. Like Niedt,
Spiridion also focuses on surface-level embellishments on bass progressions. His method
is very useful for student improvisers, as his examples are unfinished, the student is
supposed to continue the decoratio and apply it on the given elaboratio progression.
Organ preludes often begin with the prolongation of two structural harmonies: the tonic
and the subdominant over a pedal point. These two harmonies are expanded with surface
figurations as in the following cadentia prima:

Figure 2.6. One of Spiridions Cadentia Prima realizations

& #
B # #w



& #

B # w


This cadentia establishes the key in A major with the rich diminutions prolonging the
cadence, finally resolving it to D major. Modulations in preludes are easily introduced via
inserting accidentals in figuration. For instance, an identical cadential pattern could
actually stay in its initial key with the insertion of G# at the end. Accidentals in
diminutions have a crucial role in establishing the tonality of certain passages over a


pedal. For example, a G natural over a pedal on A constitutes a ^4 in D Major that tends
to resolve to ^3, thus establishing a V6/4-V7-I cadential pattern in D Major. G # over A
is a ^7 that prolongs A Major. The use of accidentals in improvisation is the result of
linearized harmonies, best acquired through embellishments, diminutions and harmonic
prolongation of existing melodies. The following example modifies Spiridions cadentia
with the insertion of the G# in the last group of sixteenth notes prolonging A Major.

Figure 2.7. Modified Cadentia Prima

& #
B # #w


# w
& #

B# w
Following Spridions instructions, a student would be able to combine this cadence with a
sequence and transpose it to another key. A series of transposed cadences connected with
a series of sequences make a satisfying prelude.

Michael Wiedeburg was organist at the Lutheran Ludgeri church in Norden, where he
played the Arp-Schnittger organ. In Die sich selbst informierende Clavierspieler he presents
copious examples of bass realizations, chorale harmonizations and figured-bass


patterns.38 A practical theorist, Wiedeburg first addresses the RO, then illustrates it
through chorale harmonizations and extensive examples of counterpoint over various
skeletal harmonic structures. Wiedeburgs cadential patterns are very similar to

Figure 2.8: Wiedeburgs Cadentiae Simplex



His V-I cadences (cadentiae simplex) with decoratio ornaments are arranged in increasingly
complex forms and lengths, up to four measures long. The following examples of
Wiedeburgs variations over a dominant pedal line are ingenious examples of a twovoiced expansion of a V-I cadence, veritable alter egos of Spiridions Cadentiae Prima.
Figure 2.9. Wiedeburgs Augmented Cadentiae

& w w
? w




38Michael Wiedeburg, Der sich selbst informierende Clavierspieler, oder deutlicher u. leichter
Unterricht zur Selbstinformation im Clavierspielen (Halle:Verlag der Buchhandlung der
Weisenhauses, 1765-1775).


Unlike Spiridions motivic and imitational patterns, Wiedeburgs variations consist

largely of three basic figures: the Schleifer, Doppelschlag and Schneller, all of which are in a
narrow intervallic range and in the same hand position. His kinetic considerations show
Wiedeburgs practical side: the figures are extremely comfortable to play. Improvisational
patterns can be different for each player, as one adopts the most comfortable patterns to
fit ones particular technique and fingering habits. Wiedeburg provides his students with
decoratio patterns on a two-voiced elaboratio framework (over a pedal point) that can be
practiced with associated hand positions and probable fixed fingerings, mapping them
into motor memory. His pedal-point diminutions exhibit three common features:
1. Rhythmic complementation: one sustains while the other is moving (extremely
comfortable to play).
2. Imitation: similar harmonic modules are applied in two voices (motivic and kinetic
3. Parallel motion: this is found exclusively in sixths and thirds (as wider intervals
would be extremely difficult to grab in one hand).
The improvisational potential and the ease of application of Wiedeburgs examples over a
pedal point can be best understood by playing through the following example:

Figure 2.10. Wiedeburgs prolongation of V-I over a pedal point





The constant alternation between 6/4 chords and root position chords with neighbor
motion give these examples their potential for tonal prolongation. Wiedeburgs pedalpoint figurations can be transposed and connected through sequences in the same
manner as Spiridions and Niedts. These authors examples also provide exercises for
sequences and harmonic progressions that can be directly applied in many chorale genres.

I based the following prelude improvisation on a hypothetical dispositio of Matthesons

Vorspiel for the organ audition in Hamburg: it establishes A Major, then modulates to G
Minor by descending through the circle of fifths in mm. 5-9. I used the elaboratio
structures of harmonic prolongation as found in Wiedeburgs and Niedts methods and
decoratio patterns such as those of Schneller, Schleifer and Doppelschlag. The following
example notates the preludes harmonic dispositio:

Figure 2.11. Dispositio for a prelude improvisation

? ###
? ###


Congregational Hymn Accompaniments

Even the simplest chorales may provide excellent opportunities for improvisation. The
sonic spectrum of a North German Baroque organ is designed to bring out melodies with
solo stops, which can be beautifully embellished with ornaments and diminutions. Multiversed congregational hymns also provide opportunities for variations through different
registration, harmonizations and voice-leading choices. The organist may, for example,


keep the harmony unaltered while using different voice-leading structures or bringing
out the melody in different voices. Variations during congregational singing, however,
ought to always serve the meaning of the hymn text. In his Historisch-kritischen Beitragen
zur Aufnahme der Musik, Friedrich Marpurg condemned organists who excessively
improvised variations during congregational singing:

If organists would only realize that during the singing of hymns, it is the organ
that must keep the congregation in tune and in order. However, the way most
organists play one would think that the congregation sings the canto firmo (the
melody) in order for the organist to rummage all over it with hands and feet. The
resulting dissonances are so disagreeable to listen to that they defy description.
Since these organists are so enamoured of their rambling and noisy variations,
they play so irresolutely that it sounds as if they were unfamiliar with the melody
and needed to learn it from the congregations, for they continually lag behind,
instead of keeping pace with them.39
Improvisation during and between congregational verses in the eighteenth-century
descended from an earlier tradition, where the organ played in alternum with the
congregation. By the late Baroque period this tradition gradually dropped in favor of
congregational organ accompaniment. Between 1750 and 1850, organists often inserted
interludes between each chorale phrases to give the congregation some time to read the
text of the next line and reflect on the text. These interludes had a variety of names, such
as Zwischenspiele, Passagien or Lufer, and were played in a characteristically free
improvisatory style. Gottlob Trk discusses the composition of these interludes in his
book Kurze Anweisung zum Generalbassspielen:

39The Historisch-kritischen Beitragen zur Aufnahme der Musik, one of three periodicals
written by Friedrich Marpurg, appeared from 1754-62 and in 1778. The journal
features reviews of books on music, short biographies of musicians, as well as general
observations on the musical scene.


In this instance, the chorale player should definitely not demonstrate the dexterity
of his fingers (or feet), at least not without sufficient restraint, but merely
introduce the following note, and if it can be done without inappropriate or
intrusive tone-painting simultaneously express the meaning of the words, or
play serious interludes, suitable to the place and subject. Meanwhile, some more
or less lively interludes, runs Passagen and the like, can be presented for stanzas of
cheerful contents.40
With the following example, Trk demonstrates an acceptable Zwischenspiel connecting
the first and second phrases of Allein Gott:

Figure 2.12.



# U


n # #

This cadential passagework extends the tonic by elaborating a very common formula,
Gjerdingens Quiescenza of scale degress ^8, 7, ^6, ^#7, 8. The success of this
Zwischenspiele, however, largely depends on its rhythmic proportions and its metric and
harmonic relationship with the perceived pulse of the chorale, and less on its melodic
content. Such toccata-like arpeggiations are similar to the French stile bris, an idiomatic
technique for the harpsichord, employed by Bhm in his partita on Ach wie nichtig.

40DanielGottlob Trk, Kurze Anweisung zum Generalbassspielen (Leipzig und Halle:

Author, 1791).


Linearization of harmonies is a crucial compositional tool for developing longer

passagework and diminutions. Niedts counterpoint examples include extended
arpeggiations of harmonies that are similar to techniques in chorale variations.

Melodic Ornamentation in Chorale Variations

Melodic ornamentation is the most immediate level of improvisation that connects linear
intervals with figurations. Seventeenth-century Figurenlehre mainly focused on figuration
and elocutio, the art of delivery and embellishments. 41 This technique is used in nearly all
eighteenth-century chorale-based genres, including chorale partitas by Georg Bhm and
Johann Pachelbel. The following example by Georg Bhm, Ach wie nichtig, ach wie
flchtig, demonstrates an idiomatic melodic embellishment for the upper voice:

Figure 2.13. Bhms figuration on Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flchtig

& 44

Bhm uses Schleifer and Schneller figures to directly embellish the chorale melody. This
decoratio does not always place the structural notes on the strong beats (such as on beat
four in measure 1) but always follows the contour of the melody.

Theorists considered figuration crucial to musical composition: thus it became a central

topic of a number of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century treatises. 42 Wolfgang Caspar

for example, Joachim Burmeisters Musica Poetica (1606), Michael Praetoriuss

Syntagma Musicum (1616) and Athanasius Kirchers Musurgia Universalis (1650).
Such as Wolfgang Printz,Phyrinidis Mytilenaei oder Satyrischen Componisten (1696) and
Johann Moritz Vogts Conclave Thesauri Artis Musicae (1719).


Printz defined Figuren as devices for improvisation and composition: [Figure is] a
Certain module [Modulus] which is formed out of a division of one or more notes, and
which is applied in a manner appropriate to it. In Phyrinidis Mytilenaei, Printz provides
copious lists of melodic patterns embellished with Figuren. He categorizes them according
to their basic shapes--such as Figura Corta, Messanza and Figura Suspirans--and lengths,
such as simple (einfach) and compound (zusammengesetzt). Printzs examples provide
patterns for chorale variations: an improviser would apply these patterns to chorales with
similar melodic contours:
Figure 2.14. Printzs diminutions

Printzs figures are presented without their underlying interval; however, it is easy to
detect that these examples are embellishing a repeated note. In the same treatise Printz
also provides one hundred RH variations on a descending bass line to demonstrate how
these figures, combined with a structural bass, yield to longer-range melodic coherence.
These variations constitute a two-level hierarchical system, where an intervallic elaboratio
framework provides melodic consistency to surface elements. Printz also introduces the
concept of the Schematoid: the augmented version of the Figuren to create variations. His
definition of Schematoid is a module equivalent to some figures in its intervals but


distinct from the figure in its rhythm.43 The concept of Schematoid is similar to
augmentation, and suggests a way in which one can discover variations by changing the
rhythmic shape of certain melodic patterns.

Another diminution treatise is Johann Moritz Vogts Conclave Thesauri Artis Musicae. 44
Vogt presents a comprehensive list of melodic elements as applied to harmonic patterns
to demonstrate how a voice-leading structure can accept many surface figures. His figures
on the decoratio level embellish an elaboratio framework, similar to Spiridiones Cadentiae.
Below are three of Vogts phantasies of rising fourths and falling fifths with mezzanzae,
tirata, groppo figures, and a fourth with a combination of groppo and circulo figures.

Figure 2.15. Vogts diminutions

In all three examples Vogt places the structural note on the first position in the group.
Similar to the rich variety in Bhms figures, Vogt encourages a combination of many
different modules, but also advocates coherence by pointing to an underlying harmonic

43Callahan, Techniques of Keyboard Improvisation in the German Baroque, 111.

44Johann Moritz Vogt, Conclave Thesauri Artis Musicae, (Prague: Lebaun, 1719).


framework. One of the most important innovations in Vogts treatise is the concept of
augmentation pertaining to the figures underlying harmonic framework. The example
below shows the augmented versions: the sixteenth-note figurations cover a longer
distance between structural note values, thus yielding to greater potential combinations
and a greater need for melodic coherence.
Figure 2.16. Vogts Phantasia Duplex (alternating 4ths and 5ths)

& 44

& 44

In Die sich selbst informierende Clavierspieler, Michael Wiedeburg presents figures that are
directional, leading effectively from point A to point B. He advocates their artful
concatenation into a larger unit, for instance, connecting various intervals with Schleifer,
Doppelschlag and Schneller motives in various orders and forms. In the following example
we see four possible embellishments of underlying structural intervals of a unison,
ascending second, third, and a fifth with Wiedeburgs figures.


Figure 2.17. Wiedeburgs Schleifer (a) and Doppelschlag (b), on simple intervals

& 4
& 4
& 4

& 4



& 4


Ascending and descending figures can be generated from the same principles and are
inversions of each other, but have quite a different aural effect. Wiedeburg focuses on the
artful connection of these limited gestures, creating a great number of interludes of any
length. The example below shows the assembly of these figures over augmented
structural intervals in their ascending, descending and compound forms.

Figure 2.18. Schleifer (a), Doppelschlag (b) and Schneller (c) on augmented intervals

& 44


& 4

& 44

& 44

Wiedeburgs exercises can be applied to the harmonic elaboratio framework of any chorale
melody. In the following figure I have composed three written-out applications of


Schleifert, Doppelschlag and Schneller applied on the intervallic elaboratio framework of the
first phrase of Freu dich sehr:
Figure 2.19. Simple application of Schneller (a) and Doppelschlag (b) on Freu dich


& 4
& 4 # #
& 42


& n

The concatenated decoratio figures owe their coherence to the shape of the chorale melody.
The example above represents a straightforward application of the figures onto an
existing intervallic framework, in which I kept the structural notes of melody on strong
beats. Similar models of melodic figurations have come down to us in seventeenthcentury Dutch Psalm variations, such as in Anthoni van Noordts Tabulatuurboeck
(1659). Psalm variations in the Dutch tradition rely heavily on melodic ornamentation
played on characteristically bright registrations of Dutch and North German organs.
Anthoni Van Noordt treats the Psalm melodies in three ways: cantus planus (simple


melody) cantus coloratus (ornamented melody) and in combination.45 Thomas Morley

referred to this technique as breaking the plainchant, a term adopted in the Netherlands
as breecken van den psalmen. 46 Cantus coloratus variations have extensive right-hand
figurations with simple accompaniments:

Figure 2.20. Van Noordt: Cantus Coloratus Variation on Psalm 24

& w
? w





Noordts beautiful setting of long scalar motions covers a wide tessitura and does not
follow the contour of the original melody. Georg Bhm uses similar figuration his partita
on Herr Jesu Christ; however, he structures them around the notes of the melody:

45Jamila Javadova, Anthoni Van Noordt: Historical and Analytical Aspects of His
"Tabulatuurboeck Van Psalmen en Fantasyen" of 1659 (DMA Diss, University of North
Texas, 2008).
46Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practical Music, ed. Alex Harman
(New York: W W Harman, 1969),172.


Figure 2.21. Variatio 5 of Herr Jesu Christ

& b 32

& b 23 j

& b 23

? b 23

&b w




&b w



& b w

?b w


For the following example I have composed a melodic embellishment on Nun Danket All
in cantus coloratus style:


Figure 2.22. Cantus Coloratus and the melody of Nun Danket All

& b4

& b4




&b w





In this setting, similarly to Bhm, I have preserved the contour of the melody on strong
beats. The opening scale has important metric features: it offers an energetic opening and
anticipates the motoric drive of the movement, constituting the main decoratio element in


this variation. At the memoria phase of improvisational learning, an organist commits

similar decoratio patterns to memory and becomes familiar with their metric and harmonic
attributes: he then tries them out in every possible metric and harmonic position.

Melodic figuration can lead to compound melodies and polyphonic textures, as well.
Compound melody is in fact a linearization of harmony, often suggesting two or three
voices that are treated with correct voice leading. In the following example, I have
applied chordal leaps and scalar motions to the elaboratio framework of Freu dich sehr. The
first is a compound melody and the second is a two-voice counterpoint:

Figure 2.23. Application of a compound (a) and two-voiced (b) decoratio on the
elaboratio framework of Freu dich sehr

& 4

# # # n


& 4 # # # j n


& 4

# n


? #4

& n j





The first and the second versions contain identical decoratio patterns. However, the
second version contains longer structural notes that clearly differentiate tones of
figurations from structural tones. Space between structural notes is usually extended in
cantus firmus-based genres such as the bicinium or the chorale prelude. Augmentation is
an essential organizing principle inherited from the Renaissance that allowed Baroque
composers to enlarge musical form and use more advanced harmonies. For example, the
harmonic rhythm of a congregational hymn is quicker than the chorale prelude: in the
former, the harmony corresponds to one chorale note; in the latter, two or more
harmonies correspond to one note. Harmonies on weak beats can be dissonant, as their
function is to pass between two consonances. An organist wishing to improvise cantus
firmus-based chorale preludes needs to slow down the harmonic rhythm of the melody by
using two or more harmonies per chorale note. The example below is the secondspecies harmonization of Freu dich sehr:

Figure 2.24. Augmented harmonization of Freu dich sehr

& bC w
? bC
&b w



In this example, the even-numbered bass notes are chordal leaps and passing tones that
connect the consonant downbeats of the two-part, outer-voice structure. The relationship
between this and a simple chorale setting is similar to the difference between first- and
second-species counterpoint. The methodology of Fuxs Gradus ad Parnassum presents


gradual steps from structural voice leading (first species) to florid counterpoint (fifth
species) in a series of exercises with controlled parameters. Augmentation techniques in
chorale harmonizations have similar stages: simple, double, triple and quadruple
harmonizations ultimately result in hierarchic distinction between structural and
secondary harmonies.

The harmonies on the weak beats serve as extensions of the first harmony, and, at the
same time they transition to the subsequent harmony. In the first bar, for example, the
second harmony provides smoother voice leading between F Major and G Minor, and
similarly in the second bar the C Major chord is a dominant of the next chord. The F
Major chord followed by a G Minor chord would be not a good choice, as it would cause
parallel fifths and octaves.

The Bicinium

A bicinium is a two-part chorale variation that consists of a florid, contrapuntal line and
an augmented chorale melody, or cantus firmus. Improvising a bicinium essentially
requires three types of techniques: augmentation, first-species counterpoint and
diminution. In the augmented cantus firmus section species counterpoint governs the
relationship between the melody and the accompaniment, which is embellished with
diminutions. A bicinium may open directly with the cantus firmus directly, as in standard
bicinia of the eighteenth century. More often, however, more elaborate bicinia start with a
Vorimitation section, in which a melodic fragment of the chorale melody serves as
thematic motto. The following example presents a bicinium by Johann Kirnberger on
Ach, Gott von himmel sieh darein. The first phrase of the melody uses the opening of the


chorale and morphs into fourth-species counterpoint as soon as the cantus firmus enters:47
Figure 2.25. Bicinium by Kirnberger

& #c


? ##c


? ## # # ## n # ##

? ##
The short Vorimitation starts in the wrong key on scale degree ^5 and the cantus firmus
enters in the right key on ^2. Vorimitation on the fourth below (or the fifth above) is
very common in short bicinia for a practical reason: the initial chorale can conveniently
enter on the tonic without need to establish the key and modulate back to the tonic.
Composers often expand the Vorimitatio to a ritornello that provides harmonic closure
with a cadence or a harmonic progression. A good example for this is the opening of the
second partita of J. S. Bachs Sei gegrsset, Jesu gtig BWV 768, which also uses free, florid
presentation of the chorale melody.

The compound bicinium has two structural elements: the opening ritornello or
Vorimitation that is derived from the first chorale phrase, and a section with free
counterpoint against the chorale. The opening motto can be rounded up with a short

47Kirnberger, The Art of Strict Musical Composition, Example 11.54.


sequence and a cadence to constitute a ritornello. A harmonically closed ritornello itself has
two sections: the opening motto and a bridge of continuous faster pulses. It achieves
harmonic closure with a cadence, as opposed to a harmonically open ritornello, which
simply morphs into free-counterpoint to accompany the cantus firmus. Subsequent
ritornelli are transposed to the key of the last notes of the chorale phrases; these interludes
may vary in length and they might also introduce more distant tonal areas. The role of the
ritornello is twofold: introducing the key of the next entrance and breaking up the chorale.
The following examples illustrate different ritornelli as applied to Ach Gott vom Himmel
sieh darein:48
Figure 2.26. Kirnbergers bicinium on Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh uns darein

& #c

? ##c # #

In the opening, Kirnberger uses the first phrase of the melody - transposed to the fifth
below - consisting of two eight-note Schleifer figures that are immediately converted to
free counterpoint, with elements of the cantus firmus returning as Schleifer motives
multiple times. In order to achieve more tonal definition, I have composed an expanded
version of Kirnbergers opening that starts in the tonic and leads through the dominant

48Kirnberger, The Art of Strict Musical Composition, Example 11.54.


Figure 2.27. Modified bicinium on Ach Gott vom Himmel

? ##

? ## # # # # #
The opening phrase quotes the melody on the second scale degree, which ends on a
strong metric position: the downbeat of measure 3. At this point it turns into a Schleifer
figure, outlining a descending fourth-progression and briefly touching a dominant
section through measures 8-10. The primary purpose of the following harmonic
progression is to establish the tonic and provide a strong sense of pulse equating half
notes. The quarter notes in measures 7-9 line up with the odd beats of the 2/2 time
signature. These, together with the following eighth-note figures, are perceived as a
strong pulse reinforced by a descending fourth progression, which is broken off just
before the entrance of the cantus firmus on the weak beat of measure 10. This metric
structure emphasizes the upbeat quality of the first cantus firmus entrance.

A ritornello in a bicinium consists of the combination of its opening with the metric and
harmonic structure of the progression that follows. Printzs Schematoid helps to
understand how to transform shorter chorale fragments into larger phrases followed by
simple intervallic progressions; improvising a Vorimitation in a bicinium is indeed an
inverted Schematoid process, which involves creating diminution figures from the
intervallic content of a fragmented chorale phrase. (I usually start improvising bicinia by
first imagining the bipartite phrase structure of the ritornello, then transforming the first


chorale phrase into that rhythmic structure before starting to play.) During interludes,
there are many opportunities to explore distant keys and experiment with irregular cantus
firmus entrances.

In the following improvisations, I chose a similar tonal design (dispositio): the opening
always starts on ^5 and then modulates to the cantus firmus entrance on ^2. The
Vorimitation in Example A reaches tonal closure with the V-I cadence in measure 4 that
accents the next bar where the chorale entrance is perceived like an unaccented passing
tone between ^1 and ^3:
Figure 2.28. Example A

& #c

B ##c

In Example B, the ritornello uses an extended harmonic progression to establish the tonic.
The chorale entrance in measure 8 on ^2 sounds quite dissonant after such a final
cadence, and the energy is difficult to maintain after the descending scale:
Figure 2.28. Example B

B ##

B ## # #



In Examples C and D, the ritornelli start in the right key on ^2 and modulate to ^5:
Figure 2.29. Example C


? ##

# # #

# #
? ## ## #

In Example D, the chorale entrance (in the lower voice) is part of the cadence V-I, and it
confirms the tonic with ^3 on the downbeat of measure 5. This preserves the momentum
of the opening by using the pickup of the chorale as part of the cadence:
Figure 2.30. Example D

? ##

## ##

For Example E, similar to Example C, I have used the same harmonic progression as
before to extend the ritornello and cadence on the downbeat of measure 8:
Figure 2.31. Example D



? ## # ##



In the second movement of his partita on Herr Jesu Christ, Bhm uses a simple,
embellished descending scale as ritornello:
Figure 2.32. Example E

& b2

? b 23

J w




Bhm does not quote the chorale melody in the ritornello; instead he uses a pattern that
supports the ascending triad of the chorale, a Do-Mi-So schema. The neighbor motion
constitutes an effective and extremely economical decoratio to connect the structural notes
of the first-species counterpoint. Elaboratio here consists of a two-voice, first-species
counterpoint, where one voice constitutes the chorale and the other is embellished with
figures. At the end of the chorale phrase the ritornello is transposed to the last note of the
chorale melody on ^5.
Figure 2.33. 2-part elaboratio framework of Bhms Herr Jesu Christ



Bb q


Bb q


In summary, improvised bicinia are dispositio-level structures, starting with an imitation
of the first chorale phrase followed by a two-part contrapuntal section where the chorale
melody, with its associated intervallic patterns, acts as a two-part elaboratio framework. In
the cantus firmus section, decoratio figures such as Schleifer, Doppelschlag and Schneller are
applied to adorn the two-voiced elaboratio structure. Also, voices can be flipped easily; one
can put the chorale in the soprano as well as in the bass. This form has enormous
potential for improvisational learning, as it yields to experimentation with phrase
structure, form, imitation, invertible counterpoint and modulations.

Figurations and Cantus Firmi in Inner Voices

Chorale improvisations often require harmonizing the melody in any voice. This tradition
stems from sixteenth-century hymn settings that set the melody in the tenor voice.49
Also, in the seventeenth century, most keyboard music was transmitted on handwritten
copies using the so-called New German Tabulature, a script notation without staves,
noteheads or key signatures. In the New German Tabulature, pitches were designated by
letter names written in script, durations by flags, and octave displacement by octave lines
drawn above the letters. Organists compiled their repertoire by hand-copying
tabulatures, where specific textural clarity was secondary. In contrast, however, in his
Tabulatura Nova Samuel Scheidt used regular staff notation. This indicates the authors
keen interest in registral specificity. Although registration choices are rarely specified,
most chorale variations in the Tabulatura Nova are associated with specific organ stop
selections. In its new edition, Harald Vogel provides two individual versions for each of
several movements, using alternative registration choices for each. For instance, in one

49The first hymnal that set the chorale melody in the soprano was Lucas Osiander's
Fuenfzig geistliche Lieder und Psalmen published in 1586.


the chorale can be played on either the Cornet 2 in the pedal or with the right hand.


Scheidt often placed the cantus firmus in a variety of inner voices, and often in the pedal,
leaving the hands free to play florid diminutions. Improvising inverted voicing is a crucial
technique in seventeenth-century organ improvisations, which inverts the role of the
pedal from thoroughbass to soprano and the role of the left hand from inner voices to a
florid bass line. In such improvisations kinetic habits are challenged with the inverted
hands-feet setup, and the organist develops highly flexible contrapuntal skills. It is
particularly stimulating when placing the cantus firmus in the pedal with the Cornet 2
stop in soprano, Clarin 4 in alto and the Trompet 8 in tenor voicings. Invertible voiceleading can also lead to the discovery of new harmonizations and voice-leading patterns;
the organist can highlight the melody in the bass, or in any of the inner voices. These
registrally flexible voicings largely went out of fashion by the mid-eighteenth century
Germany, and only survived in the Netherlands and North Germany partly because of the
disposition of the Noth-German organs.

Chorale preludes with the melody in the tenor and bass were typical to the seventeenth
century, but theorists sporadically describe this technique in the eighteenth century.
Johann Kirnberger writes: the main melodic line or cantus firmus can be placed in any
voice when writing for more voices; however, when it is placed in the bass, one must be
careful that it conclude with cadences that belong to the main key.51 The sonic
parameters of registration and voicings on the organ are interconnected and are almost
inseparable from each other. Solo register choices strongly determine the voicing of the
chords: a Krummhorn 8 sounds usually the best in the tenor range, whereas a Sesquialtera
is mostly used for solos in the soprano or alto voice. In the figure below, I present five

50The Cornet 2 stop, a small trumpet typical of North German and Dutch organs is
designed specifically for chorale playing.
51Kirnberger, The Art of Strict Composition, 198.


examples based on a single harmonization of the first line of Freu dich sehr, where I placed
the chorale in soprano, alto, tenor and bass and then again in the soprano, played on the
2 Cornet in the pedal (Rp: Rckpositiv, Ow: Oberwerk).
Figure 2.34. Melody in the soprano

& 4

? #4

? # 44

Figure 2.35. Melody in Alto






Figure 2.36. Melody in Tenor


# n



Figure 2.37. Chorale in Soprano played on Cornet 2 in the pedal




# n

In the last example the chorale melody starts in the soprano and ends in the tenor,
demonstrating the flexibility of an improvised voice-leading skeleton. Bass
harmonization, such as in figure 2.36, requires the Rule of the Octave. As Kirnberger
points out, chorale harmonization in the bass requires a slightly different harmonization
than any other voice due to the harmony-generating quality of the bass in the Baroque
style. Chorale harmonization in the bass, and in the inner voices traditionally played an
important role in hymn accompaniments and was still taught by late eighteenth-century

Johann Philipp Kirnberger extensively wrote about all aspects of music -- including a


large chapter on chorale harmonizations -- in his Die Kunst der Reinen Satzes in der Musik.
He stressed the importance of the study of chorales, where he clearly distinguished a
structural voice-leading skeleton from surface level ornaments in free compositions, such
as arias:
Every aria is basically nothing more than a chorale composed according to the most
correct declamation, in which each syllable of the text has one note, which is more or
less embellished according to the demands of expression. The true basis of beauty in
an aria always depends on the simple melody that is left when all its decorative notes
are eliminated. If this simple melody is incorrect in terms of declamation, progression,
or harmony, mistakes cannot be hidden by embellishment.52

In sharp contrast to the seventeenth century, Kirnberger views a chorales underlying

elaboratio as a two-voiced structure for the bass and soprano. He should first compose an
elaboratio that is musically satisfying in its own right, embellished with decoratio patterns.
His reduction of two arias demonstrates these two levels.53 The opening two phrases of
an aria from Tamerlano, by Carl Heinrich Graun, embellish a Do-Re-Mi schema with
neighbor-tone motions and using suspensions and a single chordal leap in measure 7.

52Kirnberger, The Art of Strict Musical Composition, 235.

53Such reductive analyses were quite rare in the eighteenth century. Spiridions cadentiae
are inverted reductions; however, Johann David Heinichen provides voice-leading
reductions in his Generalbass in der Composition [1728].


Figure 2.40. Kirnbergers reduction of Tamerlano


& b b4


& b b 43



& b b
&b b





The opening of the second aria, Silla, has a similar melodic shape with Schneller figures.

Figure 2.41. Kirnbergers two-level reduction of an aria from Grauns Silla to decoratio
structures (a, b) based on its elaboratio framework (c)


j w


? ###



In one of his examples, Kirnberger provides a five-part harmonization of Ach Gott vom
Himmel where the melody is in the alto voice. The descending Mi-Re-Do in the


melody, in m. 2, is harmonized with contrary motion in the bass and the repeated ^5 in
mm. 2-3 is harmonized with a chromatic neighbor in the bass. This reflects the aesthetic
of J. S. Bach, following strict voice-leading principles:
Figure 2.42. Kirnbergers harmonization of Ach vom Himmel sieh darein

Kirnberger provides 26 different bass lines for Ach Gott und Herr, wie gross und schwer to
demonstrate these lines potential to highlight the meaning of the text and connect or
disrupt phrases with harmonic rhythm. In figure 2.43 I have listed #s 18-26. Putnam
Aldrich discussed the ways that Kirnberger uses harmony to both articulate or avoid
articulation of melodic phrases and phrase divisions.54

54Putnam Aldrich: Rhythmic Harmony as Taught by Johann Philipp Kirnberger, in

Studies in Eighteenth-Century Music: A Tribute to Karl Geiringer on His Seventieth Birthday,
ed. H. C. Robbins Landon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 3752.


Figure 2.43. Kirnbergers harmonizations of Ach vom Himmel


In harmonizations 20 and 26, Kirnberger uses secondary dominants to emphasize certain

words (such as gross) and to connect ending phrases with the first notes of the next
phrase. Putnam writes: [a] dissonant chord totally negates the feeling of a phrase
division (even though the melody here has all the characteristics of a cadence) and makes
further progression even more necessary.55 For the same reason, connecting words such
as und are also harmonized with more dissonant harmonies. An experienced eighteenthcentury organist would have selected a Zwischenspiele to separate or a secondary dominant
to connect chorale phrases in improvised congregational accompaniments, and would
have followed the meaning of the words. Kirnbergers examples provide various schemata
for accompanying chorales.

In addition to his bicinium, Kirnberger provides examples of three- and four-voice

structures on Ach von Himmel sieh uns darein. His trio on the same chorale, like his
bicinium, opens with a Vorimitation section followed by the cantus firmus entrance in the
middle voice. The opening is a two-voice invertible counterpoint followed by a
modulation to the subdominant and the dominant with salti composti figures:

55Aldrich, Rhythmic Harmony as Taught by Johann Philipp Kirnberger, 32.


Figure 2.44. Kirnbergers trio on Ach vom Himmel

Doppelschlag figures are particularly idiomatic in parallel thirds and sixths such as in
measures 6 and 7. In the following four-part setting of Es ist das Heil Kirnberger uses
similar figures to fill third leaps in all voices.


Figure 2.45. Kirnbergers quartet on Ach vom Himmel


The extensive eight-note patterns that connect third leaps most certainly have a
pedagogical intent. Students in composition recognized the easiest places to ornament
and started with the most idiomatic and convenient patterns to do so.

Chapter III: Model-based Improvisations

The function of memorized elements in improvisation is best illustrated with model
compositions. As I showed earlier, the interaction between decoratio and elaboratio is the
most generative level for improvisation. In the following model compositions, decoratio
and dispositio are closely modeled on repertoire so that we can learn from the way past
improvisatory masters have handled certain problems. Great repertoire shows great
solutions for different problems: for example in the opening chorus of the cantata Nun
komm der heiden Heiland, BWV 61, Bach applies French decoratio patterns to a chorale
setting, which is a challenging compositional task. In the following sample
improvisations I will use decoratio and dispositio material from two of Bachs compositions
and alter them to fit a different chorale melody. I will first analyze the two pieces focusing
on their decoratio patterns, and then I apply these patterns to the melodies of Freu dich sehr
and Aus tiefer Not.

One of the best examples of omnes versus 56 chorale preludes is J. S. Bachs O Lamm Gottes
Unschuldig, BWV 656, which effectively merges two genres: seventeenth-century cantus
firmus and figurative chorale variations. Throughout the piece, the figurations are applied
to all voices equally, while preserving the chorale melody largely unadorned. Nikolaus
Decius three-versed chorale O Lamb of God Pure and Holy is a substitute for the Agnus

Term usually applied to cantatas: each verse corresponds to a movement, in this case to
a variation.


Dei in the Lutheran Ordinary Mass, which, by the eighteenth century became an accepted
Lenten Hymn.57 Theological allegories are present throughout Bachs setting. For
example, he has set the melody in three verses, with one variation for each voice in
descending order: soprano, alto and bass. This registral descent reflects the centrality of
incarnation and suffering in Lutheran doctrine as represented Decius text: Jesus paid the
price for human sin by his redemption through suffering on the cross. The piece has
many direct Trinitarian representations: the opening major triad on Lamb of God has
long been associated with the Trinity, the first and second verses have three voices and
the piece is in a three-sharp key signature, also symbolizing the Trinity and the cross.
Decius uses the same words for the all three verses.58

The form of BWV 656 is quite simple: it consists of three sections, two three-voiced,
manualiter settings and a four-voiced pedaliter setting. The first verse uses scalar motions,
the second cross motives, and the third is a beautiful wave-shaped melody in triple meter
rounded with a double-metered coda. This dispositio provides a gradual increase of
intensity in volume (assuming the organist adds stops for each verse), in texture (the
addition of the pedal for the last verse), and rhythm (tripled motions and fast
diminutions in the coda). BWV 656s decoratio complements its dispositio. Bach uses
perfect patterns: the scalar motions in the first verse are consonant and soothing, the
cross motives of the second verse provide rhythmic and harmonic tension between the
melody and the two voices; and finally the opening motive of the third verse evokes
soothing and comforting feelings.

Anne Leahy, J. S. Bachs Leipzig Chorale Preludes, ed. Robin A. Leaver, (Lantham, Md.:
The Scarecrow Press, 2011), 95.
Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).


The first variation opens with the ornamented versions of the chorale accompanied by
Schleifer and Doppelschlag figures in the alto line. These are very flexible patterns that
ensure the variations strong imitative character. Bach accents this entrance with a subtle
voice exchange typical for keyboard writing of the period: he allows a false entrance for
the CF, then drops the extra accompanying voice in measure 11. Measure 10 is the most
dense measure texturally in this verse, which prepares the climax of the cantus firmus
Figure 3.1. Cantus firmus entrance in the top voice

Bach uses figuration for textural contrast between phrases of the chorale. Below is a a
long Schleifer passage in unison that marks the formal division between the chorales
Stollen and Abgesang sections:
Figure 3.2. Formal articulation with texture

In the second variation, the chorale descends to the alto voice, accompanied with the cross
motive: a joined chordal skip with a neighbor tone, similar to Printzs salti composti:


Figure 3.3. Figures in the second variation

Bachs equal distribution of passagework is an organic development of melodic

embellishments of Bhm-type variations. Improvising such decoratio figures requires
memorizing various augmented harmonizations of the chorale that can be embellished
with passagework in any voice. The last variation is marked by the entrance of the pedal,
and a shift from double to triple meter. The opening motive mimics the ascending and
descending shape of the chorale melody, followed by a coda that recycles scalar motions
of the first verse.

BWV 656 may provide dispositio and decoratio patterns for improvisation. An improviser
can use its formal structure and decoratio patterns or any combination of those. In the
following example, I have kept Bachs decoratio and applied to the melody of Freu dich sehr
in three variations following the dispositio of BWV 656. The first variation uses scalar
patterns, while the second uses the cross motive and a wave-shaped melody, stolen from
Bach. The main difficulty was to apply Bachs decoratio to the elaboratio framework of Freu
Dich Sehr. First, I had to use a rhythmic variant of the chorale to fit the 3/2 time signature
of Bachs dispositio:

Figure 3.4. Original melody by Louis Bourgeois


Figure 3.5. Version by Pachelbel

In verse I, I had to alter the descending Schleifer motive of BWV 656 in order to line it up
with the chorale. The main decoratio pattern of the first verse is:

Figure 3.6. Main decoratio pattern in variation I.

The length of decoratio patterns varies according to their metric position in relation to the
chorale melody. Similarly to Dutch cantus coloratus techniques, an improviser needs to be
flexible enough to apply learned patterns to a recognized schema. In our case this also
means distributing figurations equally between the inner voices. On beat three in m. 1,
for example, the scalar figure lands on the F# harmonizing with the bass, as suggested by
the Do-Re-Mi schemata. However, on beat two of m. 2 there is no time to conclude
the figure in a similar direction, which would have created parallel fifths between the
soprano and bass. To keep the rhythmic flow constant, the eighth-note motion has to
continue with Schneller figures in the alto voice. Technical considerations influence
certain passages: for example in measure 3 the alto voices comfortable upward Schleifer
in a single hand position. Also, in measure 4, the descending alto line is comfortable to
play in one hand position.


Figure 3.7. Schleifer decoratio of BWV 656 as applied to Freu dich sehr

Verse 2 contains more technically demanding passages. The chorale in the middle voice
blocks out an important portion of the keyboard that is difficult to cross with figuration.
The bass and the soprano lines have a limited range, while the thumb has to play the
chorale melody. In a different dispositio, the chorale melody could be played on an Octave
4 or Cornet 2 in the pedal, solving these textural problems.


Figure 3.8. Salti composti decoratio of BWV 656 as applied to Freu dich sehr

Technical convenience is hugely important in determining the choice of improvised

patterns. Some patterns, especially the intricate voice leading of BWV 656, are simply too
difficult to improvise. Therefore, an improviser would attempt to evoke the essence of
the piece using simplified decoratio patterns, altering them according to the demands of
the chorale melody and his or her technical limitations:


Figure 3.9. Triplet decoratio of BWV 656 as applied to Freu dich sehr

The descending decoratio pattern of Bachs third verse is designed to harmonize with the
Do-Re-Mi schema of the bass line as transposed to scale degree ^3. In the
improvisational learning phase, an improviser would try out all the possibilities to fit this
pattern to other basses. Similar to opening notes of O Lamm gottes, the melody of Freu
dich sehr opens with a Do-Re-Mi schema (not counting the pickup). The improviser
would only need to recognize that pattern and transpose its decoratio down a third:


Figure 3.10. Two transpositions of the triplet decoratio pattern

The second phrase segment of Freu dich sehr requires a slightly different motivic
treatment, introducing the C# over the cadential descent to ^5.
Figure 3.11. Cadential decoratio patterns

Figure 3.12. Less dissonant cadential pattern

Figure 3.13. Two-voiced cadential pattern


In the imitatio phase, an improviser would become familiar with the inherent possibilities
of any particular decoratio pattern, practice it with different harmonic progressions and
would apply it to any given elaboratio in improvised actio. The result is an amalgam of
memorized and improvised elements that draws on elements stored subconsciously in
long-term memory.

Applicatio: Improvised French Ouverture on Aus tiefer Not

In the opening movements of BWV 61 Bach integrates the Advent chorale Nun komm der
heiden Heiland in two contrasting ways. First, the chorale is sung by the choir in unison,
in a hybrid cantus firmus and chordal treatment, while the orchestra is assigned to
ritornelli in a characteristic French Overture form with dotted rhythms and runs. The
writing clearly focuses on the challenge of combining the fixed French ouverture form
with an innovative cantus firmus treatment. The majestic opening evokes a festive
occasion, the first Sunday of the church year and the processional interpretation of the
words Now come, Savior of the Gentiles. The augmented melody is first quoted in bass
of the orchestra, then sung by all four voices in turn, first in unison, then in harmony.
The faster fugal section is a transformation of the second line of the chorale into triple
Figure 3.14. BWV 61s middle section derived from the chorale


The contrast between the free, imitative writing for the choir and the strict canon in the
orchestra can be interpreted as the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel, the
first being the commandments, the second our salvation through Christs sacrifice.
The original melody of Aus tiefer Not is in the Phrygian mode, as defined by the cadential
descent with flat ^2 at the end of the second phrase. I have used the original version, even
though many eighteenth-century composers often normalized it to a minor mode:

Figure 3.15. Phrygian and minor versions of Aus tiefer Not

The French character of BWV 61 largely owes to the dotted rhythms and scalar
ornamentation that are clearly presented in the opening ritornello. This ritornello is a
veritable mini-prelude: it constitutes a phrase model of T-PD-D-T that establishes the
tonic and it incorporates the melody of Nun komm den heiden Heiland in the bass:

Figure 3.16. Opening phrase of BWV 61

In the imitatio phase, an improviser needs to personalize the material borrowed from
repertoire. I have altered Bachs ritornello with various bass lines to substitute for the
chorale quotation:


Figure 3.17. Opening phrase of BWV 61 with alternative bass line

In addition to this harmonization, there are many other harmonic solutions, such as
harmonizing the melody in b minor (first bass line of the example below). It is also
remarkably easy to modulate to the relative major by transposing the second half of the
phrase up a third:

Figure 3.18. Opening phrase of BWV 61 with two modulating bass lines

Different bass lines helped me to understand the structural and harmonic potential
inherent in Bachs material. This learning phase was essential for me to have the
structural understanding to feel comfortable adapting decoratio and elaboratio to a
different chorale melody. The following example shows the dispositio of the opening two
phrases of my improvisation on Aus tiefer Not:


Figure 3.19. Dispositio of my improvised overture

The ritornello is transposed to the last note of the chorale phrase, a standard practice in
chorale preludes. The first note of the chorale is ^5, easily harmonized with the tonic.
Below is the dispositio of the ritornello, followed by the chorale entrance in the soprano
(notated an octave lower):
Figure 3.20. Melody in the top voice

When the melody is placed in the bass, the phrase structure expands with an extra
measure, which reasserts the tonic followed by a direct modulation to the dominant. The
cantus firmus in the pedal repeats the tonic-dominant-tonic progression, resulting in a
repetitive elaboratio structure.
Figure 3.22. Melody in the bass with extra measure

Adding decoratio patterns make this harmonization possible, but it is harder to embellish
repetitive harmonic structures lacking clear harmonic goals. Therefore, it is preferable to
use a harmonic progression or a secondary dominant to transition from the ritornello to
the cantus firmus entrance:


Figure 3.21. Melody in the bass

Such details of structure are often decided during the improvised actio, even though these
choices more immediately influence the elaboratio of the material and have implications
on the dispositio as well. As we have seen in these two applicatio examples, improvised
dispositiones are flexible schemes that can accept many different versions, forms of
elaboratio and decoratio. Voicing the cantus firmus in the soprano or the bass has major
implications on the form, as well as on the harmonic structure of any dispositio: these
levels are intricately interconnected.

The rest of the improvisation works according to similar patterns: the chorale melody is
harmonized either in the soprano, the pedal, or an inner voice (as in the third phrase, for
example) and the ritornelli are transposed to the cadential notes of each phrase, bridging
the gaps between them. At the end, I have used a longer cadential formula on a pedal
note, similar to a cadenza by Spiridione with a different decoratio patterns.

In recent years many musicians have become increasingly interested in historical
improvisation techniques, in part because of increased interest in historically informed
performance practice. But equally important, Baroque improvisational skills offer us a
historical understanding of music theory, which is absent from much music theory
education today. I believe that historical improvisation bridges the gap between the two
extremes of classical music education: music theory curriculum, which can be overly


analytical and removed from real music-making, and, at the other extreme, performance
education, which can emphasize technical athleticism at the expense of musical
understanding. Improvisation necessarily involves the simultaneous use of music theory
principles and performance techniques. Beside the pursuit of improvisation as an end in
itself, there are benefits of improvisation that are immediately practical to todays
performer: ornamentation, for example, is a crucial expressive element to master for
repertoire of the eighteenth century. Even with limited training in the partimento
tradition, a keyboard player, for instance, would be able to better distinguish structural
notes from embellishments and learn to fluently invent personal ornaments and stylistic
alterations in any repertoire. Robert Levin is one great example of this type of

I believe that any organist can and should learn chorale-based improvisations and it
should be integrated in every major musical institutions theory curriculum. I can think of
no better way to connect theoretical understanding deeply, on a physical level, with a
players relationship to his instrument and practical music-making. One might say that
improvisation is not an academic subject; I argue that it needs to become one. Many
contemporary composers still compose at their instrument, and improvisation was the
trigger that made composers of many performers. Improvisation tightens the tactile and
sonic relationship between the performer and the instrument, a relationship which has
limitless potential for engendering new musical ideas.

Historical improvisation also connects our creative process with our Western musical
heritage, as music history connects performance practice with its history. What better
way to interact with the music of improvisatory masters such as Bach than by practicing
the discipline in which they were saturated? Improvisation is also highly relevant to
modern life, musical and otherwise - improvised communication is part of our everyday


life, and it is the defining characteristic of Jazz. Introducing improvisation to the classical
music curriculum for historical styles will make these styles more approachable, flexible
and alive. European schools have long excelled in the teaching of improvisation. The
organ department of Paris Conservatory, for example, focused on improvisation for much
of the nineteenth century. The Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, McGill University and the
Eastman School of Music have been distinguished by excellent instruction of historically
informed performance and improvisation practices. I believe that every student should be
given the opportunity to interact with theory and their instrument, learning from this
dynamic, inspiring, and challenging element of our musical heritage. Improvisation
cements the bond between performer and instrument, just as it did for Bach, and in so
doing, the art of improvisation cements our musical bonds with the masters that came
before us.

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Peters, 1987.
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Theory, edited by Thomas Chirstensen. 848-860 Cambridge: Cambridge
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______. Observations Concerning Contrapuntal Improvisation, in GOArt Research
Reports, vol. 3, ed. Severer Jullander, (Gteborg: Gteborg Organ Art Center,
______. Reconstructing 17 -Century North German Improvisational Practice: Notes
on the Perambulate with a Report on Pedagogy Used in December 1995, in GOArt
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Art Center, 2000).

Ruiter-Feenstra, Pamela. Bach and the Art of Improvisation. Ann Arbor, MI: CHI Press,
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University Press, 2012.
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Perspectives, in BACH: Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute, vol. 40/2,
(2001), 22-44.


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Wayne Leupold Editions, 1990.
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Bachs Precepts and Principles for Playing the Thorough-Bass or Accompanying in Four
Parts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Heinichen, Johann David. Neu erfundene und grndliche Anweisung zu volkommener

Erlernung des GeneralBasses. Hamburg: Author,1711.
Kirnberger, Johann. The Art of Strict Musical Composition. Translated by David Beach and
Jrgen Thym. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
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2nd ed. New York: W W Norton, 1973.
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Translated by Pamela L. Poulin and Armgard C. Taylor as The Musical Guide.

New York: Oxford, 1989.
Quantz, Johann Joachim. Versuch einer Anweisung die Flte traversiere zu spielen. Berlin:
Johann Friedrich Voss, 1752. Translated by Edward R. Reilly as On Playing the
Flute. New York: Schirmer, 1985.
Spiridionis a Monte Carmelo. Nova Instructio pro Pulsandis Organis. Bamberg, Immel:
1670. Repub., edited by Eduardo Bellotti. Colledara: Andromeda, 2008.

Trk, Daniel Gottlob. Von den wichtigsten Pflichten eines Organisten. Halle: 1787.
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Worship. Lantham: The Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Wiedeburg, Michael Johann-Friedrich. Der sich selbst informierende Clavierspieler, oder
deutlicher und leichter Unterricht zur Selbstinformation mi Clavierspielen. HalleLeipzig: Verlag der Buchlandung der Weissenhauses, 1765-1775.

Wohlmuth, Johann. Starck Virginal Book (1689). Budapest: Magyar Tudomnyos

Akadmia Zenetudomnyi Intzet, 2008.