Bach and the Art of Improvisation: A Conversation with Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra

June 5, 2015

David Wagner holds a DMA in organ from the University of Michigan, where he studied with Marilyn Mason. He has had a career as a performer, a university professor of organ, and as a classical music broadcaster in Detroit, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and in Miami. 

 

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra is the author of Bach and the Art of Improvisation, published by CHI Press of Ann Arbor, Michigan. (See Figure 1.) She earned degrees in organ performance and pedagogy, choral music education, and music theory, sacred music, and conducting at Dordt College (BA) and the University of Iowa (MFA, DMA). From 1996–2002, Ruiter-Feenstra served as senior researcher at the Göteborg (Sweden) Organ Art Center, taught improvisation courses at Göteborg University, and launched research on Bach and improvisation. While serving as professor of music at Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas (1989–1996) and Eastern Michigan University (1996–2008), she taught organ, harpsichord, theory, improvisation, and sacred music and directed the Collegium Musicum. 

In Volume One of Bach and the Art of Improvisation (Volume Two will be available in early 2016), she explains the importance of improvisation and how musicians would be well served to study and practice the art to improve their ability as players of repertoire. Ruiter-Feenstra meticulously details how Bach learned and taught improvisation. Using historic documents, she reconstructs an improvisation pedagogy method that has passed the test of time. For musicians today who were never taught how to improvise, Ruiter-Feenstra offers a sound and effective improvisation pedagogy that students and professional musicians alike can learn and own. The following conversation explores Ruiter-Feenstra’s development of this pedagogy.

 

David Wagner: Everyone has a story on how they first fell in love with music and then with the instrument that they play. What is the narrative that will give insight into where you are today?

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra: When I was six years old, I started to play the piano. After I was able to play a few tunes, I was asked to play hymns. In my ancestors’ Dutch schools, everyone sang metrical Psalms and hymns. The Dutch immigrants had their own schools, their own churches, and their own traditions. I was born in Michigan into the Dutch Christian Reformed tradition and grew up in various Dutch immigrant villages in Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa. (From this tradition, by the way, comes Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and Dordt College in Iowa.) I remember learning Dutch words in which there was no equivalent in English and just thinking that these were English words.

Were your parents musicians?

No, they were teachers. My dad was passionate about what is now called special education and then worked in retirement homes. My mother served as an elementary school teacher and also worked with ESL (English as a Second Language) programs.

 

So, you were interested in music, they recognized that, and they said, “Let’s make sure that Pamela has music lessons.”

Yes. My mother was taking piano lessons when I was in the womb, and I always thought that had some role in developing my ear (she laughs). I started piano lessons at age six, played the violin all the way through elementary school, learned classical guitar, and then I started to play the organ when I was in eighth grade. I played the organ at first because our church needed more organists, and they said to me, “You play the piano, so why not take organ lessons?” I had played hymns in the classroom since third grade, so it felt pretty easy to transfer that to the organ. I had to figure out the pedals, and away we went. My first organ piece was the Karg-Elert Now Thank We All Our God.

 

How interesting—you learned, very early on, proper four-part chorale writing and doubling by playing hymns, and in some ways, you learned thoroughbass by example. Was this pretty much traditional music? 

Oh, yes, the Dutch congregations were singing from the Genevan Psalm tradition when I grew up, and those Psalms have fabulous sixteenth-century harmonies. Sixteenth-century harmonies feature primarily root position and first inversion harmonies, so this is a great way to begin learning harmony. Genevan Psalms have only two note values, which was also important for improvisation. If you are going to improvise and “decorate” something, it’s much easier to work with one or two note values than with many different rhythms. That’s what I would do: I would learn the Psalms and then go home and make variations on them. I practiced my piano repertoire first and then made my own pieces, my variations on hymns. 

 

You really started to improvise at a young age! Did you know at that time, as a youngster, that there was this great tradition of organists and improvisation? 

I had no idea. I just thought it was fun to do. I couldn’t leave my hands off the piano, and I would run out of pieces to play, so then I would start improvising. My parents had their stereo right next to the piano, and I would play their old LP records and later their 8-track tapes of mostly sacred choral music or hymns. I would play a track of a recording, and then go to the piano and try to play the same thing “by ear.” I would go back and forth until I figured out the harmony and the melody. Then, I would start embellishing on it. 

 

So early on it seems that you had decided, “This is for me.” When did you decide to do this for a living and become a professional musician?

Dave, this is the funny thing. I practiced my improvisation just for fun throughout elementary school, middle and high school, but I never played it for my teachers. They always, of course, asked for repertoire, and the discussion of improvisation never came up. When I got to college, I took piano, organ, and voice lessons, and thus, I had a lot to practice. Again, all of these teachers expected repertoire. No one assigned improvisation. 

 

This was not the time for improvisation, was it?

Right. The teachers hadn’t learned it, it wasn’t in the music curriculum, and so no one was teaching it and no one was learning it. I was at Dordt College in Sioux City, Iowa, and my organ teacher was Joan Ringerwole. She selected terrific repertoire and offered me many opportunities to play in chapel and with the Concert Choir. Thankfully, my organ playing with its heart and soul of congregational singing continued. I arrived at Dordt just after the installation of a three-manual Casavant organ designed and voiced by Gerhard Brunzema. Prior to joining Casavant, Brunzema had partnered with German organ builder Jürgen Ahrend, and together they restored many Arp Schnitger instruments. Brunzema, therefore, had a strong historic-instrument basis, and he built and voiced essentially a Dutch-sounding organ with a modern case at Dordt: it has beautiful Dutch vocally inspired principals and a Dutch Vox Humana that sounded reedy. I had heard adults who had this quality of reedy voices. At one of the Dutch churches I had played at, I remember a male member of the congregation who had such a reedy voice that he could cut through the entire congregation with his voice. He was a POW survivor of World War II, and he sang Genevan Psalms as if his life depended on them. His voice was in the tenor range, singing the Genevan Psalm cantus firmus, and other men would sing bass. Hearing that type of singing helped me to understand the Goudimel harmonies (often with cantus firmus in the tenor), as well as how many Dutch reed stops really had vocal models. (See Figure 2.)

 

I have heard people comment on what a wonderful instrument the Dordt College Casavant is, and I hope to be able to hear it in person some day. In growing up, you probably played electro-pneumatic and not mechanical action organs.

At my home church, we had an electronic organ. Sitting down and beginning to play this mechanical action organ was nothing less than a revelation. I became an organist for life because of this instrument.

 

It was that profound of an impact? 

It’s why I pursued organ and church music foremost. I had started out as a piano and choral education major, and I soon thought, “Wow, this organ has such beautiful, human sounds.” It was immediate, it was present, it was alive, and it breathed because it had flexible winding, just like the congregation. Those Dutch people used to sing with gusto. They had passion, and it was exciting to hear them sing. This organ sang in the same way, full of personality and color. 

 

So, what happened next?

Well, as in most universities and conservatories, at that time at Dordt College, no one was teaching improvisation. I worked a lot with choral music and still improvised in the practice room for the first few weeks that I was there. I spent a lot of time in the practice corridors, as I had so much to practice while studying three instruments. When I’d step out of my practice room to get a drink of water, I’d hear other people practicing, and it gradually dawned on me that no one else was improvising. 

 

How interesting! You were a “secret improviser.”

Exactly! I thought to myself, uh-oh, maybe professional musicians don’t improvise. I guess I had better stop. Since no one else was doing it, I thought that if I improvised, maybe people would think that I’m not a serious musician. I wondered if this improvisation “stuff” was akin to just fooling around at the keyboard when I should have been practicing “real music.” So, I stopped improvising for the first two years I was at Dordt. I was hungry for it, so I still was a closet improviser on the piano when I went home on breaks.

So what changed?

During my junior year, Joan Ringerwole invited Klaas Bolt, the famous Dutch organist who improvised at St. Bavo Church at Haarlem in the Netherlands, to come and give a concert.

Bolt wanted to have a “Psalmfest” at the concert, where people were invited to sing with the organ. He featured Genevan Psalms, and he improvised on them with great expression and keen understanding of the colors of the organ and how to use his articulation and registrations to make the organ sing the texts. His organ playing was so alive that I thought, “This is the kind of life I heard in the great Dutch singing of my childhood.” His playing had that level of affect and passion and breathing that I missed hearing in a lot of organ playing when it was just repertoire. Hearing Klaas Bolt improvise was a life-altering revelation to me. Here was a professional musician, and to my ears, his playing was more alive than almost any playing I had heard on the organ. Then I realized every musician has to learn to improvise. Even if musicians never improvise in public, they will play their repertoire in a more profound and musical manner from having practiced improvisation. They are going to breathe; they are going to know the music from the inside rather from the outside. If we just learn music with our eyes and our fingers, we know it a little bit from the outside. We don’t know it from the inside the way an improviser does.

 

Why do you think that is so?

An improviser has to know what makes music work, and what doesn’t make it work. Sometimes you learn most from what doesn’t work. You can’t just say that it didn’t work; you have to ask the question why it didn’t work. How can I fix it, and how can I avoid doing what doesn’t work the next time?

 

After hearing Klaas Bolt, what was the next step for you?

The first thing I did was to begin to improvise again. 

 

In other words, it was like saying “Hello, my name is Pamela, and I’m an improviser!” You became a member of Improvisers Anonymous!

[She laughs] Wholeheartedly! 

 

What did your teachers think of your revelation?

They still wanted to hear repertoire. So, I was still improvising privately in the practice room, but I was improvising and not thinking any longer that it was something I should not be doing. It was really quite the opposite. I no longer felt that I cared if anyone heard me improvising outside the practice room. I started decorating hymns when I played for chapel services at Dordt. When I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa, Delbert Disselhorst and Delores Bruch offered a strong sacred music program. They encouraged me to make variations on hymns, and I was able to practice improvisation within a liturgical context. It was OK to make variations on hymns. 

 

Improvisation and the art of improvisation was something that never really died out in Europe, correct? 

Oh, yes, until recently, it was still required in France and the Netherlands and some parts of Germany. My European colleagues, mentors, and friends were also teaching improvisation, which was so important. That entire pedagogy of teaching improvisation side-by-side with theory, history, and repertoire, however, never really caught on in the United States. 

 

It is starting to be taught here now, isn’t it?

Yes, that is true, although we don’t have a long “apprenticeship” tradition here in the States the way they did in France and in the Netherlands. What is needed is an integrated improvisation pedagogy from which teachers can learn it first, and then learn how to teach it. That’s why it is essential to have a pedagogy that anyone can own. Initially, I think it is great to have a teacher for improvisation, but ultimately it is important to have a pedagogy with steps that you can take and apply on your own. Once you understand those steps, then anyone can become her own improvisation teacher. I had to figure that out for myself, because I didn’t have an improvisation teacher, and I wanted to improvise. 

 

Did you find your improvisation teacher?

I did study improvisation briefly with Klaas Bolt. I also studied with Harald Vogel in Germany and worked a few times with William Porter. 

 

Both Klaas Bolt and Harald Vogel had their European methodology that grew out of a long tradition.

That is why I wrote Bach and the Art of Improvisation. What I wanted to get at in the book was this premise: Johann Sebastian Bach was probably the greatest organ improviser the instrument has ever known and will ever know. So, what was his methodology, and how did he teach his students? I was fortunate to work in Sweden with the GOArt project. GOArt gathered an international group of scientists, musicologists, performers, acousticians, physicists, organbuilders, woodworkers, artisans, and historic preservationists together. We had an entire team of amazing experts studying the tradition of the antique organs and trying to decipher why so many of the antique organs sounded so much better than modern organs. Hans Davidsson started asking these types of questions, and we all joined in with various ideas for figuring out how the instruments were made, how they sounded, and how and in which contexts they were played.

 

So it started from the standpoint of the sound of this musical instrument.

Yes, and then it branched out into how was that sound used, and what did that sound inspire? One of the things that inspired me to keep improvising was that I loved to test out historic organs with improvisation. With improvisation, I have “nothing between my fingers and my ears and the instrument,” so I can more keenly assess the soundscape. This way, you spend more time listening. If you start out with repertoire you are thinking, “Did I hit the right note?” and then you forget to listen sometimes. Improvisation is a great way to test an organ. I do this every time I encounter a new instrument, even if I am playing a concert on it and I will be playing mostly learned repertoire. I begin by improvising through the stops, because I want to hear what is the character of the sounds and in which soundscapes do they coexist most naturally and happily? What does the organ tell me about touch and technique, what does it want to say, and why? 

 

How many years were you involved in this project?

I was in Sweden with GOArt for six years, and it was a fabulously stimulating collaborative project. GOArt is the acrostic for the Göteborg (Sweden) Organ Art Project, which Hans Davidsson initiated and led. The stunning, colorful North German organ built with antique techniques by Munetaka Yokota, Mats Arvidsson, and a highly skilled team represents the apex of the GOArt research in the late ’90s into the new millenium. Those of us who were among the interdisciplinary team of researchers followed the organ building stages of hand-planed wood, sandbed-cast metal, fire-forged iron rollerboards, the physics of wind flow, and we tested sounds, wind pressure, and key action along the way. When the organ was completed, it was thrilling to hear the range of strong, yet vulnerable, transparent, singing sounds of the organ. In my double CD recording of Tunder’s organ works (see Figure 3), I savored the colorful palette of soundscapes by exploring in turn the various families of stops represented on each of the four manuals of the organ. Selecting like stops side-by-side reveals the infinite variation in aural nuance that one can hear in the best instruments, strong congregational singing, and in historic improvisation.

 

Goodness! You really immersed yourself in this project!

I truly did. We had regular symposia. The organists would learn what the physicists were discovering, and they in turn were listening to what performers, pedagogues, and improvisers were discovering. That is how I was able to dig so deeply into the archival material on how Bach and all of his predecessors learned improvisation, and then how Bach and his pupils and successors and other traditions built on this basic methodology. This is an ongoing story of evolution on how musicians learned and taught improvisation. I’ve spent years and years discerning how improvisation pedagogy works. I’m grateful for many opportunities over the years to test out those ideas with wonderful students in the States and in Europe.

 

In Volume One of Bach and the Art of Improvisation, you write, “Improvisation is really extemporaneous composition.” I really love that idea

You have to be able, to some degree, to think out the music in your head away from a keyboard before you even play your first note. Here is an example. We have our presidential State of the Union address. The President is reading his speech from a teleprompter for his State of the Union address, but he has a hard copy of the address on paper in front of him. This idea of oration, or the art of giving speeches, goes way back before the days of teleprompters, before the Common Era, to the time of Greek orators. Greek orators had to have a memory that worked in a way different from what we think about when we memorize music. In memorizing music, many people memorize every note. The Greek orator’s memory was much more like a blueprint or an outline for a speech, because they didn’t have computers, or printers or teleprompters. They had to memorize the outline of their speech, and then they decorated the interior lines of that speech. Johann Sebastian Bach was still using that art of memory when he was improvising, and that is what I do also when I improvise. 

 

So you improvise from a mental outline?

Yes, I have a blueprint in my brain; I want to know the beginning, the middle, and the end of what I am doing before I even begin, even though I don’t know specific notes, or even sometimes where the improvisation is going to take me. Within that mental/aural blueprint, there is an “introduction” (Exordium) where you want to grab the listener’s attention. The Greeks did this too. You want to play something “flashy” to say, “OK, this is going to be the mood and the character of the piece, and the key of the piece,” and after that, you launch into something of a narration (Narratio). In the narration, you “tell” the listener what you are going to do, just like the orator is saying, “This is what I plan to discuss.” You are staying in your home key at this time, as you are telling the story at the beginning. Then you have a proposition (Propositio), a new idea that you want somebody to know about. Then, scientifically, to show people that your idea or ideas hold some weight and truth, you have to argue your point (Confutatio). Again, this is what the Greeks would do, they would argue against their proposal, but brilliantly, they would turn the argument on its head to confirm (Confirmatio) the truth of their original proposition. So, in these “confutatios” in music, you can explore other ideas or other snippets of ideas, or take those ideas to new keys; this is what we would call the development section in what is known as sonata-allegro form. However, you come back and confirm it with your recapitulation and return to your home key. After you have confirmed your main proposition, then you end with a conclusion (Peroratio) that has a “bang” and some sort of bookend effect that hearkens back to your original opening attention-grabbing statement.

 

I have heard that composers don’t have to be good improvisers, but good improvisers have to be good composers. 

That is true. Yes. C. P. E. Bach said that. Improvisers learn a great deal from investigating existing compositions and asking questions about specific works in the manner a curious child or tenacious archaeologist might keep asking, “Why?” 

Here’s an example. Knowing that Georg Böhm taught the young Bach made me wonder what influences Böhm’s compositions had on Bach. Böhm’s keyboard works provide excellent material for improvisers, as they are fairly easy to analyze. With a strong thoroughbass foundation, one can emulate some works of Böhm in improvisation. I explored this approach to improvisation pedagogy in Bach and the Art of Improvisation and in my harpsichord CD, Bach’s Teacher Böhm & Improvisation. (See Figure 4.)

I selected a præludium, partita, dance suite, and fughetta of Böhm to perform and then chose specific chorales that would work well with those genres. On the second half of the CD, you can hear my improvisations on those chorales in the style of Böhm, recycling the same genres in new ways. In my Bach, Improvisations and the Liturgical Year CD, I took inspiration from Bach works to improvise on chorales on the Pasi organ at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood, Washington. (See Figure 5.) Improvisers make their nests from snippets of material and enduring designs from the
finest composers.

 

Getting back to what you said earlier about copying what you had heard, it makes me think of Mozart. One of the great composers was an improviser at a very young age.

It is said that Mozart had many things worked out in his head before he ever put a note down a paper—very much like a great improviser. 

 

I always figured that people were born with some sort of “improvisation gene” and you either had it or you didn’t.

No, it is like any other skill. It takes work. You cannot become an Olympic ice skater the first time you put on a pair of skates and venture out onto the ice! Just like Olympic athletes, accomplished improvisers have invested thousands and thousands of hours of practice, studying, and coaching. Even as an improviser, “going down the wrong path” can be very instructive. Like any skill, it doesn’t drop from the sky, it is a matter of giving the skill deep, regular focus and attention, sprinkled heavily with perseverance.

 

Can you speak to the benefit of actually copying out a piece of music instead of just making a photocopy?

In Bach’s time, everyone had to copy music. I have my students copy music, for instance, copying out one of Bach’s Inventions from his own hand. They can see that in Bach’s handwriting, there is gesture; it isn’t just some sort of robotic computer-generated notation. You can learn from how notes are written and beamed together. You also learn different clefs like the C clef, so you learn relationships; you are not reading by note names, but rather by intervals and relationships of distance on the page and how that translates to the keyboard. It is as if you are reading words and phrases instead of looking at individual letters. (See Figure 6.) Remember how it was when you first began to learn typing? You first have to think of each key individually, and after a while your fingers know where the keys are, and you can type a word and then later a phrase. It is the same thing with improvisation. No matter how proficient someone is as a player of repertoire, one has to start from the very beginning as an improviser. 

 

This really is very humbling. 

Yes, it is, but it is also very much worth it!

 

It was interesting to learn from your book Bach and the Art of Improvisation that Bach was very demanding of his students, and yet also was extremely practical in what he taught.

Oh, yes, Bach was genuinely interested in getting right to the work of experiential learning. Bach usually took a chorale melody and a thoroughbass. That was the blueprint; the chorales had a soprano and a bass line, and students would have to fill in the alto and tenor part. Wouldn’t it be great if theory could now be taught in conjunction with improvisation? If students had their hands on the keyboard, they would learn theory much better and as an integrated part of musicianship, because they would store information in various memory sources—the tactile, the visual, the aural, and the analytical. The more synapses you have firing, the more aspects of music will make sense on multiple levels. 

 

Also with Bach as a teacher, wasn’t it true that you could not move on “to the next step” without mastering what had been assigned to you?

Ah, yes, Bach’s students weren’t allowed to proceed to repertoire and improvisation before they had their fingering in place!

 

Did Bach know about different fingering traditions, or what today we would call “early fingering”?

Yes, he most certainly did. In fact,
C. P. E. Bach was still documenting it after Bach’s death. This type of fingering was still being used during the time of Bach’s son.

 

Didn’t J. S. have a profound effect on what we consider today as “modern fingering?” 

Bach was one of the first to use the thumb to the same extent as the fingers, which astonished other musicians at the time. Some of Bach’s music doesn’t work exclusively with early fingering described in 16th- and 17th-century treatises. Because of this, the so-called modern scale fingerings used today were already chronicled by C. P. E. Bach as one of several options. Significantly, though, this was not the one and only option. The performer was offered different fingerings for the same passage, and could select the most appropriate fingering to the style and tempo of the piece, to the note values and function of particular passages, to the size of the musician’s hand, and for the articulation desired. Using a palette of fingering choices offers much more sophisticated playing results that can imitate bowing, tonguing, and most importantly, singing.

The clavichord is the instrument Bach advocated most for keyboard practice, as the instrument itself is the finest technique pedagogue. The clavichord offers its best blooming sound when the player plays with relaxed arm weight, with the hand and arm lined up above the key to be played. (See Figure 7.) If the player uses less than ideal fingering and arm weight, the sound will be weak and dull, instead of rich and colorful. The clavichord tangents press up on the strings, allowing for infinite light and shadows in the dynamic range, as well as Bebung, an ornamental vibrato accomplished by pressing weight in and out of the string. Practicing on the clavichord translates to an ideal organ technique and organ playing that sounds much cleaner (clarity of touch and articulation) and more expressive. 

 

You suggest that it is helpful to learn to improvise in the Baroque style. Why?

Most students learn theory from a Baroque perspective first, culminating in analyzing Bach chorales. My vision is to have theory and practice, history and performance integrated as one art. Already, students start with Baroque harmonies in Bach chorales. From there, it is relatively easy to stretch out those tertiary harmonies vertically as well as stretching the harmonic rhythms horizontally to take more space as melodies develop, which is what happens in much nineteenth-century music. The improvisation pedagogy developed in Bach and the Art of Improvisation is a series of steps derived from the repertoire. This pedagogy can easily be transferred to any pattern-based music improvisation (music organized in modes and scales) from medieval music to Messiaen.

 

In your pedagogy, what is the first step? 

I always begin where the student is at and build appropriate steps from there. If the student needs a better foundation in relaxed technique, fingering, hymn playing, note reading, and analysis, we work with those aspects immediately and introduce improvisations such as musettes, ostinatos, and two-voice counterpoint. My students, other professional musician friends, and I have had great fun in developing “improvisation societies” in which we improvise for and with one another on various themes. This puts the improvisation psychology into a friendly environment and allows participants to inspire each other by becoming a “counting choir” to help the improviser keep track of the meter and tempo, by playing rondos, in which each person can try out a small phrase at a time, by offering constructive feedback, fresh ideas, and accountability for practicing.

 

Where do you then proceed from there? 

I use chorales with soprano and thoroughbass and cadences so that each improviser can hear and sing the cantus firmus as well as the harmonic basis, and know with each sense how to fill in inner voices. Gradually, improvisers can work to harmonize a given soprano and to create upper voices from a given thoroughbass. From thoroughbass and chorales, I introduce how to decorate one line at a time using appropriate figures to fit proper voice leading and harmonic function, both with two-part counterpoint and with four-part harmonies. This leads to chorale preludes and dance suites, which get into exciting meter and rhythmic variations. 

 

Bach and the Art of Improvisation, Volume Two is ready to go to press. What is the focus of the second volume?

In volume two, I offer free works, but still within a thoroughbass and chorale framework: interludes and cadenzas, preludes, fantasias, continuo playing, partimento, and fugue.

 

I’d like to hear more about those last three. What about continuo playing?

Many modern continuo-playing realizations simply designate block chords for the thoroughbass harmonies indicated. Some of these are not even careful with appropriate ranges to fit with the soloists, voice leading, or doubling. In contrast, Bach’s continuo playing was described as creating a quartet out of a trio. Instead of resorting to block chord-type continuo, he would most often play the left-hand bass line given and improvise a right-hand part that would fit ideally in dialogue and duet with the other solo voices. When I started improvising in this way in continuo with ensembles, I was astonished at how much more sophisticated it sounds, as well as how much more it enhances what the other instrumentalists are doing.

 

What is partimento?

Partimento is an improvisation pedagogy practiced by many Italians, notably Adriano Banchieri, Bernardo Pasquini, and Girolamo Frescobaldi, as well as several German musicians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Italian composers influenced the art of improvisatory flourishes in keyboard free works. Froberger is a wonderful example of that Italianate influence from his teacher Frescobaldi, as I demonstrate in my Froberger on the 1658 De Zentis CD played on an original 17th-century Italian harpsichord. (See Figure 8.) In his toccatas, Froberger introduced cosmopolitan influences: Italianate improvisatory virtuosic passagework, French dance and overture rhythms, and strict imitative counterpoint practiced by German composers and the Palestrina lineage of contrapuntalists.

The cross-pollination between Italy and Germany was evident in partimento works, including fugue. After Bach taught his students how to work with thoroughbass in chorales, free works, and continuo playing, he introduced partimento fugues in his early fugal pedagogy. (See Figure 9.) In partimento fugues, the subject and answer are introduced. After the initial entrances, the partimento features thoroughbass only. The improviser’s role was to solve the puzzle by placing additional subject entrances in the fugue according to where they fit with the harmony indicated by the thoroughbass. For example, with a four-voice fugue, the improviser fills in the missing voices and remaining harmony in four-voice counterpoint. Most improvisers enjoy puzzles, riddles, or Sudoku. Partimento is a similar musical game and valuable improvisation pedagogy tool. 

So you can use partimento for fugues?

Yes, Bach did, as did Handel. In Volume Two of Bach and the Art of Improvisation, I show examples of partimento fugue as a starting point for fugal improvisation. Bach certainly moved beyond that in teaching, composing, and improvising fugues, and in my final chapter, I offer applications for how to create increasingly professional fugues. 

 

I think most people would feel daunted by the thought of improvising fugues.

Yes, and they did in Bach’s day, too. It is truly possible for anyone who is willing to practice with great attention and perseverance. The results are exhilarating.

But the solution is, as Bach did, to build up each of the improvisation pedagogy steps so incrementally, that fugue becomes simply the next rung of the ladder. 

 

And that’s exactly what you do in Bach and the Art of Improvisation!