The art of improvisation at the organ has enjoyed a renewed interest in recent years, perhaps in part due to competitions such as the American Guild of Organists’ National Competition in Organ Improvisation (NCOI) and to the many recordings by celebrated improvisers such as Pierre Cochereau and Gerre Hancock. This article is in two parts—the first is an introduction to a planned series of interviews and discussions with a diverse array of American practitioners of the craft; the second is the first in that series. We begin with Matthew Glandorf, long-time member of the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a church musician with a wide range of denominational experience, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches, among others. He presently serves as organist and choirmaster of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and preceded me at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Locust Street, Philadelphia, where I have been organist and choirmaster since 2016.
I began “making things up” at the piano before learning to read music; playing by ear was a skill that developed alongside my musical training. I cannot recall a time when I did not try to concoct my own music. Will all those to be featured in this series be able to recall similar memories? Is this a near-universal experience for those who gravitate toward improvising? (To be clear, I think it is never too late to begin!)
Throughout childhood and adolescence, especially as I began playing in church and then took up a weekly position in high school (first for a United Methodist church, and subsequently for a Southern Baptist congregation, a far cry from my more recent Anglo-Catholic/high church Episcopal environs), improvisation on hymns (both as hymn preludes, of a sort, and for congregational singing) was a frequent endeavor. I learned many harmonic progressions and “dirty chords” before I understood what they were, in any formal sense, or was able to do any sort of analysis. Is this, too, commonplace among improvisers? (Eventually my understanding of music theory caught up, but not for a long time, it seems.)
A watershed moment for me was being appointed organist and director of music at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City, in 2001, just after graduating from Westminster Choir College. The elaborate liturgies and long processions of “Smoky Mary’s” required a great amount of substantive improvisation, and I was a bit intimidated. I realized that I had to go beyond the so-called “Anglican fudge,” with a few dirty chords thrown in, learning to extemporize something that did more than merely fill time—because often there was a lot of time to fill. How many others began to study improvisation seriously not just of interest but of necessity? (That marvelous organ and the church’s acoustic became great teachers, as well.)
Shortly thereafter, I began regular study both in improvisation and repertoire with McNeil Robinson, longtime chair of the organ department at the Manhattan School of Music and a distinguished predecessor of mine at Saint Mary the Virgin. Robinson and Gerre Hancock were, to my mind, the greatest American organist-improvisers from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century. (Both were, of course, fine composers as well.) Robinson was a brilliant musician and formidable pedagogue, and I was terrified to improvise for him, but what an education I received! Much of it was away from the console: writing phrases, periods, and counterpoint; undertaking harmonic analysis, and so on.
All these things and more were then translated to the console. Robinson taught improvisation as composing in real time, that is, as the same process. (In a way, I studied composition with him just as much as I did improvisation.) He encouraged and enabled me to develop my own musical language by which to undergird structurally coherent, extemporized pieces. In this series, I hope to learn more about the primary teachers of some of my colleagues and how they were taught. Additionally, who else influenced them? (Hancock was an inspiration to so many of us. I only had one private lesson with him in improvisation, but it was one of the best lessons of my life.)
I recall well the first time, upon request, I improvised in recital. It was a daunting task: it is one thing, I thought, to accompany liturgical action, but to hold an audience captive only to listen to my musical imagination? (Nowadays, I nearly always improvise in recital, though never want to overstay my welcome; so far, no one with a hook has pulled me off the console, and the improvisations seem to be well received and appreciated. Whew.) What led some of my colleagues to begin improvising outside a liturgical context?
What about competitions? How have they shaped others as improvisers? I only ever entered one, the Saint Albans Organ Festival, still very young and green; it was a terrific learning experience, though never to be repeated, for whatever reason. Were competitions a major influence, or not, on other improvisers?
There are a few further questions I hope to explore in this series. Is there a distinctively American manner of improvising, and do others feel there is something “American” about their musical language or general approach? Is their harmonic vocabulary unique to themselves or a synthesis of various styles and composers, or both? Is there a major distinction to be made between improvising as literally composing in real time, as opposed to imitating historical models or styles? (McNeil Robinson had me imitate historic styles as a pedagogical exercise, and to this day I do so from time to time to try to keep sharp, but aside from liturgical miniatures I rarely improvise in public in anything other than my own “voice.” For what it is worth, I would regard both Hancock and Robinson as improvisers nearly always in their own distinct voices, with occasional forays into the imitation of others.) Which approach do my colleagues favor, or both? Or is that a distinction without a difference?
And now, let us learn from and about Matthew Glandorf, an extremely imaginative improviser who extemporizes marvelously both in liturgical and concert settings.
Robert McCormick: When, how, and why did you start playing by ear and inventing your own music? How did it coincide with your childhood music training?
Matthew Glandorf: As far back as I can remember, I was either making things up at the piano and organ or “figuring out” pieces I had heard. I started on the violin at the age of four and piano at seven. My piano teacher gave me a notebook of manuscript paper, and I was encouraged to write my own pieces. However, at this point I barely read music, so there was a disconnect between what I played and what I had written. My father, who was a Lutheran pastor as well as an organist, collected reharmonizations for hymns, and I became familiar with “dirty chords.”
How did you employ improvisation in public over the course of your childhood? Did you improvise in church in some way?
While my family was living in Germany, I was appointed to my first church job at age ten, playing for services at the nearby Royal Air Force and military base. I usually improvised my own preludes and postludes on a spinet piano, and in retrospect I realize that I would try to vary the style so that it didn’t sound the same week after week.
Once I began playing at my home parish it was customary to play short chorale preludes in a free style. Additionally, after I had formal training in four-part writing, I used the chorale book with the melody only, creating my own harmonizations.
Did you understand the music theory behind what you were doing, or did that understanding catch up later?
I think I had a natural sense of harmony and voice leading. I was lucky to have a phenomenal piano teacher in Germany who spent an hour at each lesson on music theory and figured bass before we even started on literature.
Was there a watershed moment that inspired you to develop your skills seriously?
My family had a record of Gerre Hancock improvising at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, which was a huge influence on me. I started off imitating what Hancock was doing and gradually began to develop my own language from that. But since early childhood I knew that that was what I wanted to be able to do! I always improvised alongside learning the literature.
Who were your principal teachers and influences in improvisation? How did you learn from them?
Strangely enough, I never had any formal training in improvisation! I wanted to take lessons with Gerre Hancock, but I went and played for him, and he said, “I think you’re doing fine on your own.” (Although I was disappointed, I now take that as a huge compliment.) My mentor as a student at Curtis, Dr. Ford Lallerstedt, who had been a student of Vernon de Tar as well as of Hancock at Juilliard, gave me further encouragement. Ford, too, is a brilliant improviser, with one of the finest ears I’ve ever encountered. I did my graduate studies with McNeil Robinson at the Manhattan School of Music, yet he, too, seemed disinterested in working on improvisation. However, I also think Robinson was one of the finest improvisers in the country. Other notable improvisers who influenced me were Pierre Cochereau, Philippe Lefebvre, and eventually Wolfgang Seifen and Sietze de Vries. The latter two really opened my imagination to improvising in historical styles.
When did you first improvise in a concert setting?
In my early twenties I began to gain the courage to include improvisations in my concerts. Now, I would prefer only to improvise and leave the literature for more capable players than myself!
Did you ever enter a competition in improvisation?
I did enter the NCOI in the early 1990s in Dallas. Frankly, I didn’t play that well: somehow having the spotlight on me in that fashion caused me to freeze up creatively. By that point I realized that I predominantly leave everything up to “inspiration in the moment.” Discipline doesn’t come naturally to me, but gradually I have refined practice techniques to strengthen my chops, so I can always have something to rely on if the mood isn’t “just right.”
Do you consider yourself to have your own distinct musical language? Is there anything distinctly “American” about your improvising? For you, how does the creative process differ when you are imitating a historical style? Is it a different process altogether or a different side of the same coin? What about improvising in different liturgical traditions, for instance, Lutheran versus Anglo-Catholic?
For me the real fun of improvising is to be able to make a statement that feels appropriate to the moment. This is especially true in liturgical improvisation, when much of the point is to create a specific mood, or to comment on the liturgical action. I also try to match the style with the hymns or choral music being sung so they are in some sort of dialogue. Although the requirements for improvisation in the Lutheran tradition versus that of the high Anglican are different (there is more need for occasional improvisation in a high church liturgy for the censing of the altar, processions, etc.), I try to be eclectic in style, ranging from Sweelinck to Howells to Vierne to Messiaen to Mendelssohn. I think having a distinctive voice as an improviser happens by accident, so I try not to fuss too much about that.
In terms of the process of improvising in historical styles, I try to study scores and read through literature to see how it’s done from the inside out. For example, if I am working through the French Baroque, I’ll read through a handful of that repertoire, getting a sense of the harmonic progressions, melodic contours, and, of course, the ornamentation. Then it’s about practicing the same way I practice literature. Whether I am improvising in a historical style or something avant-garde, it is always premeditated, starting on the macro level, in terms of the general shape and form, adding melodic and rhythmic motives that will serve as an underlying structure. But the essential discipline for me is never far away from written composition.
In terms of an American identity, I was born in the United States, grew up in Germany, was raised Lutheran, became an Episcopalian, and was heavily influenced by French organ music. One of the interesting developments of common liturgical practices of the mainline denominations over the past fifty years is how Roman Catholics now sing hymns from the Protestant tradition, Anglicans sing German chorales, and Lutherans sing hymns of Charles Wesley. Anglicans and Lutherans have moved away from Morning Prayer to weekly Eucharist. This ecumenical dialogue really opens possibilities for eclectic and diverse forms of liturgical improvisation.
Although I improvise in different styles from across the centuries, often I cross-pollinate say, French Baroque, with a more contemporary language. In that sense, such a hybrid approach is distinctly American.
How does improvisation differ from composing to you? If you prefer improvising, why?
I have composed over the years, but I don’t consider myself a “capital letter” composer. I don’t feel like I have anything truly important to say. At times, listeners have asked me why I don’t write down my improvisations. I always say that would ruin the spontaneity of the moment in which the creation was happening. I believe we listen differently to improvisation, as we are hearing composition in real time. And that is unique!
Finally, I would conclude that the study of sixteenth-century species counterpoint (a subject shamefully not taught nearly enough) has completely informed me as an improviser. It is my favorite subject to teach because it simply is the grammar of music and voice leading. Counterpoint and imitation are the two most important ingredients in good improvisation. Even if I’m doing something that is “way out there” and experimental, I still believe that good voice leading skills and the ability to imitate are paramount.
Already I have learned much from Matt Glandorf, how his experiences and practices both are like and unlike mine, and I hope readers will find both perspectives illuminating. Please stay tuned for further installments in this series, as we explore improvisation with gifted exponents of a fascinating and sometimes mysterious art.