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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Great Similarities In The Art Of Improvisation Then And Now

October 22, 2010

Modern jazz records have more in common with old organ manuscripts from the 17th century than was previously realized. A thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that many of these manuscripts were used by the organists of the day in the same way that the jazz musicians of our time use CDs ““ namely as a way of learning how other musicians play.

The thesis, written by senior lecturer Karin Nelson from the Department of Cultural Sciences, looks at musical notation during a period when organists were known for improvising.

“In my thesis, I look at how 17th century organists in northern Germany learned to improvise, and compare this method with the approach used today by improvisational musicians I’ve been in contact with,” she says.

The study reveals a number of similarities, but also differences between then and now.

“What is the same is the way they relate to and imitate other musicians’ playing, and how they use memorisation, transposition and different musical figures. One difference I’ve noted is that singing was an important part of the process of learning to improvise in the 17th century, which is not the case to the same extent today.”

The thesis gives examples from a variety of composers, including Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, where it is clear that they often started from an existing written composition when improvising.

In connection with the defence of her thesis, Karin Nelson will be adopting the same approach at a concert in Vasakyrkan Church in central Gothenburg. Starting from existing works, including Bach’s Prelude in B minor, Chick Corea’s Spain and one of Schoenberg’s fragments, she will gradually move away from the written music and make her own organ improvisations.

“This is very much an example of a historical way of playing,” she says.

As part of her thesis, Nelson has also analysed the 17th century organist Heinrich Scheidemann’s Magnificat settings, which consist of 33 verses based on eight different Gregorian melodies. One conclusion drawn is that these settings were originally intended as a teaching aid for use in the process of learning to improvise.

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