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Before his compositions were rediscovered, JS Bach was not known as a composer (as CPE Bach was) but as one of the foremost improvisers and performers of his time.

What is known about JS Bach's improvisational technique?

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At that time, improvisation was a common practice. Actually, when keyboard instruments started to be used, its music was not even written. Everything was improvised. Keyboard music started as accompaniment for choirs, etc. Therefore, the keyboard performer would often rely on a voice score or whatever and improvise a second voice or whatever from that. When they started to notate music for keyboard, they didn't have a proper way to do it.

This feels like ancient ages to us, but for Bach it was not that far away. Bach and his contemporaries come from that tradition. Bach was probably able to improvise the kind of music that he wrote, since composition and performance was not detached as it is today. Bach would probably be able to improvise a little invention on the clavichord, or a complete fugue on the organ, or a continuo accompaniment for a soloist, a Choral preludium from a Choral, also transpose an accompaniment for a singer... He would probably improvise pretty much the same kind of stuff that he wrote on paper, only that, perhaps, without the formal strictness and complexity of the written works. In fact, many works or parts of works written by Bach may come from improvisations that he later wrote down and elaborated.

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    Good start, but what are the principles of improvisation? – pro Aug 11 '14 at 3:06
  • @KevinJohnsrude What does that mean? Improvisation is composing in real time--and the question "What are the principles of J.S. Bach's composition?" is likely too broad to be answerable. – NReilingh Aug 11 '14 at 3:46
  • Yes... In an intuitive way, I would sum up the principles like this: "principles of improvisation are the principles of composition that you can apply on the fly". I am no improvisation expert, though. – George Aug 11 '14 at 14:02
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    For those interested in stylistic rules, there are historical documents. I recommend "Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments" by C.P.E.Bach. It's pretty technical and, at the end, in many instances it's pretty difficult to know for certain what the text means. Music's details are difficult to put into words. – George Aug 11 '14 at 14:11
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    As for improvisation being common practice, consider Johann Reincken.He started his career as an assistant organist at the age of 15, took over the full-time organist's post at age 20, and continued in the same church until his death at 89. He was generally recognised as the greatest organist of his time. How many compositions for organ did he actually write and publish in that 75-year career? Just four. Everything else was improvised. Bach met him towards the end of his life, and improvised for three hours on a single Lutheran chorale (hymn tune) - and met with Reinken's approval. – user19146 Feb 12 '17 at 15:57
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As a latecomer to this discussion I would like to share some of my own experience and discoveries on my journey as an organ improviser. If composing can be compared to the authoring of a piece of literature such as a novel or poem, improvising is more akin to conversation or an off-the-cuff speech. The first principle is to acquire the musical language -in this case - of J.S.Bach in the same way that he studied the musical language of Vivaldi, Buxtehude and others. Bach's Preludes and Toccatas provide excellent examples of figuration that you can try over simple chord progressions of, say up to eight bars long. It also helps to be able to do this in all major and minor keys. Try clothing a hymn or chorale in the same way with a toccata figure. This is only for starters. Don't forget that Bach is now seen as one of the greatest of Baroque musicians. If your efforts are even vaguely recognisable as being derived from Bach's style your are doing well. Good luck! - Wilmarc

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We may not know from recordings how JS Bach improvised but we can make some guesses. Bach played the organ in churches and so we might rightfully guess that the current practice of European church organists had its origin in the corpus of practice of Bach's time. I've answered this possible practice here:
Does improvisation in the classical idiom differ significantly from jazz and folk improvisation?

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    The current practice of European church organists is not necessarily close to Bach's practice. It might, but as you say, you can only "guess". "Believing" (guessing) and "knowing" is not the same. To improvise in a style, you "only" have to learn to compose in that style, and then be able "compose live". So for example: if you want to improvise a Choral, study Bach's voice-leading and harmonic structures so well than you can build them live. – George Aug 12 '14 at 10:41
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    Now, if what you want is a set of easy and simple rules to improvise and compose in Bach's style, you're just out of the right path. Rationale: Bach's style is not easy nor simple. – George Aug 12 '14 at 10:43
  • Elegance is simple. – pro Aug 14 '14 at 1:34
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    Elegance "feels" simple, but holds lots of complexity underneath. Neglecting the complixity behind simplicity leads to superficiality. That's why "elegance" is so difficult to teach/learn in conceptual terms. – George Aug 14 '14 at 9:14

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