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Professor John Mortensen on his upcoming book, “Improvising Fugues”, partimento and more


I had a quick chat with Professor John Mortensen on the phone about his upcoming book,"Improvising Fugues", partimento, his month-long residency at McGill University, and more!


Nikhil Hogan: Congratulations on the success of “The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation”! Can you tell me a little about the response so far?


John Mortensen: As far as I know, it’s.. no one has said anything wicked about it [laughs]. No one has sent me any hate mail and I do get some nice messages from time to time. The publisher, they gave me some numbers and their feeling was that they’re extremely happy with sales performance because that’s the only thing they look at of course [laughs] and I think they’re very, very happy. And I do hear anecdotally, someone’s using it for individual study or they’re using it at a university or conservatory somewhere, and so I’m always very glad to hear that.


Nikhil Hogan: What type of fugue are you referring to in your upcoming book? Some people think of Bach, or the Italian-style fugues, or the Paris Conservatory’s academic fugues.


John Mortensen: Yeah, you’re right, it’s hard to get a lasso around this animal. What it’s important in the book is being able to improvise something that we all think of that’s fugue. Everyone who’s around keyboard music of the Baroque has an idea that we all more or less share of what is supposed to happen and so I’m going after that but drawing on a broad range of influences including Neapolitan Italian fugue, of course the German Baroque, and a lot in the French tradition. There’s an entire chapter on the fugue d’école and how it is not like something you could improvise but also how you can take a lot of guidance from it to improvise.

Nikhil Hogan: Improvising fugues sounds scary to many, is the fear justified?


John Mortensen: Sure, if you don’t want to do your homework it is [laughs] but what i’m trying to do is show that everything is just a step. Everything is just: learn this really solidly and then go to the next step. Learn that very solidly, go to the next step. I remember reading one time, I can’t find the quote maybe somebody can send it to me if they read this, but in a biography of Bach it was said that even his teaching of fugue was just the next step on what his students would have learned previously and I’m trying to find that quote. And that’s very much the case, so in order to get to fugue, I go through a very substantial course in partimento because with partimento you get all kinds of great goodies thrown in. Rule of the octave, and bass motions, and imitation and modulation. Almost everything you need is actually is in the partimento tradition. That’s where you get a sense of what can happen harmonically, what will not happen harmonically. So partimento is really the training ground, it’s kind of the bootcamp. So that’s half the book. And then once you have that, you can get into the specifics of expositions, episodes, presentations, stretto, pedal point and how all of that fits together.


Nikhil Hogan: How much study in partimento does someone have to do to be prepared to tackle part two of your book?


John Mortensen: Hmmm, a lot. It’s going to vary with individual people. I’ve had students who had a lot of training, maybe some other way in continuo or whatever it was that didn’t really know partimento and they could go into fugue fairly easily. Some way or other, one has to have a really good command of the basic language of common practice music of dissonance preparation and resolution, of kind of a default harmonic language which is going to be rule of the octave, and just a sense of how music sounds. I think the best way to get that if you don’t have it is through partimento. It’s the most efficient, orderly way. But I’ve met people who’ve gotten it some other way. I don’t know how long it takes, I feel obligated to say it and so in the introduction, I said, “Well, a really talented, dedicated undergraduate conservatory student who worked on it everyday: maybe 2 years”. But I don’t know. When I was that age, it would have taken me 20 and then I wouldn’t be that age anymore, right? [laughs]


Nikhil Hogan: It seems like “The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation” provides a great preparation for the materials in this new book.


John Mortensen: Yes, I wrote it as a very gradual on-ramp.. As you know, the first chapter is all about figuration. Even though, would that really be the first thing a student in the Neapolitan conservatories or an apprentice in German Baroque would learn? Probably not but for modern readers, I knew they’re going to want some kind of pay-off in chapter one. You can’t expect them to do a year of work before anything fun happens [laughs] because they’re not going to do it. And so, that was written so that they could do chapter one and get something, and enjoy something musically. And then they could do chapter two and get something. And then if they want to keep going, it gets more difficult and expands to more areas. This book is written, it’s a little bit more stark and serious. Like, Okay, you want to go the whole way to the top of the mountain? Let’s pack for it and let’s head out for the long journey. So it’s a little bit less beginner-friendly, well, it’s a lot less beginner-friendly, we’ll put it that way. But the first book would prepare someone for this, yes, so it’s sort of, it’s kind of a little course in two books.

Nikhil Hogan: You’re a musician who can actually improvise fugues. Does that change the way you look at the famous written fugues like Bach’s and others in the repertoire?


John Mortensen: Definitely. In the case of Bach, it’s made me realize how almost everything he did, he was proving that he was better than everybody, and how unusual, and not typical of everybody else’s style his music really is. Everyone says he’s the greatest but he’s actually better than that, he’s proving it every time he gets out of bed and puts on his shoes in the morning, he’s proving it. Just take one piece, the violin chaconne in D minor. It’s the only chaconne he ever wrote as far as I know, there’s an organ passacaglia. These are very common pieces, Pachelbel wrote dozens of them, Böhm and everybody else, chaconnes coming out their ear. Bach wrote one and he blew everybody out of the water with this monument, this Mt. Everest and that seems to be what he does a lot of the time. If he’s going to touch something, he’s going to transform it forever so it made me appreciate him even more. It also made me realize his music is not typical Baroque music actually, it really isn’t. It’s very exceptional and kind of weird. So if you want to know typical Baroque music you have to go to people like Mattheson or Lully or even Buxtehude or some of his students like Krebs, people like that. It’s much more typical and it’s actually more helpful to the improviser to study that which was typical rather than that which was exceptional. So, that would be one thing that’s really become clear to me in this process.


Nikhil Hogan: How do the Italian fugues from the partimento tradition contrast with the German fugues?


John Mortensen: One of the big things is that they’re not concerned about strictly accounting for the number of voices and in many of our old copies of the Well tempered clavier, every fugue has, it says how many voices there are in it. And then, you’ll get rests in the measure that will show that there’s supposed to be a voice there. Like even two whole rests because there’s nothing in the treble clef: there’s places for two voices here. So it gives you this idea that there’s a strict number of voices and then you take theory class, you have four voices and you can’t, a number of us have gotten in voice-leading trouble in theory class and we wanted to abduct the tenor and make him disappear for a measure and a half? So that he doesn’t cause a problem, and then we can release him from captivity later [laughs], and we were told that’s not allowed. So you get this sense that there’s like these four unbreakable streams that have to be going. Italian fugue doesn’t care about that at all. Things come in, come out. They’ll break into alberti bass for awhile and make it sound like Mozart before going into more- so it’s much more loose, and the way that Italian fugue communicates this fullness of voices is not necessarily by keeping them all but by having lots of vocal entries. So we keep hearing them come in and we imagine this fullness, even though it may only be three voices.


Nikhil Hogan: Finally, congratulations on your month-long residency to teach, perform, and collaborate at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montréal. Can you tell me a little bit about that?


John Mortensen: Thank you, Nikhil. Yeah, I’m very happy to be going up to Montreal next year. My colleague, Dorian Bandy, who’s a Baroque violinist is helping put the project together so I’ll be working with the early music program. I think we’re going to do some concerts with the orchestra. It’s all coming together gradually because we’re coming out of Covid and everyone is sort of asking, “well is this possible”? So I don’t know that much about the shape of it but I think it will be very exciting so it will be a month long in the month of February in 2022 at McGill at the Schulich School of Music.


Nikhil Hogan: That’s wonderful, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me.


John Mortensen: Always good to catch up, Nikhil. All the best.


Professor John Mortensen is a leader in the international revival of historic improvisation. He is the author of "The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation" (Oxford University Press, 2020) and is the creator of Improv Planet, an online school of historic improvisation.

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