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Dominican priest plays jaw-dropping improvisation on Krakow organ

J-P Mauro - published on 08/30/21

A tremendous showing on a 19th-century organ in a 13th-century basilica.

In mid-August, Father Robert Mehlhart, OP put on this stunning display of musical talent. Sitting at Holy Trinity Basilica’s 19th-century organ, he put on a master class of improvisation. 

Due to the nature of improvisation, as a spontaneous flow of musical thought, we wonder if Fr. Mehlhart even knew what he was about to play. The video’s description notes that it is based on “Salve Regina,” but the dizzying, looping melody makes it unique. 

Organ playing

It’s hard to overstate how difficult an organ is to play, especially this well. The difference between piano and organ is actually comparable to that between an airplane and a helicopter. A plane is flown with a yoke and simple pedals underfoot, whereas a helicopter requires constant use of both hands and feet. 

In the case of the organ, the foot pedals are underneath the keyboard and well out of sight. It is not uncommon for those learning to play organ to play barefoot, so they may better identify which pedal they are pushing. That the pedals are arranged in the style of a keyboard sounds like it would make it easier to keep track of, but it’s still tough. 

But wait, there’s more. The organ features an extra keyboard above the primary. Suddenly, playing an organ is like simultaneously flying a helicopter while playing 3D chess. It is hard to believe that anyone could have the mental capacity to improvise a melody while keeping track of three keyboards. This is why we are so impressed with Fr. Mehlhart’s exceptional skill. 

Almost more impressive than his abilities, however, is the structure of this improvisation. Fr. Mehlhart’s starting line gives way to a slower, more subtle melody played above. Then he drops the fast-paced line for what feels like a second movement. Played slower and more focused on chords, this second movement only emphasizes the frantic nature of the intro. 

The video is made all the more exciting by the shots of the basilica. Holy Trinity Basilica is a famous mid-13th-century church with a Dominican monastery. The basilica features a chapel dedicated to St. Hyacinth, and has been known for its sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary since 1668. 

Visit Fr. Robert Mehlhart’s YouTube channel to hear more from the virtuoso. 

Also, check out the link below to watch Fr. Mehlhart conduct what may be the greatest work of sacred music from 2020.

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