- John Caldwell
A freely composed or improvised piece, usually for the organ in the context of a church service. The term is occasionally met with outside the church, as for example when Burney extemporized at the harpsichord before a distinguished audience in Venice: ‘I played a Voluntary, for I could neither see, nor remember anything, I was so frightened’ (Dr Burney's Musical Tours in Europe, ed. P.A. Scholes, London, 1959, i, p.135). In his remarks about improvisation Roger North discussed the aptitudes necessary in an organist who would create such a piece and the chief characteristics of the style. In the Anglican church the voluntary has been played at the Offertory (at which point before the Commonwealth the choral part of the Communion service often ended) and after the psalms or the second lesson at Matins and Evensong, as well as before and after the service, as is usual today.
As a musical term the word ‘voluntary’ is imprecise. At various times it has overlapped with ‘verse’, ‘fancy’ and ‘fugue’ as well as with less frequently used terms. The word ‘verse’, indicating a short organ piece, is derived from the custom whereby the organ provided a substitute for the chant in the Latin rite, playing the odd-numbered verses of a hymn or other item in alternation with the choir (...