In his 1997 Toccata on the Chorale “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr,” Latvian composer Aivars Kalējs (b. 1951) adapts the toccata style of the French organ symphonists, with perpetually moving filigree arpeggios in the hands while a melody is played on the pedals. Attributed to Luther-contemporary Nikolaus Decius, this easily recognizable tune is set in the same triple meter found in modern Lutheran hymnals and gives a sense of the still important role of Lutheranism in Latvia.
Although French composer Thierry Escaich (b. 1965) has written four numbered pieces titled Évocation, the first two were written and performed together in 1996 as companion pieces. In both, Escaich describes his process as combining non- Western elements with Western elements of the past, going as far back as Gregorian chant.
The first is divided into three parts, commencing with what Escaich describes as interplay between an Oriental chant and a polyphonic Baroque overture. The second part fuses the two styles into a declamatory chordal idea that brings the work to a climax, while the third part drifts in an aftermath with occasional appearances of the original Baroque style.
The second Évocation establishes a relentless ostinato centering on C, which Escaich associates with music from the southern regions of Africa. To offset this with a European influence, he introduces a tune from a psalm setting by Renaissance composer Claude Goudimel, distorting it almost beyond recognition with various polytonal harmonies and rhythmic variation. Escaich refers to the latter as “musique mesurée à l’antique,” which was a Renaissance doctrine exploring the rhythms of speech in music. The ongoing drone is overcome twice by overlapping textures becoming frenetic, but stays the course to end the piece in C as it began.
After the highly successful premiere of Einstein on the Beach in 1975, Philip Glass (b. 1937) added to the news by announcing that he would continue to write operas, even making his second opera, Satyagraha, more conventional in its structure and orchestration. Choosing this time Mahatma Gandhi as the central character, Glass further evolved his vision into a trilogy of operas, with the monotheist Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten as the subject of the third (Satyagraha premièred in 1980; Akhnaten in 1984).
Aside from the religious nature of the trilogy, Glass emphasizes also how the spiritual side of existence can be evoked through the simple process of counting. In “Act III – Conclusion” from Satyagraha, a simple harmonic progression of three chords anchors the piece and shifts from a duple to a triple meter when a simple ascending melody is added.
Composer Michael Riesman (b. 1943) has been with the Philip Glass Ensemble more than 40 years. He performed and recorded his own keyboard arrangement of “Act III – Conclusion” in 1987, which Apkalna adapts for the pipe organ.
Two works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) represent the only works on the program not composed or transcribed in the 20th-century. The Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, BWV 564, is divided into three distinct sections, the first exploring single-voiced passages punctuated by moments of silence. A 19-bar solo for pedal follows, leading into the fully harmonized final section with sequences traded off between manuals and pedals.
The A-minor Adagio presents a simple melody accompanied by the steady eighth notes of a pedal ostinato pulsating continuously. Like the opening of the Toccata, the Fugue subject uses silences, proceeding fluidly in a lively 6/8 triple meter.
Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, represents more a hybrid of several overlapping forms, with a theme and 21 variations prevailing. The extensive C-minor theme in the pedals predominates at first, but is later only implied by harmonic progression, like in a solo chaconne. The ending is an elaborate double fugue in E-flat. Over the years, painstaking analysis purports to reveal Biblical numerologies and even Lutheran hymns embedded in the music.
Like Bach, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906- 1975) wrote only one passacaglia for organ. Originally used as an Entr’acte for his risqué opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, it no doubt derives some inspiration from Bach, while exploring a stridently dissonant style. A few years after the opera’s successful première in 1934, an anonymous article in Pravda famously attacked it as counter to the ideals of socialist realism, giving Shostakovich a genuine setback in his career.
Opening with a series of fortississimo (and louder) chords, the volume quickly subsides to pianississimo, and the nine-bar ground bass is presented in octaves in the pedals. The declamatory melody that enters and eerily meanders with much embellishment and even trills continues throughout the roughly six-minute composition, gradually building intensity only to subside again at the end.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote “Funérailles” as the seventh of ten character pieces from a collection titled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Dwelling upon the macabre side of death, the opening plods and trudges using chromaticism and syncopation to evoke a gloomy, spooky dirge. An ethereal melody takes over, somehow assuaging anything menacing, built upon an ascending fourth followed by a descending half-step. A rousing military march abruptly intercedes, building up enormous steam with mighty ostinatos before returning briefly to the earlier assuaging melody before a final cadence.
Swiss organist and composer Lionel Rogg (b. 1936) has prepared several transcriptions of late Romantic works, mostly designed for his own performances. His version of “Funérailles” even enhances Liszt’s religious imagery, since pipe organs are normally associated with cathedrals and churches.
Although born in Australia, George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987) established himself as an English composer and was even knighted based on his musical accomplishments. His Variations on a Theme of Paganini (for pedal solo) was written in 1962 and combines humor with showing off what an organist’s feet are capable of.
The simple, familiar tune from the 24th Caprice in A minor, Opus 1, by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), serves as material for ten variations, each with a character defined by a specific technique. All but the final variation are played entirely on the pedals.
Some of the techniques appear to defy what feet are capable of, such as the variations requiring one foot to play two or three notes simultaneously (the third, eighth, and ninth) or even glissandos (the sixth). Other variations test how evenly heel to toe can combine with stomping motions to produce prodigious velocity.
Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.