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Notes by Gregg Wager

Because the pipe organ is traditionally a large, permanently fixed structure, organ recitals often find the soloist in some remote part of a cathedral, invisible to the audience. For this reason, overt organ showmanship, especially in the hands and feet of an able child prodigy, is rarer than, say, how stage presence typically develops in violinists or pianists. Nonetheless, Argentine organist Héctor Olivera commenced his career as organ virtuoso and showman at age three, building a solid reputation with flamboyant presentation, as well as remarkable improvisation skills, and generally showing off with otherwise unusual showstoppers (e.g., playing the rapid, chromatic melody of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the pedals). In his more mature years, his performance style has not lost remnants of childlike exuberance, even when playing more intricate, solemn masterworks. His program tonight stays with more conventional selections, although a planned improvisation will no doubt pull all the elements of his artistry together.   

In a collection of 27 (or 3 x 3 x 3) pieces known as Clavierübung III, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) sought to challenge his listeners with an intellectual study that Albert Schweitzer actually called a “mass for organ.” The substantial opening and finale of this “mass” are also often performed alone, catalogued as Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552.  

Schweitzer further analyzed this three-part Prelude as representing the Holy Trinity: Father (symbolized by a dotted-eighth-note and sixteenth-note rhythm), Son (a more playful and simple idea), and Holy Ghost (a sinuous sixteenth-note melody). Similarly, each of the three sections of the five-voice triple Fugue may also symbolize the parts of the Trinity, although as a whole it is popularly dubbed “St. Anne” after the name of an English hymn, most commonly known with the text “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which the main subject of the fugue serendipitously resembles.

Despite its title, César Franck’s (1822-1890) Choral No. 2 in B minor displays clearly many of the indicia of a passacaglia: an interesting melody that serves as a repeating ground bass which is occasionally stated in another voice, a slower tempo in triple meter and minor mode, and a beginning that simply states the melody and builds in complexity and drama upon each repetition. In Franck’s case, this otherwise rigid scheme nevertheless takes a few abrupt harmonic shifts to new but ultimately related keys and, perhaps with a nod to Bach, adds a simple fugue in G minor, occurring midway in the composition. Other ambiguous sections function more as development than recognizable statements of the theme.

Meanwhile, also inserted into this otherwise four-square form are other clearly nonconforming sections: a cantabile chorale, a “largamente con fantasia,” and a distinctive coda in B major that reprises the cantabile chorale. Typical of much of Franck’s organ music, these more ambiguous sections hint more toward either a Wagnerian chromaticism or a choral style of writing with careful voice-leading and contrapuntal techniques.

Inspired by the French organ symphonists of the late Romantic era, Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897) created his Suite Gothique, Op. 25, with four character pieces that function like the movements of a light symphony: Introduction-Choral, Menuet gothique, Prière à Notre Dame (Notre Dame prayer), and Toccata. The stylistic simplicity of the first three movements reflect a restraint and purity, even if also an ardently pedagogic function, while the often performed toccata ends the cycle with flash and virtuosity.    

Marco Enrico Bossi’s (1861-1925) popular and whimsical Scherzo in G minor, Op. 49, No. 2, packs much into what might appear at first to be a mere ditty, based on a theme of three repetitions of a sixteenth-note pattern in 6/8 time stated bluntly and laconically. As the piece develops, the required finesse and understated humor make for a study in economy of musical materials, following the original meaning of the word “scherzo,” that is, “a musical joke,” but also further exploiting a scherzo’s typical triple meter by exploring hemiola.

Because each of the separate movements in Charles-Marie Widor’s (1844-1937) ten organ symphonies stands on its own as a separate composition, they encompass a large body of work in and of themselves. Of the five movements of his Symphonie pour orgue No. 6 in G minor, Op. 42, No. 2, the first has become the most familiar and frequently played, but somehow the fourth movement, distinguished in the score only by a tempo indication marked “cantabile,” provides a less familiar and more challenging exercise for the listener.

This lyrical piece in D-flat major employs an oboe stop to introduce its primary melody, suggesting at first some sort of pastoral reference to shepherds (as in the Christmas story), but continues obliquely, developing melodic fragments unpredictably before allowing a countermelody with a flute stop to answer antiphonally (perhaps an angel). After a middle section which introduces a running sixteenth-note pattern, a “second verse” is stated with a trumpet stop, repeating the opening melody exactly and entirely. Any other religious interpretation these three distinct timbres or melodic material might actually merit, if any, may be left to the imagination, but they certainly challenge the listener to find a meaning.

Joseph Bonnet’s (1884-1944) Variations de concert, Op. 1, essentially opens with a brief toccata, followed by a simple chorale that states a 16-bar theme. Four variations follow, the first two straightforward treatments, while the third acts like a reflective development section, proceeding through many different fragmented statements of the melody. Finally, the grandiose fourth variation begins with what appears at first to be another straightforward treatment of the theme, serving this time as a big finale. The opening toccata idea then suddenly returns and interrupts, developing into an almost improvisatory cadenza section of fancy footwork and rapid scale passages.   

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.