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For centuries, cathedrals have followed a guiding principal that hidden musical instruments help create an illusion of music coming directly from heaven. Like bells concealed in a belfry or a choir tucked away high in a loft, the mechanics of pipe organs are still often found in unseen places, along with an organist whose stage presence is not relevant.

Modern times not only allow overt showmanship on pipe organs, but champion it. Since the age of three, Argentine organist Hector Olivera has pioneered the new showmanship, dazzling his audiences with flamboyant presentation, as well as innovative improvisation and unusual showstoppers.

In his lengthy catalogue of organ music, Canadian composer Denis Bédard (b. 1950) bestows the general term “Toccata” to several works. Of these, the third and final movement of his 1991 Suite, dedicated to his wife, resonates as an engaging one-movement work that may even be considered catchy.

Beginning in G major with occasional flat thirds and sevenths, the right hand engages in perpetually running 16th notes, while the left hand and feet combine forces rhythmically to develop a two-bar motive. The steady texture moves into various unpredictable key areas before shifting to a contrasting section with a new legato melody in the right hand.

After some knotty development and a cadenza, the opening idea returns. Eventually an extensive closing section gradually resolves the activity with a big ending.

During a 1927 tour of the United States, organist and composer Louis Vierne (1870- 1937) wrote a collection of organ works under the single title 24 Pièces de Fantaisie, even though they were published as four six-movement “suites” with four separate opus numbers. “Clair de lune” occurs as the penultimate piece of the second suite, Opus 53, while “Carillon de Westminster” represents the finale of the third suite, Opus 54.

The former traces its title (meaning “moonlight”) back to a poem by Paul Verlaine and is organized in an ethereal A-B-A form. The A section in A-flat major emphasizes a falling single melody line played in the right hand supported by softly sustained accompaniment in the left hand and pedals. The middle B section commences with a new single melody line on the pedals accompanied by a repetitive 16th-note pattern in a chromatically altered A major. This melody eventually shifts to the right hand, before the A section recapitulates.

In “Carillon de Westminster,” a set of variations on the familiar “Westminster Quarters” clock-chime melody gradually thickens its harmony into a grandly cacophonous ending. There is some controversy as to whether Vierne inadvertently misquotes the melody or deliberately alters it to enhance its musicality.

Much has been published about Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544, attempting to prove it was the 1727 funeral music for the monarch Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. The 6/8 meter of the Prelude includes elaborate ornamentation and scalar motion in 32nd notes forming otherwise simple fugal expositions and development.

The simple subject of the fugue is said to be based on a popular Central European folk song of the time, but also sounds much like the beginning of the Peruvian melody “El Condor Pasa” (recorded by Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s).

Belgian composer Flor Peeters (1903-1986) created a difficult study in breath control for the slow middle movement in his Sonata for trumpet and piano, Op. 51. Transcribed as a movement for organ solo and called “Aria,” it becomes a simple, reflective anthem in G major, with a drawnout, sequencing melody over a regularly pulsating accompaniment.

The sudden death of organist and composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940) during the early months of World War II inspired Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) to honor him with Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, Op. 7. Using the alphabet-to-musical-pitch cypher from Ravel’s Minuet sur le nom d’Haydn, in which letters beyond H (which depicts B natural) simply reattach to the musical pitches in order, “ALAIN” becomes “ADAAF,” or the outline of a simple D-minor triad.

A rapidly shifting triple meter sets off interplay between a chant-like theme and another theme based on Alain’s Litanies. As a whole, the music eventually drops back in intensity by the end of the prelude, while the fugue commences in a more reflective way, building up ecstatic energy in closing.

Born in Zanzibar and raised a Zoroastrian, Ferrokh Bulsara (1946-1991) used the stage name Freddie Mercury in forming his famous rock quartet, Queen. His “Bohemian Rhapsody” juxtaposes five incomplete songs, although the lyrics and melody of the first song return at the end.

Contrasting with the simple overall form, this nonpareil of over-the-top opera pastiche owes its notorious complexity to extensive rehearsing and overdubbing voices in a recording studio. By arranging this rock song for organ, Olivera shows confidence not only in his technique but the purely musical substance of this material.

- Notes by Gregg Wager
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.