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About this Piece

Organist Hector Olivera insists he loves the element of surprise in his recitals, which he can easily produce during an improvisation, but his passion for the unpredictable also challenges him to create new things, especially when he can present it with his flamboyant showmanship. He reminds us that pipe organs typically accompany church services, for which printed programs do not exist.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down, Olivera used the extra time alone to create new arrangements of music that would explore a longstanding curiosity about Vivaldi and Piazzolla, but would also allow him a freedom to keep changing his mind about them up until the last minute. His program presents these new creations with other favorites and an improvisation, always striving for spontaneity and deliberate surprises.    

Although an English composer by birth, W. Ralph Driffill (1870–1922) reveals a pronounced influence from the French organ masters. His Suite No. 1, Opus 14, plays much like a small French organ symphony, with the third and final movement, a Toccata in F minor, functioning initially in the French style of that genre, with rapid patterns in the right hand and a slow-moving melody punctuating in the left hand and pedals.  

Written in 1905, this Toccata’s lopsided (3+5) opening phrase lends a certain subtle awkwardness which contrasts playfully with a more symmetrical chorale-like section in the “martial” reeds, as Driffill calls it, which is a reference to a sound like Scottish bagpipes. Driffill further provides his own description of the form at the top of the score, calling a recurrence of the chorale later in the piece a “triumphant chorus” in the brass, followed by a concluding return to the opening. 

As popular as it remains more than 300 years after its composition and first publication, Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678–1741) Le quattro stagioni (“The Four Seasons”), Opus 8, requires careful listening and study of the score. Certainly, much of the work’s fame derives from four Italian sonnets of unknown origin that tell four contrasting stories depicted in each of Vivaldi’s sonically picturesque settings. A sonnet is printed at the beginning of each of four three-movement concertos that feature violin as soloist. Each concerto lasts about 10 minutes, while specific lines from the sonnets are further extracted and reprinted above specific corresponding passages of music.  

The first concerto, “La primavera” (“Spring”) in E major commences with an Allegro that explores bird calls, among other seasonal things such as murmuring streams, light breezes, thunder, and lightning. Explicit imagery in the Largo second movement includes a barking dog depicted by the violas, while a goatherd sleeps in a meadow. An Allegro concludes the scene with music evoking a bagpipe. Thunder and lightning return to conclude Olivera’s version borrowed from the final movement Presto of “L’estate” (“Summer”) in G minor. 

Belgian composer Joseph Jongen’s (1873–1953) Prière or “prayer” comprises the third movement of his Quatre pièces pour orgue, Opus 37, written in 1910, when the memory of Wagner and Lizst still profoundly influenced French organ composers with chromaticism, lengthy declamatory phrases, and an economy of motivic material. Meanwhile, Jongen’s progressive musical thinking clearly employed the fin de siècle Impressionism of French composers such as Debussy allowing him to create the most delicate of soft but dissonant harmonies.  

A deceptively meandering melody opens in B major with a descending major sixth, contrasting with the rest of the piece, which interplays a folkish melody with a chorale, both notated within the B minor key signature but tonally slightly ambiguous. The opening melody returns as a reflection.  

The opening B-minor statements of the melody in Pièce héroïque by César Franck (1822–1890) start off squarely in the left hand, eventually switching off to the right hand and back again. The ever-changing character first builds in intensity introducing more chordal passages until a virtuosic arpeggio accompanies the melody broken into different registers. After a simplified return to the opening B-minor melody, a stabilizing chorale in B major occurs, again morphing character and developing into something unexpectedly different. After a recapitulation introduces yet more new styles and accompaniments, the piece ends with a loud rendition of the chorale.   

Olivera freely reflects on the musical inspiration and life of Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) in an improvisatory arrangement he calls Five Paraphrases on Piazzolla Tangos. In doing so, separate tangos with titles “Contrabajeando,” “Hace Tanto Tiempo,” “Escualo,” “Adiós Nonino,” and “Libertango,” along with a 32-bar fugue, serve to tell the composer’s story.  

All the while, he is relating the pipe organ to the original usage of the handheld bandoneon and how it was at one time used like the pipe organ in German church music, even similar to the central role it played in the composer’s own regular quintet ensemble (the Quinteto Astor Piazzolla). The use of rhythm also plays a key role, at times demonstrating how easily the triple meters of Latin music can transform a tango into something else, such as bossa nova.  

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.