Against All Odds: A few inconveniences on the road to becoming an organist

March 7, 2017

Norberto Guinaldo holds the Master’s degree in Music Theory and Composition from the University of California at Riverside and the Diplome Superieure d’Orgue from the Schola Cantorum in Paris, France, where he studied with Jean Langlais. In the U.S.A. he also studied organ with Clarence Mader. He has been organist at the United Methodist Church of Garden Grove since 1965, and organist at Temple Ner Tamid in Downey, California since 1962.

Norberto Guinaldo has won first prizes in composition in 1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, and 1986. He has been a recipient of numerous commissions, including Oblations of Remembrance (AGO) premiered in 1989; Rhapsody on a French Carol (private patron), written for the inauguration of the horizontal trumpets of the great organ of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles; and Novissimis, a 45-minute work premiered on February 15, 1998, for the inauguration for the new Glatter-Goetz organ at Claremont (California) United Church of Christ.

He wrote and premiered Credo, an hour-long work in twelve sections for the Far-western Regional Convention of the AGO in 1983. In addition to organ music, he has written piano and choral works and music for symphonic and chamber ensembles. Several of his works have been featured in recent years by Michael Barone on Pipedreams.

Norberto Guinaldo has performed in the U.S.A., as well as in Europe, Argentina, and Mexico. Norberto now lives with his wife Melinda in Fullerton (Orange County), California. Their children Clay, Roy, Marcell, and Cordelia, their families, and eleven grandchildren also live in Orange County. His website,, features one hundred titles, either in singles editions or in collections.

Editor’s note: This feature is presented this month as Norberto Guinaldo celebrates his 80th birthday. It will be continued next month.


Ah! The United States! Country without equal in the world. Its citizens, inheritors of a legacy hard to fathom in its totality. The birthplace of most of the greatest simple and complex inventions that have advanced civilization to a degree and with a speed never imagined before. Its institutions of learning, store-houses of knowledge that have provided the tools and means that have bettered the lives, not only of its citizens, but those of the most civilized countries in the world.

Public records tell us that there are close to 1,600 public universities and 2,400 private ones. Would one guess that there might be a music department in each one of them? Would there be a sacred music or an organ department within them? Not in each one, but could one guess that to be the case in the majority? How about half of them? Or maybe one-fourth? That would be a lot of organ departments, wouldn’t one think? And what about colleges?

Tell this to someone coming from a third-world country (ignorant of these realities), and he wouldn’t believe you. To even think of one-tenth of that would stagger the imagination. The abundance of things available to us makes it hard to comprehend that what we take for granted may be totally unavailable or very hard to obtain in some countries. Perhaps the following story will give you an idea of what it was like for a young man pursuing a dream (and maybe amuse you!).



I was born in 1937 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, of an Italian mother and a Spanish father. Both were ten years old when their families migrated to that country in the 1920s. Considering that it was about two years after the end of World War I, economics were probably the reason for the move. Both were baptized Catholic, yet no one in their families practiced their religion in their adoptive country. Argentina was a self-proclaimed Catholic country in those days.

By the time I was born, my parents were attending a “storefront church”—a religious organization that, for decades, met in rented commercial buildings. That was “church” for me as a child and as a young adult. We never set foot inside a Catholic church and we, the children, wouldn’t dare to! You see, among the good things of our religious education in common with many other Christian organizations that base their beliefs in the Bible, we were also taught—actually subtly indoctrinated—with peculiar beliefs that put the Catholic Church in a pretty bad light. These peculiar beliefs acquired a coloring bordering on the bizarre when the subject would come up at home in conversations during our growing years. Young children are particularly sensitive during their formative years when given information they don’t really understand, and it can cause damage in unexpected ways. Unfortunately, I personally developed a fear of all things “Catholic.”

There was no music making at home or musicians on either side of the family. The radio brought us all kinds of music; my father would occasionally listen to a classical music station. And I, as a small child, had no interest in it.

My earliest recollection of any music other than popular was in our “storefront church.” There was a harmonium there to accompany the hymns and an old German gentleman who played it.

I still can picture looking at him from behind, how he moved his elbows up and down, and I always wondered why he did that. It occurred to me decades later, thinking of the poor fellow, that perhaps he had arthritic fingers and that when tried to cross the third finger over the thumb in both hands, the elbows would go up and come down then in a more normal position. He looked to me like a big bird slowly flapping his wings!

We lived just outside the periphery of the city of Buenos Aires. There wasn’t much culture there. The best of European civilization was found in the heart of the city, which people called “El Centro”—the universities, concert halls, theaters, the beautiful architecture, the great churches, and refinement.

My mother was a high-class seamstress who had years before worked for an exclusive clothing store in downtown Buenos Aires. Our house was always full of women cutting patterns to make dresses. (Seventy years ago that was the thing to do, if you wanted to dress well and pay little!) Among these women was a young girl who lived around the corner from us; she played the piano and had a beautiful German upright piano in her home (a luxury then, for a “blue collar” family). My mother asked her if she would teach me to play the piano, she would teach her to make dresses (as an even exchange, I suppose!).


Early music lessons

I was seven at the time and had no interest in music nor any desire to learn an instrument. In grade school there were no pianos, and patriotic songs (only) were sung to the accompaniment of recorded music. There were no incentives in this environment to awaken any desire to learn music. I obeyed my mother and surrendered myself to the experiment. After a month of lessons away from the piano learning note values and beginning solfege, Alba, my teacher, sat me at the piano. I remember to this day (and I don’t know why, considering the circumstances), I felt a thrill all over my body as I faced that keyboard! It was January 17, 1944—written on the first page of my theory book, which I still have in my possession.

From that time on, two lessons a week, and an hour practice every day at her house, of course, since we didn’t have a piano and wouldn’t have one for four more years. Logically, she learned to make dresses faster than I learned to play piano, so my mother paid her a small monthly fee for the lessons, which went on for years. Evidently I took a liking to the piano because by the third year I was playing a lot of music. Alba taught me well.

By age ten (1947) my parents, with much sacrifice, bought a used piano. I was so excited! Unfortunately, beautiful as it was on the outside, it was a disaster on the inside. It wouldn’t hold the tuning longer than a week. The sound was awful. But there was nothing I could do. Yet, it was good to have my own instrument, bad as it was, to move my fingers on and practice the music. Because of it, I started buying music and playing anything that caught my attention. I learned to sight-read with great speed. By then I was playing Bach’s three-part inventions, sonatinas, some Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, as well as tangos and Argentine folkloric music.


First church position

Around that time my “church” had to find another “storefront” location. The old German gentleman disappeared, and I was asked to play the harmonium for services. It was 1948. This 11-year-old boy, in his last year of grade school was “drafted,” against his wishes, to be a church organist? Truly, the word “organ” was never mentioned. I was called to play the harmonium, and the title “organist” would never have occurred to me because I did not know what an organ was! After a few tries, I picked up the “legato” technique quite easily and naturally. 

In those days high school was not obligatory, and children, after grade school, would go on to whatever money-making jobs they felt inclined to do or were available. Fortunately my parents wanted me to go on with my education.

At 12, I was two years too young to go to high school, but it seemed that age didn’t matter to school officials as long as you could pass the entrance exam, and I did. I finished high school two years younger and perhaps still a bit immature also!


Political climate

Argentina was, through all my schooling years, under the leadership of dictator Juan Domingo Perón and his cronies in every position of government, and the ever-present non-elected personality Eva Perón, the famous “Evita,” the dictator’s wife. In 1952 while in my fourth year of high school, Eva Perón, then in her 30s, died of cancer. Suddenly the whole country went into mourning. All radio stations cancelled all programming and played classical music—24 hours a day for 30 days. (Even the Peronistas thought that it was a bit too much!) 

It was during this period that I began to hear real organ music for the first time. The great organs of Europe and their organists were now in my home via recordings. I was overwhelmed with the grandeur of this music and a glorious sound. It touched every fiber of my being and put me on a quest to find a way to learn more about the organ, but more importantly, to find one and to learn to play it! But where to go? Were there any in Buenos Aires? Were there any teachers? Schools? I had to find out.


The big city

I had been in the city as a child with my father, but now I began to explore it on my own, even though I was a bit too young to roam around a big city alone. Truly, it was a bit unnerving. Its architecture attracted me, especially the churches. With trepidation, I began to enter those magnificent buildings looking for organs. I was overwhelmed; I was seeing beauty everywhere! I found many organs and wondered who played them? I tried to imagine how they might sound in those spaces according to what I had heard on the radio.

Going to the city on Sundays to a Catholic Mass, even with the pretext of going to listen to an organ, was out the question. I was still under my parents’ control and still had my duties at the harmonium. Just the thought of bringing this subject up at home made me uneasy. It would have created an ugly situation, the “vibes” of which would have lingered for days! My young mind was being assaulted by all kinds of questions, especially, “Who are the lucky ones who worship in such magnificent places, while we had to do it in such dreadful ones?”

By 1953, my last year of high school, I continued to explore the city, even playing hooky from school many times. And the quest to finding organs was extended to finding organ music. It was the next obvious thing to do.


The search for organ music

There were various large music stores, well supplied with materials, printed music as well as instruments—mostly of European provenance, catering to musicians in a city proud of its artistic heritage. Conservatories of music abounded, both public and private. Teachers trained in Europe and also home-grown supplied well-trained musicians for its symphony orchestras, opera houses, and the many other ensembles, and soloists of all sorts. But where was music for the organ? The great body of centuries-old literature that forms the main part of an organist’s library was nowhere to be found!

I asked myself: what do these organists here play on Sunday? I found a few collections of transcriptions of Baroque Italian masters (for manuals only), a book of easy fugues by Rheinberger and others (for manuals only), which sounded good on the harmonium, a book of pedal exercises by Nielsen (which, obviously, I couldn’t use and bought anyway), and a locally published anthology for the organ edited by Ermete (Hermes) Forti (soon to be my teacher)—30 works for both manuals only and manuals and pedal, covering pre-Baroque to Romantic (mostly easy), German and French works, including Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (“The Cathedral”) and the not-so-easy Cantabile of César Franck, and lo and behold, I found Volume I of Buxtehude’s works—Ciaconas, Passacaglias, and Canzonas edited by Josef Hedar and published by Wihelm Hansen. Quite a find! But no Bach yet. 

However, the Forti collection provided a taste of it and of things to come. I also found the Toccata, Villancico, y Fuga by Alberto Ginastera, the famous Argentine composer. Quickly I started to play these pieces on the piano and the harmonium. But I needed an organ on which to practice, and most urgently, organ lessons.


Organ lessons

One day, at a rehearsal of a choir put together for a special occasion by my religious organization, talking to a girl from another town, the conversation went from mentioning the harmonium to mentioning the pipe organ, a subject obviously foreign to me at the time. However, she said she was taking organ lessons, “real organ” lessons! I knew at that moment that God was reading my thoughts and had brought me there that night to make the connection I needed to begin to do what I wanted to do!

My new-found friend Dolly Morris (of Irish descent) was taking lessons from Maestro Ermete (Hermes) Forti, a transplanted Italian, the organist at the Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento, which housed the 1912 Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll organ, the largest organ in Argentina: 69 ranks, 83 stops. Lessons took place at the Escuela Superior de Organo de la Ciudad Buenos Aires on Saturday afternoons in a house owned by the Catholic diocese in the old and “ritzy” part of town, on a Hammond organ of two manuals and a 32-note pedalboard.

It was December, the end of the school year, and there was going to be a concert by one of the students (yes, on the Hammond organ!). Dolly invited me to attend, and I was there promptly at the appointed time, with great expectations. (I asked myself later, why couldn’t this concert have taken place in a church and on a real pipe organ?) I really needed to hear a live performance on one of those good organs of Buenos Aires. That was to happen later. Now I wasn’t about to ask questions. I learned later by experience, that in Argentina’s organ world, there were no answers to a lot of legitimate questions. You just went with the flow.

A young lady organist played a wonderful concert, and at that time, just seeing the perfect synchronization of hands and feet making beautiful music made me ecstatic and somewhat envious, to the point of not caring that the music came out of an electronic instrument. I just loved it! To me, any organ with two manuals and pedals, at that time, was an organ I wanted to play, period!

What she had accomplished was what I wanted to do. I remember even today at the distance of 63 years, some of the hour-long program: a Bach chorale-prelude, his famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and Nicolai Rimski-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumble Bee!

Dolly Morris offered to introduce me to Maestro Forti, but this had to wait for a few months. I had to figure out how to pay for lessons since I wasn’t working; but I had to find an organ to practice on, and find Bach’s organ music. The question was, where?


A place to practice

My high school was in San Martin, the town adjacent to mine. There was a very attractive old church built around 1850. I decided to go take a look to see if there was an organ. Back in the wide and high loft there was one; I could see the pipes. It looked quite small judging by the height and width of the loft. It was obvious that if I were going to have an organ to practice on, it would have to be in a Catholic church. Now at age 16 the childhood fear of things “Catholic” was still there, and to ask for permission to practice the organ meant talking to a priest. The thought of it petrified me.

Catholic priests walking down the street in their cassocks and Roman hats was a daily and familiar sight then, but talking to one on his “own turf” was a totally different matter. I’d picture him asking me if I was Catholic, where I attended Mass, and since truly I couldn’t lie, it meant an embarrassing situation, and I would be denied.

Some of my classmates urged me to talk to Padre Clovis, the rector, because, according to them, he was “a nice guy.” I did, and he said yes. No questions asked. Wow! My practice time had to be after school, around 5:30 p.m. The first day I went up to the organ loft I found this rather small pipe organ with a reversed console. I noticed the straight pedalboard, 27 notes. Not bad. I opened the lid, one keyboard! Small disappointment—no problem; enough to synchronize hands and feet. I had dreamt of someday playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and the beauty and “novelty” of two manuals (probably to any new organist) was that of moving back and forth between them. That was shot right there! Well . . . I thought, can’t have everything!

I tried the first stop: Gedeckt 8. I will never forget the sound of this stop. The beauty of it brought tears to my eyes, I could have played on it alone for hours. And did, actually, many times afterwards. There was also a Flute 4′, a String 8′, and a Principal chorus at 8-4-2 and Mixture III. Heaven! Who could resist that ensemble! It was beautiful and loud—a long shot from the harmonium. I tried Bach’s E-minor Prelude and Fugue (“The Cathedral”). No problems with the hands, but since I hadn’t had any lesson I did not know the correct position of the feet on the pedals. I did what I could. I loved what I was hearing. One thing bothered me though—why were there so many people in the church at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday? The church seemed to be packed every afternoon. Obviously, I knew absolutely nothing about their religion! Practicing with such a large audience really bothered me. I was conscious of them (obviously praying), and my starting and stopping, and, of course, the volume. As a “newcomer” to the instrument, I couldn’t resist the lure of Full Organ—an experience never to be forgotten!

Nobody complained until one afternoon I heard a loud voice yelling from down below things I couldn’t totally decipher. I stopped playing, looked over the railing, and realized that the tirade was directed at me. An old man with a long beard and handlebar moustache was looking up and shaking his cane at me telling me to stop the “infernal noise” because he couldn’t concentrate on his prayers. I did stop and waited for a considerable time hoping he’d be gone after a short while. It seemed, though, that his prayers were quite long, because, as soon as I started playing he would again start to yell, shaking his cane towards the organ loft. The experience shook me up pretty good, and my fear of everything Catholic was reinforced within me again. From that day on, every time I went to practice I dreaded to find him there, fearful of his yelling at me as soon as I started to play.

It happened many times on and off through many months. Between him and the large pious audience, it was hard to concentrate, and my nerves were, every time, shaken pretty bad.

From time to time, proud of my new find and feeling pretty special being an “organist,” I bragged about it with my musical friends from school whom I took from time to time to the loft to show off. They were appreciative. They had never heard that little organ sound like that.

One Saturday I took a female classmate, a fan of the music of Bach, up to show what little I had accomplished (without lessons, I should mention). She was seated by me on the bench. After a while I heard heavy footsteps rushing up the wooden stairway, when suddenly I see the figure of Padre Clovis rushing towards us from the door at the top of the stairwell, red in the face and yelling things at the moment I couldn’t understand. He gave us a “dressing down,” heard probably by the celestial court above!

A true Argentine, when angry, will just yell to make a point and to show displeasure. I don’t remember now the words of his tirade but the word “immoral” or “immorality” stuck in my young mind never to be forgotten! It seemed that we had “committed a sin” of some kind by being there alone together. Was mixed company forbidden in the organ loft, I asked myself? I wasn’t totally clear about it. What I knew was that the situation was extremely embarrassing, and I felt terrible for my friend who, by the way, was a Lutheran.

I profusely apologized for myself and my friend and claimed ignorance (and may have even asked to be forgiven, I don’t remember clearly). Padre Clovis said something to lighten up the situation, and he was his old smiling self again. I don’t remember if that was the last time I played that organ or shortly afterwards. Too many nerve-racking situations! It wasn’t worth my mental health. Time to try the Organ School, but before I did that I had to find, somewhere, somehow, the organ music of Bach.


The search for Bach

For a long time, whenever I had the chance to go to the city, I would explore every used bookstore in the hope that someday, I’d find what I needed. In the process, I would go in and out of antique stores that I found on the way. I loved them; it was like visiting museums! One day I found a choir book (on the floor), the kind you see in medieval paintings on a stand with a group of monks reading from it and singing. The covers (about 24 x 22) were wooden, with wrought-iron hinges; the pages: parchment; the music: Gregorian. The book was being gutted and sold page by page. I asked: what for? The answer: lamp shades. I felt sick to my stomach. I asked: how much? Ten pesos each. I bought two, that’s all the money I had. I still have them framed in my office.

A sad and wonderful reminder of my “searching” days—a connection to a past that later would come alive to me, as I learned what this “Gregorian” stuff was all about: the beginning of Western civilization’s music. More and more antique stores. I loved the smell and the stuff in them. Who had been the owners of so many beautiful things?

I never missed the opportunity to ask about music books. The answer was always, “Sorry, no!” But one day the store clerk told me to look on a very small and low bookshelf out of the way in a corner. He thought he might have seen some organ music there.

I couldn’t believe what saw! Right there among old books were three beautiful hardbound tomes. On the back of each was printed: Bach Orgelwerke, marked Tome I, Tome II, Tome III. When I opened them I saw they were the twelve volumes of the original German edition of C. F. Peters, bound in groups of three. The binding was exquisite. One could see that they had never been used. There wasn’t a mark in them or sign of use. They were in mint condition!

I saw on the first blank page of each volume some pencil writing in German and Spanish stating briefly the content. Who may have been its owner? The clerk had no idea how they got there or when. If the owner had been an organist in Buenos Aires or even a student, there would have been marks of use. But nothing. What a find—I had to have them!

I asked the clerk, “How much?” “275 pesos,” he said. Oh, no! Where am I going to get that money? My Dad would never give that amount; he earned 1,000 pesos a month! That would be more than one-fourth of his earnings! I wouldn’t even ask! I wasn’t working yet, although I had a piano student at the time who paid me 10 pesos a lesson. My student was the daughter of an American couple that heard me play one day and asked me to teach the girl. They lived in a mansion in an exclusive area of the city. I thought she wouldn’t mind giving me an advance on the lessons if I explained the purpose for the money.

At the end of one lesson I worked up some nerve and said to the mother: “Mrs. Valentine,” . . . She cut me off before I finished the phrase and said, “I know, I know. . . . Amy is not practicing like she should. . . . I don’t think she’s really interested, and it’s wasting everybody’s time, so why don’t we just stop the lessons now.” I was stunned. It was of no use at that point to say anything but to agree with her and say good-bye. I not only did not get the money, I lost my student! There went my Bach books (I thought). I had to find the money somehow before those books were sold.

Aunt Rosa (actually my mother’s aunt), an old Italian woman, tough and hard working, had a grocery store in a nearby town and had always shown a soft spot in her heart for my brother and me. I thought I’d ask her for a loan (not a gift) to buy the books because I knew I could repay, somehow, a little at a time. I tried to explain what the loan would be for. But, like Mrs. Valentine, she didn’t let me finish my first sentence and said, “Are you asking me for money? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Next time I see your mother I’m going to tell her about this, and see what she’s going to say! Now, get out of here!” “OK, Aunt Rosa! OK! I’m sorry I bothered you.” There went my Bach books again! Afraid of losing them I went back to the antique store to see if they would hold them for me for a period of time if I put some money down. They said yes. I did. Now to find the rest!

At the corner near the high school there was a bookstore owned by the Martinez family. Maria Elena, the daughter, was a classmate of mine during the five years of school. Mrs. Martinez took a liking to me from the day I set foot in the store. Years later she said, reminiscing, that I looked “forlorn”—I’d say, probably scared to death of the new environment! I became a regular in her home, a social place for many students. Since they had a fine piano, it became a place of music making before and after classes. Mrs. Martinez became a second mother to me, a counselor and a mentor, and their home a second home. Her husband, a would-be professor with an incredible mind regarding any subject dealt with in high school, coached me for many of the exams I had to pass. He was a poet also and had written volumes. (I still have one of his manuscripts, which, many years later, he would give me, as a gift.) With this background it is no surprise that when I went to her explaining why I had to have those books of Bach’s music, the money to buy them was in my hand immediately. I had my Bach Orgelwerke!


Organ lessons

My parents provided money for basic things needed in high school, and that was all. They were totally “hands off” regarding my musical interests at that time. Did they even wonder why I was so crazy about the organ, an instrument so foreign to their experience? It was left to me to find the means to reach my goals and dreams, and they left me alone. 

Now was the time to check out the Escuela Superior de Organo. Dolly Morris introduced me to Maestro Hermes Forti one Saturday afternoon before classes. I watched (with envy) how people played Bach’s music on the Hammond organ. There were quite a few students that Saturday. I happened to see a practice schedule on a board with students’ names and took a quick look at it. At that moment I was hoping (probably against hope) to see my name there someday. I was so eager to learn! Dolly had told me about the monthly fee for the lessons. I knew for sure there was no way to find the money for that.

Feeling very awkward and embarrassed, I told Maestro Forti that I wanted to study organ but since I was still in high school and not working I had no financial resources. “Can you play something for me?” he asked. “I’ll try,” I responded, and sat at an organ totally new to me with a pedalboard, the type of which I had never seen and a manual touch that seemed odd. I stumbled through the “Little” Prelude and Fugue in C of Bach. He told to come next Saturday to begin lessons and wrote my name on the practice schedule. I had time assigned to me for my practice twice a week. I finally had what I needed to begin to work on my dream: Bach’s music, an organ, and a teacher!


To be continued.

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