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The Organ Music of Liszt

In February 1847, Franz Liszt met the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein while giving concerts in Kiev. Already separated from the husband to whom she had been married when only 17, Carolyne fell in love with the pianist, who was also at a personal crossroads. Weary from almost a decade of constant touring, Liszt completed some further engagements and then abandoned the public concert stage as a pianist, staying with Carolyne on her Ukrainian estate from the fall of 1847 until January 1848, when the couple left for Weimar.

Years before, the Grand Duke Carl Alexander had offered Liszt the post of Kapellmeister-in-Extraordinary, an appealingly grandiose music directorship that Liszt's relentless touring precluded accepting. Now Liszt wanted to devote himself more to composition. Weimar offered him an orchestra and an opera house, and a kindred spirit in the Grand Duke, with whom Liszt hoped to create an "Athens of the North." This dream went unfulfilled, but Liszt wrote some of his finest music during the 13 years he spent in Weimar.

Much of Liszt's organ music comes from this period. Previously he had been an organ dabbler, interested in the instrument and playing privately on pedal pianos. His only known public performance on organ had come in 1843, when he played a benefit program at a church in Moscow. In Weimar Liszt found himself particularly close to the spirit of J.S. Bach, who had lived and worked in Weimar more than a century before as an employee of Duke Wilhelm Ernst, a direct ancestor of Carl Alexander. Bach's complete organ works had been published for the first time in 1844, and among the earliest works that Liszt completed in Weimar were transcriptions for piano of six of Bach's Preludes and Fugues for organ.

The first of Liszt's organ works, however, was directly inspired not by Bach but by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) and the huge success of his opera Le prophète in 1849. The following year Liszt wrote a Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam," the rabble-rousing call to repentance and re-baptism that the three Anabaptists sing in Act I of Le prophète. This is a monumental work in sound and time, a work that grafted Liszt's transcendental piano technique, flair for orchestral color, and ideas about thematic transformation onto the formal models of Bach's organ music. There were recent examples for Liszt - Mendelssohn's three Preludes and Fugues and six organ Sonatas, and Robert Schumann's works for pedal piano, particularly the six Fugues on the Name of Bach - but this was an utterly distinctive work in its virtuoso spirit and vast scale.

Like many of Bach's works with a bipartite title - Prelude and Fugue, Fantasy and Fugue, Toccata and Fugue - Liszt's "Ad nos" Fantasy and Fugue is really in three main parts. The opening Fantasy states the theme plainly in C minor and then takes it through a creative rush of transformations and contrasting textures. It comes to a close in a recitative section, and then takes lyrical flight in a warm Adagio in F-sharp major, the key Liszt favored for exalted religious subjects and as remote as possible from the flat keys dominating the Fantasy. The martial and freely developed Fugue returns the music to C minor, before closing with the chorale blazing away in C major.

This may have been altogether too original for practical use, at least immediately. (The pedal part was probably beyond Liszt's own abilities.) In December of 1851 Liszt wrote to his publisher, Breitkopf and Härtel, offering to make known, "as a kind of curiosity, a very long piece I composed last winter on the chorale 'Ad nos' from Le prophète. If by chance you should think it well to publish this long Prelude, followed by an equally long Fugue, I could not be otherwise than much obliged to you...but I dare not press you too much for fear that you may think that my Fugue has more advantage in remaining unknown to the public in so far that it is in manuscript, than if it had to submit to the same fate after having been published by your care."

Breitkopf and Härtel did publish the Fantasy and Fugue in 1852 (as well as a solo piano version), and Liszt's fears proved well-founded. It did not have its premiere until 1855, when Alexander Winterberger played it for the inauguration for a new organ in the Merseburg Cathedral. Built by Friedrich Landegast, this instrument was much the largest in Germany at the time, with 5,686 pipes and 37 chimes. Liszt had a new piece in mind for the occasion, a Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H (in German solfege syllables Bach's name yields the pitches B-flat, A, C, and B-natural), but that work was not finished. Liszt coached Winterberger extensively on "Ad nos," and Winterberger toured it and the completed B-A-C-H Prelude and Fugue (which Liszt dedicated to him) the following season to rave reviews.

In style and shape, the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H is much like the Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam," though with less virtuoso display for the pedals and more of the chromaticism implicit in its name. Liszt revised it in 1870, tightening it up a bit and making it more idiomatic (he also made a solo piano version of the work at that time).

The Variations on "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" is another Bach-inspired work. Liszt took the chromatic bass line from the opening chorus of Bach's Cantata No. 12 and the very similar part from the Crucifixus of Bach's B-minor Mass as the basis for the work, which began life as a relatively simple prelude for solo piano in 1859. The text for the chorus begins "Tears, complaints, care, fear, anguish, and stress are the bitter bread of Christians," and when Liszt's daughter Blondine died in 1862 he expanded the prelude into an extended elegy, a set of 30 variations using the sinking chromatic line much as Bach would have in a
passacaglia, a Baroque form of continuous variation.

Liszt transcribed the work for organ in 1863, after he had moved to Rome in the final, fruitless throes of the long quest to have Carolyne's marriage annulled. He incorporates some of the soprano part of Bach's chorus in a syncopated form in the sixth variation, after which he begins a very free elaboration, leading to a central section of more extroverted technical display. After the demonstrative 30th variation, a wayward recitative ushers in the chorale tune from the final movement of the cantata, "Was Gott tut, das ist wohl getan" (What God Does, Is Done Well). So, like the cantata, Liszt's variations reverse the sighing sorrow of its beginning, ending with hopeful affirmation.

These are the three monuments of Liszt's organ music, which also includes numerous smaller, mostly religious pieces much influenced by the Cecilian movement for church music reform. He also produced a steady stream of arrangements and transcriptions. After the death of his son Daniel, Liszt wrote three funeral odes in 1860, in versions for orchestra and for solo piano - he also arranged the first of these, Les morts, for organ.

Liszt's transcriptions - ranging from a motet by Orlando di Lasso and two Chopin piano Preludes to choral pieces by Verdi and Wagner - include the Introduction and Fugue from Bach's Cantata No. 21, "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis," which was dedicated to the Weimar organist Johann Gottlob Töpfer.

John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.