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By Gregg Wager

Over the ages, society has looked to its revered masters to help keep youthful energy from spinning out of control. These days, at least one remarkable trend in music allows youth to be the masters for a change. (Look to the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for an outstanding example).

The change is proving fruitful. Just when many gloomy critics had written death knells for musical traditions swallowed up by popular culture and a viciously Darwinian market place, a next generation enters with its own champions reinterpreting old forms in ways not only completely new, but with improvements.

A graduate of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and one-time assistant serving the same city’s mammoth Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, 24-year-old organist Nathan Laube represents the type of prodigy who is by no means merely miraculously accomplished beyond his years. His program selection offers works often rendered by revered masters according to tried and true methods, but look to Laube to give us something even more.

The first movement, Allegro vivace, from the Fifth Organ Symphony of Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) commences with almost academic precision, clearly stating a 48-bar theme in F minor before developing it further in seven subsequent variations of roughly the same length. On paper, the variations proceed deceptively by the rigid strictures of the familiar classical form, but master organ composers such as Widor know how to use a simple form to bring out the mighty sounds of their instrument.  

The ordering of the variations is paced according to a standard historical model, with the first three offering modest embellishment, the fourth a slower tempo, and the fifth a lively “scherzando.” The final two variations bring the cycle to a large and loud conclusion.

Before Bach’s organ toccatas, preludes, and fugues solidified certain norms for the late Baroque, an early Baroque school of organ music searched for sophisticated forms by juxtaposing disparate bits and pieces of musical ideas into lavish fantasies (even if in the end they could also be dubbed “Praeludium”). Nicolaus Bruhns (c. 1665-1697) entered this practice of “everything but the kitchen sink” composition, referred to in some of the more obscure treatises of the day as the stylus fantasticus, late in the 17th-century. This especially ripe era of music found Northern Europe borrowing not only the stylus fantasticus from Italy, but also other cutting-edge developments of the day, such as opera.

With the musical fragments that typify the stylus fantasticus, Bruhns’ Preludium in E minor, “The Great” (another E-minor Praeludium is designated simply “The Little”), pits one rapid flourish of the fingers against another, a couple of times inserting what would now be considered highly chromatic and complete fugue expositions. Measures with otherwise unlikely time signatures, such as 18/16, are also inserted, leaving the listener to sort through the abruptly clashing ideas, but ultimately finding that they all hang together in a coherent colorful whole like a patchwork quilt.   

The three-part Suite for Organ by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) challenges both listener and performer to find the basic musical idea inside very dense textures. Nonetheless, there are simple forms that underlie the slowly unfolding music.

The Prélude is divided into two parts, the first part stating the theme three times very slowly, while the second part develops the first three notes of the theme into a long, extended declamatory section. Once Duruflé thus establishes the idea with a nearly ambient narrative, arpeggiated passages interrupt the sound with eerie harmonies. 

The second piece of the set, Sicilienne, moves in a consistent triple meter, roughly similar to the traditional Baroque genre of the title. Its binary form states its theme three times, establishing a fluid metric motion that nonetheless does not depart from the hypnotic ambience of the Prélude.

The final piece, a prototypical French organ Toccata with rapid motion in the fingers and a mighty theme in the pedals, distinguishes itself as one of the most famous of that genre. On the other hand, it also breaks character slightly by including a second theme that contrapuntally develops with the original theme before going off on its own unexpected adventure.  

The history behind Variations sérieuses by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) reveals a wonderful, even humorous story of a group of famous musicians organizing a collection of new works and a festival to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven; even erecting a statue of him in Bonn (where it still ominously resides); and running into all sorts of problems along the way. Mendelssohn, one of the first famous artists who was asked to write a piece for the occasion, had never published a set of piano variations before. Upon agreeing to the task of writing a piano piece to be published for and performed at the Beethoven event, he quickly found inspiration and ended up reinventing his own technique of playing the piano along the way.

The set builds upon an elegant, syncopated, hymn-like theme, followed by 17 variations (the extended final variation almost consisting of another three variations in itself). His explorations came freely and happily at first, but after a few weeks, he reported on his progress in a letter to his sister and used the German word “verdrießlich” (meaning either “glum” or “peevish”) to describe how the music had come to make him feel.

Now a mainstay in any pianist’s repertory, Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses inspired many organists and composers to transcribe it for organ. Unfortunately, this sometimes includes attempts to emulate Mendelssohn’s own humorous and “glum” irony about this work, hamming it up even to the point of pastiche (for example, using too much tremolo in the slow 14th variation, or literally pulling out all the stops in some of the louder, busier variations).

Laube’s transcription refreshingly does not partake in such things, keeping his hands and feet dedicated to what is on the original page, with a few exceptions. A careful listener might notice the remarkable way Laube has painstakingly created registrations for the organ that allow some of the original dynamics of the piano piece. Laube notes that borrowing certain registrations from César Franck’s organ music makes for the best way to emancipate both the player and music from what is written on the page, matching instead the original “Affekt” (Laube’s own use of the German spelling) of the music.

Les préludes (d’après Lamartine) by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) has been used as a soundtrack in everything from the original Flash Gordon movies to notorious Nazi propaganda films. It is certainly one of the most famous non-pianistic works Liszt wrote, and the details of its evolution – starting out as a series of fairly simple choral works, the first taking only one day to write – has been painstakingly chronicled by musicologists.

When looking at the work more carefully, the fact that the one-movement “symphonic poem” genre that Liszt invented with this and the other works should not distract the listener from what the music is trying to symbolize. Because Liszt’s own rule states that such musical “poems” are reflections and meditations on other works of art, and the source of Les préludes is supposed to be an ode by the French writer Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), this can actually deceive the listener. After all, Liszt was famously flamboyant and generous in keeping spontaneous creative gestures in his works that probably should have been edited out of the finished product. Likewise, Liszt’s mistress, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (1819-1887), was also flamboyant in the way she fancied herself a writer and poet, often providing an opening motto to Liszt’s works that probably does more to confuse a would-be listener who is patient enough to read it than clarify anything.

That advice aside, Les préludes begins with an introduction, followed by a brief Andante maestoso section. This is developed with two interrupting interlude sections, the first called “storm” (which Laube refers to as the “pastorale”), the second called “march.” The piece then ends with a recapitulation of the Andante maestoso, followed by a coda.

Laube promises that his transcription is faithful to his earliest youthful impressions of the work, which he finally transcribed in the cold winter months of 2011 on the famous 1888 Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Basilica in St. Sernin in Toulouse. In correspondence with the author, he writes: “The grandiose and often ‘choral-like’ textures of the opening and closing sections, the suspended string harmonies of the pastorale, and the rhythmically charged, militaristic central allegro, all suggested parallel organ textures upon my earliest listenings to the work.”

Using a method he refers to as a “registrational approach,” Laube carefully weighs the textures of the organ with the original music, resisting obvious choices such as simply choosing an oboe stop on the organ to represent an oboe solo in the Liszt score. In this way, he searches for the “appropriate spirit of the sound,” along with what an organist might desire to evoke.

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.