In February 1847, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) 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 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 Cantata No. 12, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohl getan” (What God Does, Is Done Well). So, as in the cantata, Liszt’s variations reverse the sighing sorrow of the beginning, ending with hopeful affirmation.