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Organ Recital: László Fassang

Walt Disney Concert Hall

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Bach: Toccata and Fugue in F major, BWV 540

Schumann: from 6 fugues on B-A-C-H op. 60: no. 2 – Lebhaft, no. 3 – Mit sanften Stimmen, no. 4. – Mässig, doch nicht zu langsam, no. 5. - Lebhaft

Reger: Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H Op. 46

Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”

Fassang: Improvisation on Bach and Liszt themes

About This Performance

Hungarian organist László Fassang makes his return to Walt Disney Concert Hall with a program that will feature his renowned improvisation skills on themes by Bach and Liszt.

About the Program
Notes by John Henken

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), of course, is central for the organ. Bach was famous for his virtuosity on the instrument, with tales of cowed wannabe competitors and command performances circulating widely during his lifetime.

Dating Bach’s early organ music is difficult, since most of it exists only in later copies, but the great Toccata in F, BWV 540, is now usually assigned to the end of Bach’s tenure in Weimar, 1714-1716. A toccata is a type of virtuoso keyboard piece, improvisatory in feeling and varied in texture. Being by Bach, this Toccata is every bit as brilliant as might be expected, with particularly challenging pedal solos. But it is also rigorously shaped and full of contrapuntal devices, “a Gothic edifice beneath the blue sky of F major,” as Albert Schweitzer described it. Midway through, the toccata style gives way to a section that sounds much like Bach’s adaptations of Vivaldi’s concertos. It ends with a dazzling coda that brings all of the motives of the entire piece together in often surprising fashion.

The spacious double Fugue associated with the Toccata was probably written later, and paired with the Toccata in later manuscripts dating from the early Leipzig years (before 1731). Bach builds the first fugue from the inner voices out, on a chromatic but calmly descending subject. After it reaches a climax on C, Bach introduces the second fugue as a sort of two-part invention for the right hand, livelier in rhythm. He works this out in a generally thinner texture until he sneaks the original subject into the middle of it, ending – as he began – in noble five-part counterpoint.

Subsequent composers such as Mozart and Beethoven revered what was then known of Bach’s music, but for the Romantic composers that reverence became almost a cult. “[T]he thoughtful combinations, the poetry and humor of modern music originate chiefly in Bach,” Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote in a letter in 1840. “Mendelssohn, Bennett, Chopin, Hiller – in fact, the whole so-called Romantic school (of course, I am speaking of Germans) is far nearer to Bach in its music than Mozart ever was; indeed, it has a thorough knowledge of Bach. I myself make daily confession of my sins to that mighty one, and endeavor to purify and strengthen myself through him.”

This endeavor naturally found musical expression. In the mid-1840s Schumann was much interested in the pedal piano and the organ. In 1845 he composed six Fugues on the Name “Bach” (the pitches B-flat, A, C, B-natural in the German system) as well as six Canonic Etudes.

The second of the six fugues, in B-flat and marked “Lively,” has the four-note “Bach” motif set apart in crisp dotted notes at the beginning of Schumann’s fugal subject, which is almost a P.D.Q. Bach caricature of a Baroque theme. Schumann develops it with Romantic freedom, however, including metrical gamesmanship and a big toccata-style finish.

Fugue No. 3, in G minor and “with soft voices,” presents the motif with an immediate countersubject. Rhythmically placid, this fugue exploits the chromaticism inherent in the “Bach” motif, and closes in G major, as the untransposed motif would indicate.

Schumann varies the motif for his fourth fugue, “moderately, but not too slow” and again in B-flat, by dropping the third and fourth notes an octave. In this one he makes much use of the motif in its retrograde (backwards or reversed) form.

The fifth of Schumann’s fugues is a lively gigue in F, with the “Bach” motif simply the first notes of the main subject. Schumann also displaces the motif rhythmically, inverts it, and again treats it in retrograde.

“The younger generation in particular should be brought back again and again to the original source of musical creation and divine art – Johann Sebastian Bach – and first of all, people should know what Bach really signifies” Max Reger (1873-1916) wrote to the pianist Ferruccio Busoni when Reger himself was all of 22. “It’s too bad that Franz Liszt did such a bad job on his transcriptions of Bach’s organ pieces – they’re nothing but hackwork.”

Reger certainly took his own advice to heart, editing and arranging many of Bach’s works for publication, as well as modeling much of his own music on Bach exemplars. The majority of Reger’s organ music is based either on chorales or Baroque forms, and in 1900 he composed his own set of six trios for the organ, as well as the Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46. Reger had models for this sort of musical tribute, particularly the six Schumann fugues noted above and Liszt’s monumental Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H. Bach himself used the motive, and its tight crossing pattern made it musically as well as symbolically appealing for composers of chromatic inclinations, such as Liszt and Reger.

This is not as arcane as it may seem. The B-A-C-H motive is as easily heard by listeners as it is manipulated by composers. It lies at the top of the massive chords opening Reger’s Fantasia, and also begins – quietly this time – Reger’s ominously slithering Fugue. Though Reger himself was an organist – as a teenager he often substituted for his teacher – by the time he composed this Fantasia and Fugue he was no longer playing as much, and this extraordinarily difficult work – dedicated to the organist Joseph Rheinberger – was premiered by Karl Straube.

In 1848 Franz Liszt (1811-1886) became music director for Grand Duke Carl Alexander in Weimar. Liszt wrote some of his finest music during the 13 years he would spend in Weimar, including much of his organ music. 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 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 ‘Bach’ – but this was an utterly distinctive work in its virtuoso spirit and vast scale.

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. Liszt had a new piece in mind for the occasion, his Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H, 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.

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

Programs, artists, dates, prices and availability subject to change.

Upbeat Live: pre-concert talks

  • Sunday, November 20, 2011 - 6:30pm

Christoph Bull

Christoph Bull, University Organist at UCLA in conversation with organist László Fassang

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