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In the year following the politically tumultuous European revolutions of 1848, Franz Liszt attended the première in Paris of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s (1791-1864) grand opera Le prophète. Its musical impressions reflected a timely statement of passions and politics, and Liszt became fascinated with its storyline, which broke with operatic traditions. He especially liked the way that it reflected Voltaire’s essays from the point of view of an anti-hero, doing away with pat love stories and other clichés.

After meticulously studying the score in the year following Meyerbeer’s première, Liszt composed three “illustrations” for piano reworking its themes, before setting a fourth and final such piece for organ, the Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.” The named theme is a simple eight-bar hymn first sung by a trio of Anabaptist priests, who eventually plot to overthrow the prophet referred to in the opera title, John of Leiden.

Liszt’s resulting half-hour study develops Meyerbeer’s dotted-quarter-note theme, alternating loud and rich chords with ultraslow, barely audible cadenzas and chorales. As much as Liszt’s highly developed method of transformation of themes was designed to use the same material to create two or more contrasting melodies, the numerous varying statements in this Fantasy, from the slow crawl of a ponderous meditation to ephemeral arpeggios, also make for a homogeneously monolithic and gigantic gesture.

More than midway through the piece, after what could be considered an extended introduction, an Adagio section abruptly restates the main theme, followed by a frenetic Allegro deciso. The chromatic fugue finally commences Allegretto con moto, but only lasts 89 measures before an Allegro con brio series of fanfares and a rapid-fire Vivace molto cadenza lead to the grandiose final 26-bar cadence.

- 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 and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.