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Merseburg Organ Festival
Specification of the Merseburg Cathedral organ

Franz Liszt and the Merseburg Cathedral Organ

Hermann J. Busch

Not all organs which Franz Liszt came into contact with - more or less by chance during his turbulent life - can be related to his ideas of organ sound and organ playing. It is well-documented, however, that Liszt was profoundly involved with several organs, specifically with some of those instruments characteristic of the musical style of organ building in the regions where he lived. In particular his experience with the Merseburg Cathedral Organ is manifestly tied in with several of his organ compositions.

Franz Liszt was already interested in the Merseburg Cathedral Organ even before it was finished. He visited Merseburg several times in the summer of 1855 while the organ was under construction and became inspired to write a new large organ composition for the inaugural concert. What happened is well-documented in his correspondence with Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein. On August 27, 1855 Liszt wrote

Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow I will take on the task of finishing my onerous correspondence and start composing my Fantasy on BACH for the inauguration of the organ of Merseburg, which will take place on September 21.
(Demain et après-demain, je tâcherai de me débarrasser de mon horrible correspondance, et puis me mettrai à écrire ma Fantaisie sur BACH, pour l'inauguration de l'orgue de Merseburg, qui aura lieu le 21 septembre.)

Two days later on August 29 he wrote

By the end of the week I hope to have finished my correspondence, allowing me to start on my fugue BACH for the inauguration of the organ in Merseburg. I will need at least about two weeks to compose the work.
(A la fin de cette semaine, j'espère être arrivé au bout de ma correspondance, de manière à pouvoir commencer ma Fugue BACH, pour l'inauguration de l'orgue de Merseburg. Il me faudra au moins une douzaine de jours pour mener à cette œuvre.)

The inaugural concert was given on September 26, 1855. On September 22 it became apparent that the maestro would not be finished with his Prelude and Fugue on the Name BACH on time and something else would have to be worked out.

Before I become involved with Dante, I must write two pieces for organ which will take some time. Next Wednesday Sascha Winterberger will play my Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale of La Prophète in Merseburg for the inauguration of a magnificent organ (which has cost near to 10,000 Thalers) on which this piece will create an impressive effect. I have the idea of writing two other pieces of the same caliber.
(Avant de me mettre à mon Dante, il faut que j'écrive deux morceaux pour orgue qui me prendront assez de temps. Mercredi prochain Sascha Winterberger jouera ma Fantaisie et Fugue sur le Choral du Prophète à Merseburg pour l'inauguration d'un orgue magnifique (qui a coûté près de 10 000 Thalers) et sur lequel ce morceau fait un effet prodigieux. Cela m'a donné l'idée d'écrire deux autres morceaux du même calibre.)

Thus Liszt had realized that BACH would not be ready on time and arranged to have his student, Alexander Winterberger, play his Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” based on a theme from Meyerbeer's opera Le Prophète, which had been in print since 1852. On September 4 Liszt traveled to Merseburg to familiarize himself with the organ, still under construction. Either then or on the eve of the inauguration at the latest Liszt rehearsed the composition with Winterberger on the organ, specifying the registration himself.

In an article by Franz Brendel on the inauguration concert Brendel emphasized the "modern" character of the organ and its innovative significance for Liszt's newly created organ style.

The character of this organ is essentially different from all other organs. With respect to power and fullness when using all the ranks, it is equal to the best. The way it uses the soft voices, however, is unique. It rests in consonance, melts in consonance, in a way which I have not heard on other organs. The sound is, in short, poetic nature. [...] Liszt now occupies a similar position with respect to the organ as he has up to now with the pianoforte. Just as as he has done with the pianoforte, unique in his way, he knows now how to bring out the entire splendor and majesty of the instrument. I must confess that I was surprised by Liszt's composition, where a progression to an aspect hitherto unknown by myself was revealed, offering visions of future development of organ music. [...] The Merseburg organ is the appropriate instrument for music in this direction, and we may hope that it will soon occupy its rightful position and serve as a foundation for progress in the area of organ music and a center where aspiring artists may come together.
(Der Charakter dieses Werks unterscheidet sich wesentlich von dem aller anderen Orgeln. An Kraft und Fülle, beim Gebrauch des vollen Werks kommt sie wohl den besten gleich. Einzig in ihrer Art aber ist sie in den sanfteren Stimmen. Es ruht ein Wohllaut, ein Schmelz darin, wie ich ihn bei anderen Orgeln noch nicht gehört. Der Klang ist, um die Hauptsache mit einem Worte zu bezeichnen, poetischer Natur. [...] Liszt nimmt jetzt zur Orgel eine ähnliche Stellung ein, wie früher zum Pianoforte. Wie er früher das Pianoforte zu behandeln vermochte, einzig in seiner Art, so weiß er jetzt auf der Orgel den ganzen Glanz und die ganze Pracht des Instrumentes zur Darstellung zu bringen. Ich muß bekennen, daß ich überrascht war durch Liszts Composition, indem sich mir der Fortschritt nach einer bis jetzt noch nicht zur Behandlung gekommenen Seite hin offenbarte und Blicke in eine zukünftige Entwicklung der Orgelmusik sich darboten. [...] Die Merseburger Orgel ist das geeignete Instrument für diese Richtung, und wir dürfen daher hoffen, daß sie bald in diese Stellung eintreten werde, die Grundlage zu bilden auf die der Fortschritt auf dem Gebiete der Orgelmusik zu basiren, den Mittelpunkt um den die weiter strebenden Künstler sich sammeln können.)

On May 13, 1856 the premiere of BACH with Winterberger took place in Merseburg. Once again Liszt prepared the work together with the organist in the Merseburg cathedral. On April 23, 1856 he wrote to Caroline

Thursday before Pentecost we will have an organ concert in Merseburg for which I have composed a new fugue to be played by Winterberger. It is necessary that I assist, and I shall probably spend a couple of days in Merseburg like last year.
(Le Mardi de la Pentecôte nous aurons un concert d'orgue à Merseburg pour lequel j'ai écrit une nouvelle Fugue que Winterberger exécutera. Il faudra que j'y assiste et je passerai probablement une couple de jours à Merseburg comme l'année dernière.)

In addition to the premiere of BACH Winterberger played Liszt's arrangement of the Church Festive Overture on the Chorale "A Mighty Fortress (Ein feste Burg)" by Otto Nicolai. Also after this concert Liszt was again at the organ with Winterberger. On June 23 he wrote Caroline

This afternoon I went to Merseburg to rehearse several organ pieces with Winterberger.
(Cet après-midi je suis venu à Merseburg pour repasser quelques morceaux d'orgue avec Winterberger.)
Which organ pieces these were is unknown. It is also not clear which two works it were which Liszt referred to on September 22, 1855 as being inspired by the Merseburg organ to be of the same "caliber" as the Fantasy on Le Prophè. Certainly Prelude and Fugue on BACH was one of them. Was the other one Weeping, wailing, grieving, fearing (Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen) or Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine? All three works clearly show inspiration by the Merseburg organ. Hans von Bülow was present at the concerts in 1855 and 1856. In an article from July 1, 1856 he wrote that in addition of the Fantasy on“ Le Prophète and Nicolai’s Festive Overture he heard two further works:
new organ compositions from Liszt (still in manuscript form): Prelude and Fugue on the Name BACH and piece based on something bearing a resemblance to the chorale In deep distress (Aus tiefer Not), full of a mystically moving spirit.
(neuere Orgelcompositionen Liszt's (noch im Manuscript): Präludium und Fuge über den Namen BACH und ein an den Choral Aus tiefer Noth sich anlehnendes Orgelstück voll mystisch ergreifenden Geistes.)

It is not possible to definitively determine to which piece the latter description refers. The transcription of the Bach cantata was not written until 1860, and one could scarcely describe the work as being full of a "mystically moving spirit". This is better applied to the Evocation. Could Bülow have meant Allegri's Miserere with his allusion to In deep distress?

The importance of the Merseburg organ for the Liszt circle is shown by the fact that the organ sonata of Julius Reubke is associated with this instrument. Reubke composed the sonata "which was inspired by Liszt's Fantasy on Le Prophète" in the spring of 1857 and performed it at its premiere in the Merseburg Cathedral on June 17, 1857.

Besides Prelude and Fugue on BACH other organ pieces where composed under the influence of the Merseburg Cathedral organ or were instrumented for it. These are

Variations on Weeping, wailing, grieving, fearing (Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen)
Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine
Introduction, Fugue and Magnificat from the Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy

"When arranging this piece we had the excellent Merseburg Cathedral organ by Ladegast in mind."
("Bei der Bearbeitung dieses Tonstückes hatten wir die vorzügliche Merseburger Domorgel von Ladegast im Sinn.")
Andante religioso
"This composition was originally conceived for the famous cathedral organ in Merseburg by F. Ladegast, which very nicely allows the tonal indications to be realized by using the organ's crescendo."
("Die vorliegende Composition war zunächst für die berühmte Domorgel von Fr. Ladegast in Merseburg bestimmt, bei welcher sich durch den Crescendo-Zug die hier angedeuteten Klangnüancen sehr schön erzielen lassen.")
Ave Maria
"The registration of this organ arrangement makes use of the specification of the famous Merseburg Cathedral Organ from Ladegast."
("Bei der Registrierung dieses Orgelsatzes ist auf die berühmte Domorgel von Ladegast in Merseburg Rücksicht genommen.")


Freundeskreis
Musik und Denkmalpflege in Kirchen
des Merseburger Landes e. V.
Dompropstei 2
D-06217 Merseburg
Germany

Tel: +49-(0)-3461-3099183
Fax: +49-(0)-3461-3099184
E-mail: info@merseburger-orgeltage.de




General information about Merseburg
thomas.buchanan@in.fh-merseburg.de
June 24, 2005