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There’s nothing quite like the hair-raising power of our magnificent 8,264-pipe Ruffatti organ. Experience its glorious sound echo through Davies Symphony Hall as celebrated organists from around the world perform a masterful series of solo recitals.
At A Glance
Couperin: Offertoire sur les grands jeux, from Messe des paroisses
The most celebrated member of a French musical dynasty that in breadth and influence invites comparisons to the Bach clan, François Couperin “Le grand” (1668–1733) sported a fully mature compositional technique by his early twenties, as witnessed by his outstanding collection Pieces d’orgue, published in 1690. It consists of two “organ masses”—that is, short organ pieces designed to alternate with Gregorian chant during a singing of the Mass. The Mass for solemn feasts in local parishes (Messe des paroisses) sports by far the most elaborate organ writing of the two and was no doubt written for professional church organists. The multi-sectioned Offertory—for all practical intents and purposes a fantasia—opens with a French Overture-like passage of stately grandeur that gives way to a fine, starchy fugue based on a four-note subject. Further elaboration leads to a sea change in which minor mode gives way to major, the meter gives way to roly-poly compound duple, and a sprightly sense of the dance replaces the previous formality—although this passage is also a fugue, albeit relatively free.
Lully (trans. by Geoffroy): Menuet Overture to Isis
March from Thésée
Giovanni Battista Lulli (1632–87) was fourteen years old when he left his native Florence for France as Italian tutor to Louis XIV’s cousin Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, a.k.a. the “Grande Mademoiselle.” Lully (as he now spelled it) caught the king’s attention, and by 1661 Louis had awarded him a near-monopoly on music for the royal chapel. Lully, now a naturalized French citizen, proved himself more than equal to negotiating the toxic politics of the court, adroitly dodging attacks, legal challenges, and various other brickbats shied his way by his ever-growing circle of enemies. On occasion his finagling elicited the king’s displeasure, but never for long: Louis usually forgave his favorite composer. Lully’s contemporary Jean-Nicolas Geoffroy (1633–94) spent much of his career as the organist of the Cathédral Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Perpignan. Admired for both his knowledge of organ building and for his organ compositions, Geoffroy’s transcriptions of Lully’s instrumental compositions—typically from the operas—are among his scant surviving output.
J.S. Bach (arr. Schoenberg): Chorale Prelude, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 654
J.S. Bach (trans. Liszt): Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) considered the organ as his lifelong bailiwick, and with good reason. His technical virtuosity and improvisatory skill elicited undisguised amazement from all who heard him. Nor was Bach limited to merely playing the organ; throughout his career he was in constant demand as an expert on the instrument’s construction, potential ailments, capabilities, and limitations.
While the value of Bach’s organ inspections were limited to his own time and place, his compositions for the instrument are timeless and without boundary. Much of his output dates from the early years of his career in Arnstadt (1704–08), Mühlhausen (1708–09), and Weimar (1709–17), but significant works also date from his long tenure in Leipzig (1723–50), even during his last years as his eyesight deteriorated.
Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Adorn yourself, dear soul), a chorale melody written in 1649 by Johann Crüger, provided the basis for one of a set of eighteen chorale preludes that Bach revisited during the last decade of his life. The chorale set draws from works he had written from 1708–17 when he was the court organist and director of music at the court of Weimar. BWV 654 interleaves somberly dignified statements of the chorale melody with interludes comprised of exquisite elaborations of that same melody set in imitative counterpoint.
As is the case with a number of Bach’s organ works, the exact provenance of Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 cannot be pinned down precisely. Current scholarly opinion has settled on 1720 as a probable composition date, via Bach’s application for a position at Hamburg’s Jakobkirche. He would have played for the now-elderly Johann Adam Reinken, a revered North German organist/composer whose influence on Bach was far-reaching and long-lasting.
Here, in a version derived from Franz Liszt’s piano transcription of 1868, the Fantasy, as the name implies, is a free-form sectional affair that alternates florid virtuoso passagework with relatively sober sections, the whole ending in a majestic sunburst of G major. The following Fugue is one of Bach’s most imposing, its nearly-nonstop chains of sixteenth notes interrupted by sudden octave leaps and jagged arpeggios.
Franck: Chorale No. 3 in A minor from Three Chorales for Organ
The noble French organ tradition offers no finer exemplar than César Franck (1822–90), who took up his duties as organist of the basilica of Paris’s Sainte-Clotilde in 1858 and spent the next thirty-two years conjuring magic on Cavaillé-Coll’s superlative instrument. In particular it was his after-service improvisations that made his skill known to the larger public. A set of six pieces for organ produced between 1858 and 1860 cemented his reputation as an unparalleled master of French organ composition. One would think that he would follow up with a steady stream of organ works, but during the ensuing decade his output was meager. The culprit (if that’s the appropriate word) was his increasing devotion to teaching; by 1871 Franck was established as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory, whence a phalanx of brilliant students were to become the leaders of the next generation of French composers and organists.
Franck’s compositional output increased substantially during the 1870s and 1880s, but he focused mostly in chamber, vocal, piano, and orchestral music. Nevertheless, he had not completely abandoned writing for the organ, as attested by the Three Pieces of 1878. As might be expected from a busy professor whose compositional time was of necessity limited to the summer months, Franck emphasized quality over quantity.
In 1890 Franck was injured in an accident. His recuperation mandated a vacation, during which he wrote his Three Chorales for organ. They are his last compositions; he contracted pneumonia and died on November 8, 1890.
Franck originally conceived Chorale No. 3 in A minor as a toccata—i.e., a “touch” piece that is both improvisatory and virtuosic. It begins with a set of richly-unfolding harmonies that alternate between slow and fast passages, sounding for all the world like one of those extempore fantasias that so dazzled Parisian churchgoers. The primary theme, inspired by the Lutheran chorale melodies that make up such an important part of Bach’s music, arises in a dignified chordal setting that alternates with freer passages. An aria-like middle section, marked Adagio and in major mode, leads into an extended development almost in the manner of a symphonic movement. The close is lofty and dignified, as powerful octaves lead to a blazing, major-mode chord.
Brahms: Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, from Eleven Chorale Preludes, Opus 122, no.8
Johannes Brahms (1833–97) is so widely associated with symphonic and chamber genres—not to mention those wonderful songs—that it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that his very last opus number is a set of eleven chorale preludes for the organ. Written in the wake of Clara Schumann’s death in May 1896, they were Brahms’s first organ works for forty years and a late expression of his lifelong devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The eighth of the set is a richly chromatic, improvisatory take on an anonymous Christmas hymn from the seventeenth century, typically translated as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” Brahms’s setting, while floridly elaborate, never masks the dignified simplicity of the original melody.
Schumann: Fugue No. 5 in F major from Six Fugues on the Name B.A.C.H., Opus 60
The Bach revival of the nineteenth century had no more staunch an advocate than Robert Schumann (1810–56), one of the four founders of the Bach Gesellschaft that aimed to publish the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach. But Schumann’s Bachian involvement went much deeper than that. Inspired by the great Baroque master, Schumann made an intensive study of counterpoint and became a master of the art at its highest levels. Schumann’s six fugues on the notes B-flat–A–C–B (B-A-C-H in German nomenclature) occupied him for the better part of a year during which he was also composing what is now numbered as his Second Symphony in C major. Expansive, imaginative, and technically secure, these six fugues exemplify not only Romantic conceptions of Bachian grandeur but also traverse the breadth of Schumann’s vividly personal compositional style. Fugue No. 5 in F major presents that square-jawed B-A-C-H theme as a nimble, fleet-footed Schumann scherzo, staccato and buoyant; by midway the theme puts in an appearance in augmentation—i.e., with the note values lengthened—that is set against the staccato original in a dazzling display of contrapuntal ingenuity, very much in keeping with the titanic mastery of the work’s namesake.
Liszt: Prelude and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H
There was more to Franz Liszt (1811–86) than just a colossal pianist-composer wrapped up in layers of celebrity and showmanship. He was a fine orchestrator, skilled conductor, and—apropos to the present discussion—fervent devotée of the organ. Never one to hold back on his enthusiasms, Liszt even owned a custom-made hybrid instrument that combined a nine-stop harmonium with a full-sized piano, truly a conversation starter if ever there were. Even if his eminence as an organ composer has been largely eclipsed by his pianistic legacy, his forty-plus organ works stand proudly among the era’s best of breed.
Merseburg, Germany, near Leipzig, lies about sixty-eight miles due north from Weimar, the ducal seat where Liszt lived from 1848 to 1861. Merseburg’s exquisite Gothic cathedral dates back to 1015, although it was twice modernized, first in the high Middle Ages and later during the Renaissance. The cathedral’s organ was substantially upgraded in the mid-nineteenth century at the hands of master builder Friedrich Ladegast. Organ aficionado that he was, Liszt found the emergent new instrument fascinating and composed his Prelude and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H (i.e., the same notes employed by Schumann in his B-A-C-H fugues: B-flat, A, C, and B) for the organ’s inauguration, dedicating the work to the organist Alexander Winterberger. But even major composers miss deadlines sometimes, and Liszt didn’t finish the piece in time. Winterberger had to play something else.
The B-A-C-H theme is heard directly at the onset, played in the pedals as a repetitive rhythmic pattern. Improvisatory-sounding figurations alternate with quasi-chorale passages, eventually giving way to the fine fugue that begins with the Bach theme, albeit transposed to a different key. Magnificent displays of virtuoso showmanship interrupt the starchy fugal proceedings from time to time. Eventually a grand hymn-like peroration on the Bach theme brings it all to an appropriately heavens-rattling close.
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book