Mendelssohn’s Six Sonatas for organ mark the first significant compositional efforts from a major German composer since the death of Bach. Widely traveled and highly educated, Mendelssohn’s life spanned the end of one era and the dawning of another: his music has a unique combination of Classical elegance and clarity of form combined with hints of the heightened emotion of Romantic music. These six sonatas for organ were the result of a commission by the Coventry & Hollier publishing firm in England, where Mendelssohn was particularly well known from numerous concert tours as a conductor, pianist and organist. The fourth sonata pays particular homage to Bach, with the highly developed contrapuntal style of the first and last movements.
Max Reger is considered by many as the most important German composer for organ since Bach. A tireless worker, he certainly was the most prolific. Reger’s music suffers from the misconception that it is overly chromatic, structurally unwieldy and excessively lengthy. Though this music certainly can be chromatically complex, it is firmly rooted in the traditions of functional harmony as a structural basis. His early studies of the works of Bach resulted in a profound appreciation and mastery of the art of counterpoint. And although virtuoso organists may revel in the difficulties and at times almost overwhelming sonorites found in the great chorale fantasias of Reger, the bulk of his works for organ consist of smaller works, including over 100 chorale settings and eighty-three character pieces. Composed in 1901, the twelve pieces that comprise Reger’s Opus 59 are his first character pieces for the organ, and contain several of his best-known works. The Melodia and Benedictus, with their long, soaring melodic lines, benefit in particular from the Hutchings-Votey organ’s rich flutes, wide dynamic range and the elegant acoustics of St. James Cathedral.
Born in 1877, Karg-Elert spent his childhood years in Leipzig. His father’s death in 1889 left the family in severe financial straits, and made formal music study difficult for the gifted boy. He received his first formal instruction as a member of the choir of the Johanneskirche in Leipzig. After several years of studies towards becoming a schoolteacher, a scholarship enabled him to enter the Leipzig Conservatory, where his most important teachers included Karl Reinecke and the virtuoso pianist Eduard Reisenauer. He received early encouragement in his efforts towards composition from Edvard Grieg, whose recommendations led the way to a long-term contract with Novello. The security of this arrangement allowed Karg-Elert to compose freely and prolifically throughout the remainder of his life. Though he wrote for virtually every medium, some of his organ works have had the most durable reputation and have kept his name known throughout the past century.
Homage to Handel was written as a gesture of thanks for the election of Karg-Elert as an honorary member of the British Royal College of Organists in 1914. The ground bass, which forms the starting point of this inventive composition, is from the Pasacaille of Handel’s Suite No. 7 in G Minor. Karg-Elert wrote in the foreword to this work: “The memory of the great master, Handel, whom both England and Germany claim as their own, has been invoked as a symbol of the close ties which bind English and German music.” Although some variations are directly inspired by Handel’s writing, most are the product of Karg-Elert's prodigious capacity for invention. Even more striking is his interest in unorthodox registrations and quick changes of tone-color. Containing over fifty separate combinations of stops, the work exceeded the registrational capabilities of most organs of the early 20th century; it remained virtually unplayable until the advent of solid-state combination actions.
Niels Gade must be counted as Denmark’s most important 19th-century musician. Though no child prodigy, he received his first recognition as a composer in 1840 when his overture Echoes from Ossian won a composition sponsored by the Copenhagen Musical Union. More important for Gade was the interest it captured in Felix Mendelssohn, who performed it with his Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. A stipend from the Danish government and King Christian VIII enabled Gade to continue his studies in Leipzig, where he became a student, friend and later successor to Mendelssohn as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. War between Prussia and Denmark in 1848 prompted Gade’s returned to Copenhagen, where he remained for the rest of his life. He took a central role in Denmark’s musical development in a variety of roles and professional posts, including as organist, conductor, and co-founder and director of the Copenhagen Royal Conservatory of Music. The Three Tone Pieces date from 1851, a period in which Gade served as organist at Copenhagen’s Garnisons Church. Dedicated to his father-in-law, the important Danish musician J. P. E. Hartmann, they display a noticeable stylistic debt to Mendelssohn, reminiscent not only of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas but also the Songs without Words.
Written in 1855 for the inauguration of the new organ at the Merseberg cathedral, the Präludium and Fugue on B-A-C-H has long held a place as one of the most popular works written for organ in the 19th century. The work received extensive revisions, and was completed in its final form only in 1870. The composition takes as its motto the notes corresponding to the letters of Bach's name (B-flat, A, C, and B-natural, denoted by Germans as the letter “H”). The work runs the gamut of emotions and textures, from an exuberant introduction, a somber fugue, riotous passages of scales, arpeggios and octaves, and a brief moment of serenity before the final outburst on full organ.