Hans Fährmann (1860-1940)
Sonata no. 8 for organ in E-flat minor, op. 46 (1910)
Lento ma non troppo
Moderato con moto: Fuga
(The movements are connected without pause.)
(Ernst) Hans Fährmann is about as forgotten as it is possible for a major organ composer to be, his music being now virtually unknown even in Germany. Born in Beicha, near Lommatsch, in 1860, he spent most of his life in and around Dresden, the once beautiful capital of the kingdom of Saxony, near the Czech border, about 14 miles to the southeast of his birthplace and 100 miles south of Berlin, and died in Dresden in 1940, a little less than five years before the city’s tragic annihilation in February 1945. He studied composition with Jean-Louis Nicodé (1853-1919), a German in spite of his name, a passionate partisan of the “new German school” of Wagner and Liszt, and the composer—in 1904, two years before Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”—of a 2½-hour, 6-movement autobiographical choral symphony that placed him with one stroke at the pinnacle of post-romantic symphonic gigantism. It was doubtless he who in 1894 encouraged Fährmann to journey to Weimar with a piano sonata that impressed Liszt sufficiently to urge him to make his career in music.
Fährmann was a virtuoso at his instrument, and as teacher of organ at the Dresden conservatory from 1892 well into old age, he produced a “Fährmann School” of well over 100 gifted pupils, earning for himself the sobriquet of “father of Saxon organists.” From 1890 to 1926 he was also cantor and organist at the Johanneskirche in Dresden, and in 1913, only five years before the collapse of the German monarchies, he was named Royal Saxon Music Director. His compositions included chamber music, more than 60 songs, choral music, 2 oratorios, and a symphony, but he was first of all an organ composer. At the core of his large production were 14 sonatas, most of them more or less equally long and difficult. He also wrote 10 preludes and fugues of different types, 6 further fugues, 5 sets of shorter pieces, 19 chorale-preludes, 3 fantasies for violin and organ, and 2 symphonies concertantes for organ and orchestra.
Fährmann’s music invites comparison with the organ compositions of the infinitely more celebrated Max Reger (1873-1916), which span almost exactly the same years and are similar in quantity (though for the prolific Reger, who was more a pianist than an organist, organ music constituted only a fraction of his immense output). Both wrote monumental—and monumentally difficult—works for vast organs in which the display of contrapuntal mastery was a central feature, and the scores of both are black with all the notes that two hands and two feet can play at once. Although they both composed throughout the turmoil of early atonality and primitivism, neither was caught up in it. And yet their styles could not be more different. Reger’s are full of drama: deafening outbursts and flamboyant virtuosity subsiding into passages of almost motionless serenity, extreme chromaticism juxtaposed with hymn-like simplicity, and then, when it is time for a fugue, machine-like academic counterpoint. Unlike Reger, however, the apparently much soberer and more traditional Fährmann often (as might be expected from Nicodé’s training and Fährmann’s own early contact with Liszt) built his music on extra-musical ideas that he labeled with subtitles, earning for himself the epithet of “the Richard Strauss of the organ,” Strauss being known at the time above all for his ultra-programmatic tone-poems. Fährmann’s eighth sonata, indeed, was the first of his sonatas for which no programmatic content is known, though it was also, paradoxically, the first to free itself from classical sonata form.1
For its full impact, Fährmann’s eighth sonata needs to be heard from beginning to end in one sitting, all 34 minutes of it. Not only does each movement lead into the next without coming to rest, all four are so interconnected as to depend on each other for their meaning. The interconnections are mostly motivic, and they range over a whole spectrum from the glaringly obvious to instances so casual and even vague as to raise a doubt whether the composer himself was aware of them. Many of the techniques Fährmann uses to introduce, transform, and expand his motives into themes and even whole tunes can be found in Liszt and Brahms, but the melodic shape of the motives strikingly resembles that of the motives in Wagner’s Ring. (Fährmann’s motives do not include the associated harmonic and orchestral color that is an integral component of the Wagnerian Leitmotiv.) So prominent is one of these, indeed, that it raises the question whether the eighth sonata may be programmatic after all, and whether its meaning may be connected to the idea of fate (Schiksal), since that is the label that has been attached to this motive by Wagner’s exegetes (it is found briefly in Die Walküre, then with growing frequency in Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung). Fährmann introduces a version of it at the beginning of the development section of the Allegro risoluto, recalls it in the transition to the slow movement, uses it in its most Wagnerian guise in the somber midsection of that movement, and then lets it serve as the last three climactic notes of the fugue-subject of the finale, where it is heard as often as the subject itself.
Far more ubiquitous even than “fate,” however, is a motive that Fährmann introduces in the second bar of the principal theme of the Allegro risoluto and uses thereafter in a manner so insistent as to oblige us to cut 14 of the repetitions for the sake of musical continuity (there are some 65 in that movement alone, depending on how one counts them). This motive also can be likened to one in the Ring. It first appears in the second act of Die Götterdämmerung and is associated (as is also in a more general way the “fate” motive) with the murder (Mord) of Siegfried. “Murder” appears along with “fate” in the midsection of the slow movement, and it constitutes the head of the fugue subject in the finale, where, again, it is heard as often as the subject itself. Thus it could be argued that the long and sinuous subject begins with “murder” and ends with “fate”.
The following is a précis of this completely unfamiliar work. Introduction, Lento ma non troppo. Theme 1: quiet, slowly rising arpeggio; theme 2: agitated, growing to a climax. Allegro risoluto. The first half suggests conventional sonata form, with an exposition consisting of a group in the tonic, a transition with several statements of the “murder” motive, and a lyrical second theme in A-flat major that, contrary to sonata conventions, is never heard again. Then comes a kind of development section in three parts, the first adumbrating the “fate” motive, the second, a jubilant tune derived from the opening thematic material that is not unlike Wagner’s “rapture” (Entzückung) motive, first heard in the third act of Siegfried, and the third, a development of the second theme from the introduction. This is followed by a recapitulation of the opening group, but in F minor, contrary to the rule of sonata form that stipulates the tonic key at this point. The “second theme” is not heard at all, and after a striking chromatic slide, instead of encountering a normal closing section in the tonic key of E-flat minor, we are astonished to hear an altogether unexpected, seemingly unrelated piece in B-flat major, tuneful and rather Brahms-like. It is in two subsections, the second one fugal and a little faster, and the whole lasts about three minutes. After a climax, the music subsides through a return of “murder” and “fate” to the slow movement Adagio sostenuto. The key is B major, and the form is straightforward A-B-A. The ravishingly beautiful A section is new, but the troubled and vaguely threatening B section recalls the “fate” and “murder” motives. The shortened return of A finally modulates softly into the winding, chromatic subject of the fugue of the last movement, which as noted above begins with the “murder” motive and ends with “fate”. Like the fugues that conclude the earlier works by Liszt, Reubke, and Stehle in our recording, LRCD 1030/31, this one begins with an orthodox exposition, continues with a much freer one incorporating a new, fast countersubject, and finally dissolves into a series of sections that abandon the fugal method altogether. Fährmann, however, was a more dedicated contrapuntist than his predecessors, and his first exposition runs to five voices with a countersubject freely maintained through the fourth. Increasing steadily in volume over fully four minutes, it ends on the full organ after two more statements of the subject accompanied by the most intensely Wagnerian harmonies of the whole sonata. The second exposition (after a short cadenza) is much freer, and the second statement of the subject is in stretto between the soprano and alto. (Since the stretto would otherwise be inaudible, the imitating voice is played here on the cornet stop by a third hand belonging to Roger Sherman.) After a climax on five statements of “murder,” the second theme of the introduction is combined in different ways with the subject over a long tonic pedal, building to the principal climax of the movement, in which the subject is heard fortissimo in octaves accompanied by weighty triplets in three parts. This is now followed by an event that unites the whole sonata into an indivisible totality: the entire Brahmsian section in B flat of the Allegro risoluto returns, transposed to the tonic (E-flat) major, and culminates in a final statement of the fugue subject, now in the pedals. Then, in a kind of motivic frenzy, the central importance to this work of “fate” and “murder” is confirmed in a sevenfold repetition of the former, soon joined by six statements of the latter, louder and louder; and the sonata ends with a massive Neapolitan cadence magnificently embellished, as nearly every progression in the piece has been, with dissonant auxiliary chords and chromatic appoggiaturas.
after Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Meistersinger-Triptych, from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Prelude to Act 3
Prize Song (as in act 3, scenes 2 and 5)
Prelude to Act 1
(The three numbers are connected without pauses)
I first put these three pieces together and played them in 1983-84. Although the Triptych ends with the prelude to act 1, most of the music of the prelude, including its ending, is included in the final scene of act 3, so that the group forms a kind of abridgement of the conclusion of Wagner’s opera. The spacious and passionately expressive Prelude to Act 3 is played substantially as transcribed by Boston organist and editor Henry Clough-Leiter in 1908. The Prize Song I arranged myself from the second stanza as it is sung by the young knight, Walther, in act 3, scene 2, and from the greatly extended first stanza that Walther sings in scene 5 before the assembled mastersingers of Nuremberg. The two versions are separated by brief passages from that same act. In the last 38 bars of the song, I transcribed the orchestral accompaniment , because it carries the musical continuity, while Walther, joined by the master-singers and the attending crowd, and at the very end, Eva, sing free material adapted to the words. The Prelude to Act 1 was transcribed by New York organist Samuel Warren in 1898, only a few years after the opera was first heard at the Metropolitan. Warren termed his arrangement a “concert-paraphrase”; over the years I have made many modifications to it, notably at the end, where I have tried to suggest the crowd’s and the trumpets’ salute to Sachs: “Hail Sachs, Nuremberg’s dear Sachs!” In the performance of the Prelude to Act 1, I have been guided by Wagner’s own detailed discussion of tempo in this piece, in his monograph On Conducting (1869), where—without giving metronome markings, which he regarded as futile—he demands a new tempo for every section.