Surprise isn’t the first word that springs to mind when it comes to organ repertoire, but there are a few of them in store at the first performance of the Juilliard music season, a recital by organ department chair Paul Jacobs on September 14. The concert includes works by Liszt and Liszt’s student Julius Reubke as well as by Brahms.
Franz Liszt was one of the greatest pianists in history, but he also had a lifelong interest in the organ, which is apparent in the concert-opener, his Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.” Based not on a sacred chant or motet but on a chorus from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1849 opera Le Prophète, the piece transcends its operatic origins; Liszt uses a single phrase from Meyerbeer as the launching point for a musical journey comparable in scale and complexity to his B-Minor Piano Sonata. With exaggerated modesty, Liszt referred to the Fantasy and Fugue as “one of my least bad productions” when he encouraged his friend Alexander Winterberger to perform it. While there is plenty of virtuosic display in “Ad nos,” it’s far more than a mere showpiece as it highlights Liszt’s command of melody and structure and is one of his finest works in any medium.
The final piece on the program, Sonata in C Minor, is by Liszt’s student Julius Reubke, who composed only two major works, a piano sonata and an organ sonata, before he died in 1858 at the age of 24. Based on the 94th Psalm, a dark and troubled meditation on the wrath of God, it’s a powerful work in one continuous movement that Jacobs described as “thrilling to experience, bursting with passion and fire, and punctuated by moments of tenderness.” Jacobs also noted that had Reubke lived longer, “it’s possible to conceive that he might have even surpassed the genius of his teacher” and that “works like this make me proud to be an organist.”
In between the works by Liszt and his student, Jacobs will perform selections from Johannes Brahms’s Eleven Chorale Preludes, which he completed in 1896 (they were published posthumously as Op. 122 in 1902). At the end of his life, Brahms confided some of his last musical thoughts to the organ, and in these exquisite adaptations of sacred melodies, he simultaneously paid homage to the past 400 years of organ composition and looked toward the afterlife. Brahms scholar and Juilliard faculty member Michael Musgrave says that the Op. 122 preludes are “a final tribute to the Lutheran chorale and its setting, demonstrating the endless possibilities for melodic decoration and harmonic variation within the limited confines of the prelude form.”