Prelude and Fugue on the Theme BACH
by Franz Liszt [playing time 12:13]  [Download the MP3]

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

An astounding child prodigy and flamboyant performer, Liszt produced some of the most challenging -- and for their day, progressive -- works in the piano repertoire. His career developed from frequent concertizing, in which he acquired the near idolatry enjoyed by modern rock stars, to more refined and cautious composing toward the end of his life. His Transcendental Etudes and Mephisto Waltz are just a few of the works that are now staples of the piano repertoire, and his organ works are scarcely less formidable.

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In the German system of key spellings, the lettering runs from A through H, rather than A through G. Our B-flat is the German B, and B is denoted H. This allows one to spell the name B-A-C-H on the keys, thus:

Bach himself was well aware of this, and used it in the final, unfinished contrapunctus of The Art of the Fugue. Other composers have taken the B-A-C-H theme upon themselves as well, but few have done it with such audacity and sheer drama as Franz Liszt. The BACH theme, with its two descending chromatic intervals, is perfectly suited to Liszt's mature chromatic writing of 1855, and the fiercely talented Hungarian prodigy makes good use of it here.

The Prelude is a fantasia with the BACH theme being stated in the first four notes, and throughout, in the pedals. After becoming familiar with Bach's works, Liszt developed the highest respect for the old German master, and this is perhaps evident in the way the BACH theme pervades the music in nearly maniacal fashion.

After a massive recapitulation of B-A-C-H, followed by a quiet interlude, the fugue begins in the present track at 4:23. In the opening bar, Liszt indicates a tempo of Andante, and also notes "misterioso." And indeed this is a haunting, mysterious beginning to a fugue paying homage to Bach. Set largely in low registers, it employs an ingenious subject that uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, while also presenting the BACH theme in both its usual form and in inverted, fragmented guises.

This extraordinary piece is a fugue only in the loosest sense of the term. The straightforward four-voice exposition is soon punctuated at 5:35 by growling statements of the BACH theme in the bass, until a sudden transition at 7:00, when Liszt steps up the tempo from Andante to Allegro, and drops all pretense of a formal fugue. From here to the end is five minutes of razzle-dazzle, with fragments of the fugue subject whirling between cascading scales and intensely chromatic passages. The writing here is exceptionally non-idiomatic to the organ, and for an ear used to "normal" organ writing it is a tour de force of virtuosity and imagination. In the final two minutes of the work, Liszt brilliantly navigates between chromatic passages and magnificent diatonic chords, guiding the ear to a sparkling B flat major resolution.

Liszt's homage would surely have shocked listeners of Bach's day, and even now is a challenge to Baroque-attuned ears. But after repeated listenings, one has to imagine Bach smiling in appreciation at Liszt's inventiveness and sense of pure intensity and drama. The extreme dynamic range of the pianissimo and triple forte passages made for some interesting engineering challenges from an electronic music standpoint, and I hope you enjoy this interpretation of a grand tribute from an incredibly gifted musician to the king of organ composers.

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