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Wilhelm MIDDELSCHULTE (1863-1943)
Passacaglia [12:28]
Intermezzo I [5:34]
Fantasia contrappuntistica [41:37]
Gebet – Prayer [5:06]
Jürgen Sonnentheil, organ
Recorded at St. Michaelis Church, Hildesheim, October 2002
Organ Works, Volume 2
CPO 999962-2 [64:48]


Wilhelm Middelschulte is another in a long line of obscure composers born in the latter half of the 19th century who deserve greater exposure. In Middelschulte’s situation, greater exposure is even more unlikely because he wrote only for the organ, his music is generally very dark in mood, and it uses baroque forms. However, Middelschulte’s compositions have much to offer and should appeal to organ enthusiasts and those who love the organ music of the Baroque masters such as Bach and Buxtehude.

Middelschulte was born in Westphalia and in 1888 became the choirmaster and organist at the Lukas Church in Berlin. He eventually met his soulmate, an American woman who he followed to Chicago in 1891 and married in 1895. He remained in the United States until 1939 when he returned to Germany. During his long years in the United States, Middelschulte was the organist of the Thomas Orchestra, the future Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also had appointments at the Wisconsin Conservatory, Detroit Conservatory and the University of Notre Dame.

Middelschulte was not a great melodist, but he had superior skills in contrapuntal writing and his music is thoroughly compelling for a variety of reasons. First, he uses the full resources of the organ as to registrations and tone color. Secondly, the architecture is highly complex and built on logic and mathematics as Middelschulte employs all the baroque ‘tricks of the trade’ and blends them with a circa 1900 sensibility. Third, Middelschulte is expert at creating tension and conveying a host of strong emotional messages.

Middelschulte’s Passacaglia, premiered in Chicago in 1897, was his first published work and remains his most frequently performed piece as well. The Passacaglia was a common baroque form of variations where the theme is stated and generally remains in the bass. Middelschulte varies his theme sixty-two times over the span of approximately 12 minutes. The work begins softly in the lower registers, but with a strong severity and sense of gloom. As the piece progresses, its dynamic range increases and eventually becomes thunderous for the last four minutes of the work. Overall, this is not music for the faint of heart; its severity and increasing drama requires a stalwart constitution intent on absorbing the immense power and concentration of the work.

The two short pieces on the program, the Intermezzo I and the Gebet, are arrangements from the opera "Die Juwelen der Madonna" that was composed in 1911 by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. The history of these arrangements is that many composers were asked to arrange individual numbers of the opera before its first performance in 1912, the purpose being to inspire discussion prior to the premiere. Listeners will notice a lyricism to the two pieces largely absent in Middelschulte’s Passacaglia and Fantasia contrapuntistica. This lyricism is courtesy of Wolf-Ferrari’s music, and Middelschulte never abandons it in his arrangements. The Intermezzo I is quite dark in mood but with lessened severity from Middelschulte’s norm. The Gebet is an excellent piece to close the program, given its uplifting nature and contrast with Middelschulte’s generally gloomy demeanor.

The major work on the disc is the Fantasia contrappuntistica, Middelschulte’s arrangement of the piano work of the same name by Ferruccio Busoni. The work has an interesting history heightened by Busoni’s relationship with Middelschulte. As it happens, both Busoni and Middelschulte had an interest in the unfinished concluding fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue. Upon meeting in 1910 and discovering their mutual interest, Busoni set off to create a work that quotes and continues the unfinished Bach fugue.

Busoni’s first piano version was dedicated to "Middelschulte, master of counterpoint". Subsequently, Busoni added a chorale prelude to precede his piano arrangement and titled it "Fantasia contrappuntistica", again dedicating his work to Middelschulte. Friedrich Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then prepared a version for organ and orchestra, and Middelschulte prepared the solo organ version presented on this CPO disc.

Middelschulte’s solo organ arrangement is true to the musical structures of Bach and also to Busoni’s style of composition. The arrangement has eight movements: Preludio corale, Fuga 1, Fuga 2, Fuga 3, Intermezzo, Cadenza, Fuga 4 and Corale-Stretta. It is a most complex piece of music that doesn’t actually complete the unfinished Bach fugue, but takes it into a late-romantic idiom just as Busoni had done with his version for piano.

Bach’s music is recognizable throughout the arrangement with the final Movement building up to an overwhelming portrayal of intense concentration and power.

Jürgen Sonnentheil, a frequent concert organist and conductor in Europe, has an excellent grasp of Middelschulte’s structures, soundworld and tense/foreboding underpinnings. Sonnentheil plays the new Gerald Woehl Organ at the St. Michaelis Church in Hildesheim. The instrument offers a blend of the grand North German Organ tradition and the more discreet organs of Central Germany. It certainly delivers all the power of Middelschulte’s music, although tone can be rather murky in the lower registers.

Severe and brooding, Middelschulte’s music will not attract those who tend to dislike organ music or the representation of the underside of the human condition. I would strongly suggest that any readers interested in Middelschulte made sure that they already know and appreciate the organ works of Bach and/or Buxtehude. Many folks find the organ music of Bach and Buxtehude too dark and solemn, but Middelschulte is more consistently bleak and severe than either of these two masterful baroque composers. As an example, Bach always offers us exquisite ‘rays of light’ in his most severe music; Middelschulte offers nothing remotely similar. Negativity and great weight just keep pounding the listener.

I hope I have provided an insightful description of Middelschulte’s organ music. Given this reviewer’s particular tastes, Middelschulte’s severe style and contrapuntal leanings are highly rewarding. The CPO booklet notes, a superb example of cogent musical content, indicate that Sonnentheil will be recording the complete Middelschulte organ works for CPO. I look forward to the future releases but doubt that they will propel Middelschulte into the Classical Hall of Fame. Since alternative recordings of this repertoire are likely to be minimal, anyone wanting Middelschulte’s musical creations should look to CPO for satisfaction. As has been the case for many years, it is the independent labels that give us obscure music from relatively unknown composers. I congratulate CPO for its enterprise and adventurous nature.

Don Satz

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