“My window faces
the sea, and I overlook an endless flatness of shining ice and
snow. A white desert! Boundless and hopeless. And behind me
lies the town, just as black as this is white. I sit the whole
day in the hotel; my most serious occupation is regulating the
central heating. The result to my art is that I oscillate between
headaches and freezing. The moment when the headache stops and
the freezing begins is indeed “ganz scheen,” as Caufall would
say. I try other work too, but only second class. Middelschulte
is going to bring me an essay by Bernard Ziehn to-day, on Bach’s
uncompleted fugue. Comes very à propos. They are both distinguished
men and - in order to fill up the time - I have written a nice
essay about them for the Signale, and called it: “Die Gothiker
von Chicago, Ill.”
So wrote Busoni
in a letter to his wife, written from Chicago, and dated 15
January 1910. By “the Signale” he meant the Signale für die
Musikalische Welt, and communications with Berlin must have
been pretty good since his essay, ‘Die “Gotiker” von Chicago,
Illinois’ seems to have been published the very next month.
In it he praises, very lavishly, the skills of Wilhelm Middelschulte,
declaring his abilities as a contrapuntalist to be such as to
deserve a place alongside Bach and Reger, no less.
born at Werne near Dortmund – and, indeed, he died there too.
As a young man he studied at the Institut für Kirchenmusik in
Berlin, studying organ, piano and composition. By 1888 he had
become organist of St. Luke in Berlin. But in 1991 he emigrated
to the USA, taking up the first of a series of posts in Chicago
and elsewhere in the mid-West. He was organist at a number of
major churches and professor of organ at a number of American
conservatories. His students included the young Virgil Fox.
From 1925 he was also Postgraduate professor of organ and music
theory at the Institut für Kirchenmusik in Berlin. He returned
to Germany permanently in 1939. During the 1920s and beyond
he built a reputation as one of the finest interpreters of Bach.
His own compositions
have attracted relatively little attention – although readers
will note that this is the fourth volume in a series from cpo.
have all been reviewed in these pages. His work as an arranger
of Bach looms large on these CDs – not least in the case of
this fourth volume. Middelschulte’s friend Busoni had completed
his arrangement for piano of the Goldberg Variations in 1914.
Busoni treated the original with a good deal of freedom, omitting
a number of variations altogether and in some cases elaborating
or rewriting very extensively. Middelschulte’s version for organ
takes fewer such liberties. We get all the variations and, in
essence his arrangement respects Bach’s style and is steeped
in an obvious familiarity with the conventions of the baroque
Of course there
are changes and additions. So, for example, in the fourteenth
variation he adds some rich contrapuntal development and some
unexpected harmonies - and yet the results are essential Bachian.
In the twentieth variation he develops four voices out of the
original’s two. His use of organ colours is inventive without
ever being remotely gaudy and he resists any temptation to unleash
the full weight of the kind of modern organ he was writing for.
Most of the writing is evidently marked pianissimo to mezzo-forte
and there are very few moments (if any) when polyphonic complexity
is sacrificed to, or lost in, the sheer wash of sound that German
romantic organ music can sometimes turn into.
In his booklet notes,
Hans-Dieter Mayer explains that Middelschulte made a lot of
additions and changes in his manuscript copy of the score –
after publication of the printed version. In many cases these
are additional voices which add to the complex texture of the
music. In this recording Jürgen Sonnentheil plays the work with
repetitions – playing the music first as printed and then with
the additions which the composer made to the published score.
The results make rewarding listening. I suspect that Bach himself
would have taken a good deal of pleasure at some of the things
Middelschulte has done with his music – though doubtless there
are things he would be less fond of too!
Sonnetheil is a
persuasive advocate for this arrangement; the 1997 organ by
Gerald Woehl (a specification is provided) sounds a handsome
instrument and the recorded sound is clear but not without warmth.
This might perhaps, in the grand musical scheme of things, seem
a mere curiosity. But it is actually a work of some considerable
substance, a work which will surely reward the attentions of
Bachians wanting a fresh perspective on one of the master’s
major works, as well as those with an interest in the organ
repertoire of the early twentieth century.