The discovery of a recording of Karg-Elert playing the Art-harmonium raises some fascinating issues. In 1914 he would probably have been at the height of his powers, in his later thirties: after all, thirteen years later he was still able to perform his ferociously difficult Second Sonata at his fiftieth birthday celebrations. Questions about his technique relate more to the organ than to the Art-harmonium, which was always his favourite instrument.
Johann Titz very probably made the instrument on which Karg-Elert recorded. According to Gellerman’s International Reed Organ Atlas, the firm was established in 1880 in Lowenberg and was still active in 1930 under Titz’s widow. A handbill reproduced by Gellerman tells us that the sole agency for all countries was Carl Simon, who could supply a technical description with seven photographs for eighty pfennigs. Since Simon was Karg-Elert’s first major publisher, and was instrumental in introducing him to the Art-Harmonium, it is quite possible that a Titz instrument created the life-changing opportunity in 1904 which helped to shape the composer’s musical development from then on. Certainly the firm later marketed a “Karg-Elert” harmonium, perhaps an example of the patronage which was a feature of Karg-Elert’s career from the earliest days.
The three books of Wagner transcriptions were among several works published by Peters in 1914, suggesting that the recording was made very soon after the piece was written: the others were the Impressions op.102 and the Idylls op.104 written for a suction instrument. Feierlicher Zug zum Münster is one of seven transcriptions from Lohengrin, including the Act 1 Prelude and Elsa’s Dream, in the second book, which also contains four excerpts from Parsifal and versions of two of the Wesendoncklieder.
The first book includes two excerpts from Rienzi, three from The Flying Dutchman
and seven from Tannhäuser. The final book consists of four excerpts from Tristan und Isolde, including the Prelude and Isoldes Liebestod, five from Die Meistersinger, Siegmund’s love-song and Brünnhilde’s Todesverkündigung from Die Walküre, Waldweben (Forest Murmurs) from Siegfried and the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. All these transcriptions show great skill in incorporating the essential nature of complex vocal and orchestral material into music which can be played by two hands on a single keyboard. It is worth pointing out that in the days before extensive recording, transcriptions were the only way in which the majority could encounter these pieces. The Art-harmonium is arguably a more effective medium in conveying the essence of this music than the more percussive piano.
I have a great deal of affection for these pieces. I included the Brautchor (THE Wedding March) in a programme including Wedding Marches by Hollins and Chaminade, and played the Chorus of Flower Maidens (Parsifal) and Isoldes Liebestod in a recital of transcriptions at the Reed Organ Museum in Saltaire. I played the Liebestod well enough to include a recording in a lecture I gave at Sheffield University, and included Winterstürme from Die Walküre in the recital which I gave as part of my M.Mus degree in 1995.
Preparing all these pieces for performance or discussion emphasised a major problem in playing Karg-Elert’s music for the harmonium: registration. When Carl Simon was Karg-Elert’s main publisher, customers would know what the registrations meant, whether for “Vierspiel” or Art-harmonium. Peters, who published a much wider range of music, would not be so familiar, meaning that more information was necessary for potential buyers. Their approach was rather haphazard. The Impressions have the registrations for all the pieces printed at the beginning: infuriating, since it means leafing back and forth to write in the registration for each piece. The first book of Portraits, published later, initially