created: 02-12-2011

update: 27-02-2012





cd-56 Karg-Elert

Die Sonaten für Harmonium

WD 9448

Publisher: Wiediscon

Release: april 2002

Performer: Mark Richli

Total time: 57:38

Text booklet: Mark Richli


Website of Mark Richli:

Played on Kunstharmonium Mustel, 1910  


Erste Sonate für Harmonium, h-moll, Opus 36 (1905)

I. Quasi Fantasia (Maestoso ed energico) 5:33

II. Interludium (Larghetto assai [ma non allargando]) 7:49

III. Finale (Fuga. Allegro marcato) 5:14


Zweite Sonate für Harmonium, b-moll, Opus 46 (1913)

I. Enharmonische Fantaisie und Doppelfuge (Tempo rubato - Andante Misterioso) 13:06 [ Soundclip ]

II. Canzone (Tanquillo, molto sensibile e cantabile) 11:45

III. Toccata (Vivacissimo - Maestoso - Largo fastoso) 13:59

Website of Mark Richli

These "Zwei Sonaten" have also been recorded by:

  • Anne Page (UK) - cd-03 on this website; Zweite Sonata
  • Johannes Matthias Michel - cd-19 on this website, both Sonatas


Detailed information about the Sonates

© By Mark Richli

Karg-Elert's compositions for Harmonium

In 1907 the publisher R. Forberg in Leipzig edited Karg-Elert’s firs composition for Harmonium: “Six Sketches”[Sechs Skizzen] Opus 10.  Subsequently the composer wrote further pieces for this instrument, but Forberg didn’t accept them.  They were finally bought by Carl Simon (the most important publisher of music for harmonium in Germany) with the condition that the composer became acquainted with the Art Harmonium first. The score of Opus 10 shows that Karg-Elert had a suction instrument in mind at that time. The ‘new’ instrument must have fascinated him immediately.

On April 19th 1905 he wrote to Carl Simon: “How could I ever have been impressed by the soul-less bigoted instrument? Will, I simply didn’t know a real pressure harmonium! You know, I composed my 3 larger harmonium pieces op. 25, op. 33, op. 36 for this intensive instrument. […] I now tried out those pieces, you have already bought […] on my instrument. I was astonished to realize that I’m forced to make very considerable modifications.  The exchange of the stops is often impossible to execute (though desirable for reasons of sound) as there is simply no time to do it. Several sections have to be altered for technical reasons, too. Now that I’ve worked over the Sonata and the Passacaglia they look like being precisely projected for a 4 rank instrument with expression. Now everything is much clearer, more lucid and easier, and comfortable to play […]”

Karg-Elert couldn’t afford an Art Harmonium by then. He owned a smaller pressure harmonium with 4 ½ ranks. Therefore he writes in the same letter to Simon:  “To compose especially for Art Harmonium with success seems to be impossible for me until I’m owning such an instrument sometime in the future. “  Nevertheless both the First Sonata Opus 36 and the Partita Opus 37 were published in two contemporary editions for a 4-rank harmonium and also for Art Harmonium.

The composer later owned an instrument made by Johannes Titz (Germany) who built exquisite copies of Mustel’s Art Harmonium exclusively for Carl Simon.  All Karg-Elert’s large scale compositions for harmonium after ca. 1906 are composed especially fort Art Harmonium. The monumental Second Sonata Opus 46 can’t even be played on any other instrument.

After 1915 Karg-Elert composed predominantly for other instruments and other genres (organ, piano, chamber music etc.)

The Sonatas for Harmonium

In “The Art of Registration” [Die Kunst des Registrierens] Opus 91 (Vol. 1. p. 125-126 & Vol. 2 p. 217) Karg-Elert mentions that he didn’t use the Sonata form neither in his First Sonata at all nor in the first movement of the Second Sonata, but the Toccata of the latter is a sonata-form movement.  On the other hand Contrapuntal and Polyphonic form, especially, Fugue and Fugato are rather dominant. Forerunners such as Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) and Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) had a clearly recognizable influence.   [ See this Acrobat file]

First Sonata (B minor) for Harmonium Opus 36 (1905)

Strictly speaking this sonata is a Fantaisie and Fugue with an inserted sow movement. The quotation of the last bars from the Fantasia at the end of the Fugue strengthens the unity of the whole piece, thus followings models by Rheinberger (4th Sonata, Opus 98) and Guilmant (Troisième Sonate Opus 56, which was published in its first version as “Prélude, Adagio et Fugue” and showed register indications for organ and harmonium).

In Quasi Fantasia powerful chords alternate with virtuoso runs and quiet episodes in rather small-scale sections typical of Karg-Elert. Nevertheless those sections are melted together by repetitions and variations in order to form a strong unity and elements of sonata form can be discovered despite the composer’s denial.

The Interludium elucidates its principal melody in the light of numerous tone colours and exquisite harmonies and dies away in the Amen of a Catholic Credo. This might be reminiscence to Karg-Elert’s catholic mother to whom the Sonata is dedicated.

A Fugue in three voices forms the Finale, running into virtuoso passages ad ending in a radiant B major chord.

Second Sonata (B-flat minor) for Harmonium Opus 46 (1913)

In 1920 Karg-Elert had written “Explanatory Words” about Opus 46 under the pseudonym ‘Dr. Otmar Bergk’. To every modern eye they may appear bombastic or overdone. Nevertheless they allow an ‘insiders’ view and are therefore quite interesting: [ mind you, here Karg-Elert is commenting on his own composition! All of the italic text is written by Dr. Otmar Bergk.]

“The 2nd Sonata is Karg-Elert’s most momentous ad most extensive work. It stands easily against Liszt’s and Reger’s works on B.A.C.H. The complete thematic material consists of variations of the B.A.C.H. theme and the stylized chorale ‘Jesus meine Zuversicht’.”  In this opus K-E lays bare his entire soul: it is rooted in pain, frightened and fixed on longing for the beyond. It is restrained by seeking after ad artistic and religious-ethical ideal.

I. Enharmonic Fantasia and Fugue

The piece begins with airy excitation, the notes B.A.C. H. [B-flat-A, C,] whirl in a jumble. There is no support. The ‘Jesus theme’ appears earnestly and solemnly. Celestial visions rise. Man rebels wildly and defiantly and is thrown endlessly from reef to reef. Neither here nor there is any support! Now a brooding and searching begins (Fugue). The chaos gets more and more confused, more and more passionate the giant struggle. The voices cross, swell to menace and collapse swooning.  Now the big artistic helper shows up, the ancestor of music: B a c h. In his name the struggler finds help. The B.A.C.H. theme II joins giantly the crumbly and anxiously seeking theme I as a lapidary counterpoint. Now the peek is reached and remains until the end, where the chorale interferes monumentally.

II. Canzone

It is orientated completely on ardent devotion. Trembling ecstasy and stammering transfiguration become a miracle of sound. The Canticles of Solomon in colourful-glowing notes.  

III. Toccata

The first theme rushes along as in a tempest (cf. the similarity with the Totentanz Opus 70). Strange visions and anxious sounds torment the soul. The motto-motif from Opus 50 comes into the struggle, the second theme (B.A.C.H. in D-flat major) calmly appears and a quiet delight of most exquisite harmony spreads. A wild combat flares up between the two transformed main themes in the development. The harmonies hurry. The vision of inferno vanishes...... The recapitulation of the first part follows. The tension increases irresistibly, peak are towered upon peaks. Now at the climax the chorale sets in:  “That thou may turn thy spirit form the lusts of earth..." send thy heart thither ward, where thou long to be forever.” It is getting more and more tranquil. The sounds ascend more and more lucidly and die away in a visionary chord in B major.... (Pause!) ..... From far away a supernatural Chime begins to ring in the evening profoundly .....’

Karg-Elert’s “Second Sonata” is an extraordinary work in many respects. Lasting almost 40 minutes it is longer than any other piece for harmonium. No other work exhausts the musical possibilities of the Art Harmonium more extensively.  In many places registration indications change more than once in a bar and the composer finds ways to achieve sounds which are believed to be possible for orchestra only.  The most exquisite example for that is the long lasting final chord of the Sonata: it permanently changes without any perceptible breaking.

Much more than in Opus 36 Karg-Elert tried to unify the movements of Opus 46 by using joint musical material. The three main themes of the Sonata are tightly connected together and go through all movements. The B-A-C-H motif opens the Sonata and dominates the Fantaisie, forms the second theme of the Doppel Fugue, is quoted in fortissimo in the Canzone and figures as second theme of the Toccata.  The expressive melody that governs the Canzone after the improvisatory  opening bars is quoted in advance in the Fantaisie  and returns near the end of the Sonata “as reminiscence“ . Different sections from the Chorale ‘Jesus meine Zuversicht’ are omnipresent from the beginning to the end of the work. Finally there are further quotations mentioned by Ottmar Bergk - from the “First Sonata for Piano” Opus 50 and from the “Totentanz” Opus 70 no 2 which can be recognized, however, by listeners without knowledge of those pieces.  Karg-Elert thought highly of this Sonata. He played it often in concerts, quoted it many times in his “The Art of Registration” and rewrote Canzone and Doppel Fugue for the pedal organ. 


The Harmonium in this recording.

Mustel Kunstharmonium, 1910, s/n 2114-1110, price was 5.200, about the same amount as an Erard Grand Piano. Details of the instrument taken from Mustel Catalog 1910.




Mustel 3-C 1910




Mustel 3-C 1910