The Swiss composewr, Theophil Forchhammer, is nowadays virtually forgotten, but during his life he was regarded as among the most important and influential organist-composers of his time. He was a member of a prominent family or artists and scholars. He took up his first position as an organist in Thalwil, Switzerland, in 1867, and progressed through a number of different Swiss and German cities before in 1886 he was appointed organist of the cathedral at Magdeburg, in succession to the famous organist August Gottfried Ritter (1811-1885). Forchhammer remained in Magdeburg for the rest of his career; he also became Royal Music Director and a Professor at the University and exercised an influence on musical life throughout the churches of Saxony. He was an outstanding improviser and virtuoso player whose musical thinking was founded on his deep study of J.S. Bach. However, he was also deeply impressed by the music of Franz Liszt, and in his own music - a significant portion of which is now, unfortunately, lost - he attempted a synthesis of Baroque and Romantic principles which makes him a notable forerunner of Max Reger.
Theophil Forchhammer's Second Organ Sonata, op.15, was published in 1886 and bears the subtitle Zur Todtenfeier (for a burial ceremony). It is an imposing work partly based on church chorales, but with episodes of extreme romantic expression which mark it out as highly contemporary in terms of its own era. There are also passages in neo-Baroque style, with which Forchthhammer had already experimented in his First Sonata, but in Sonata No.2 these are more integrated into a wide-ranging stylistic palette. The first movement, in C minor, is frankly episodic in construction and features three principal ideas: a majestic, largely chordal Adagio with a more tender and reflective second strain; a fugal Andante; and an Andantino episode centred on the chorale 'Jesus meine Zuversicht', which is interpenetrated by recalls of the Adagio's second strain. A stormy - and very Lisztian - Allegro development starts by transforming the initial Adagio music and works all the main elements together to a forceful climax and then a brief Adagio coda.
The ensuing Larghetto in A flat is relatively an idyll, a serenade-like movement that introduces fragments of the chorale 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme' against a Mendelssohnian 'spinning-song' accompaniment. There is an intimately expressive central section, and the movement modulates from A flat to C major to run directly into the finale, Andante con moto. This is an imposing, smoothly flowing and finely-worked fugue on a theme derived from this same chorale, 'Wachet auf', which sounds out majestically in long note values in the pedals. Very Lisztian is the cadenza-like change to triple time, after which the fugue proceeds more rapidly until it encounters a quiet 'cyclic' recall of the Adagio theme from the first movement. The Sonata then concludes with a massive and triumphant full-organ statement of the 'Wachet auf' chorale.
Forchhammer's Choralbearbeitungen zum kirchlichen Gebrauche (Chorale settings for Church use), combining traditional melodies with modern harmony, were among his most admired works. The eight Choralbearbeitungen, op.11, were published in 1887 with a dedication to the composer's friend Eugen Grüel. We hear two of them in this programme. No.2, Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit, clothes its melody in graceful subsidiary parts. No.3, Jesus meine Zuversicht, is a more developed conception, using the same chorale as in the Second Sonata but in very different fashion. Here Forchhammer creates a kind of polyphonic pastoral serenade into which the chorale melody is inserted phrase by phrase as a cantus firmus, with a highly formal concluding cadence.