A brief introduction to the organ works of Klaus Huber

May 1, 2019

Alexander Meszler is a doctoral student of Kimberly Marshall at Arizona State University. He currently lives in Versailles, France, on a Fulbright award where he is investigating secularism and the organ as well as continuing organ studies with Jean-Baptiste Robin. A strong advocate of music by living composers, he serves as a member of the American Guild of Organists’ Committee on New Music. He is a member of The Diapason’s 20 Under 30 Class of 2019.

Elements of old and new make for fertile ground in organ composition; Klaus Huber (1924–2017) built his organ works on this ground. Although even the most recent organ works can hardly be considered new, they still stand outside of the standard canon of repertoire, and thus, sound refreshing.

Music historians have already begun to specialize in classical music of the last decades of the twentieth century. Varying interpretations of historical periods and styles among musicologists have emerged, but the lasting impact of post-war music is still up for debate. In writing about Huber, I intend to introduce a composer who I believe deserves a place in the organ repertoire.

Apart from his work as a composer, Huber is best known as a teacher. Two of his most significant teaching positions were as professor of composition at the Académie de Musique (1964–1973) in Basel, Switzerland, and later, at the Fribourg Musikhochschule (1973–1990). He won numerous awards and prizes for his work in orchestral and chamber genres. The depth of Huber’s influence as a composition teacher cannot be overstated; his name is found prominently in the biographies of composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, Toshio Hosokawa, Michael Jarrell, Younghi Pagh-Paan, Wolfgang Rihm, André Richard, Hans Wüthrich, and Hans-Ola Ericsson. Many of his students went on to write their own organ works.

I became interested in the music of Klaus Huber for three reasons: (1) a desire to explore music of the twentieth century that is underrepresented; (2) Huber’s historically influenced approach to composition for the organ; and (3) the fact that most of his works are relatively short and can be performed on a wide variety of instruments, making them easily programmable. Currently, the only article related directly to Huber’s organ works is a similar introduction from 2010 in La Tribune de l’Orgue, in French, by Guy Bovet.1 This article combines my observations with Bovet’s and explores aspects of the difficulty, style, and programmability of each of Huber’s organ works. As a supplement, interested readers should consult Bovet’s article, Huber’s Oxford Music Online entry,2 the composer’s thorough website (www.klaushuber.com),3 and finally, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) contemporary music database, “B.R.A.H.M.S.” (Base de documentation sur la musique contemporaine, http://brahms.ircam.fr).4

Huber’s style

Huber’s early compositions exhibit a combination of influences that is paradoxically both conservative and progressive—for instance, Franco-Flemish polyphony, harmony and counterpoint of the Baroque and Classical eras, serialism, and non-Western music.5 On the one hand, his initial resistance to the progressive (but standardized) serial developments of the Darmstadt School made him seem unadventurous and attached to the past. On the other hand, the application of his unique voice to the music of the past is remarkably postmodern. In many ways, he anticipates some later styles that, early in his life, were yet to emerge.

Des Engels Anredung an die Seele, his 1959 chamber cantata, unified serial structures with consonant intervals that launched him onto the world stage and won him first prize in the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) competition. Huber loved texts, especially old ones, even medieval. Though opera is not a significant genre in his compositional output, the oratorio and other vocal genres are. Later in life, Huber wrote experimental compositions that use unusual techniques such as having multiple temporal planes that differ in tempo. Finally, perhaps an influence from his students, he eventually turned drastically away from traditional Western styles toward non-Western musics where he used non-Western pitch constructions, instruments, and styles.

Organ works

In general, Huber’s organ works date from his early professional decades (after his student years) and are representative of a more conservative aesthetic, not necessarily typical of all his compositions. Metanoia, however, was not composed until 1995. Though he has written only five solo pieces for organ, a significant number of chamber and choir pieces use organ. I will not discuss these, except one, Sonata da chiesa (1953), for which the organ part is particularly prominent and marks his first exploration of the instrument’s capabilities. Since Huber was a proficient violinist, a composition that combines the unfamiliar territory of the organ with the expressive potential of the violin, an instrument Huber was intimately conversant with, seems an appropriate starting point. Guy Bovet has compared it to a better-known piece by the same name and similar instrumentation, Sonata da chiesa (1938) of Frank Martin (1890–1974). Huber’s piece comprises three movements: Poco Allegro, Allegro, and Largo. Until 2004, this piece remained in manuscript, but now that it is available in print, it will hopefully find its way into the repertoire.

It is a strange coincidence (and, to my knowledge, only a coincidence) that the first organ work of György Ligeti (1923–2006), Ricercar (1953), was conceived only one year before Huber’s first solo work, Ciacona per organo (1954). Both works have thin textures and are in relatively antiquated forms. It is notable that despite vast political separation, two significant postwar compositions, for an instrument virtually forgotten to the Second Viennese School, share much in common. Huber’s chaconne is influenced by a repeated figure that is difficult to identify since it appears in so many modified forms. Ciacona’s form is, in loose terms, ABA. The first large section marked Allegro molto starts with an alternation of chromatic passages (Example 1) with sections marked subito tranquillo (Example 2). The same section culminates in a passage marked agitato with a thicker chordal texture (Example 3). The B section is scored as a trio with the first entry in the pedal. Huber’s fascination with the organ’s capability to play trios continues and develops throughout his other compositions. Following this rhythmically challenging trio section, the composer requests a twenty-second pause (Example 4) before returning to the material of the A section presented in quasi-imitation. Registration suggestions are generally limited to pitch levels, but dynamic markings are supplied liberally. Thus, the piece should transfer easily to organs of many styles.

In memoriam Willy Burkhard (1955), Huber’s second piece for the organ, is dedicated to the passing of his former teacher at the Zürich Conservatory. Burkhard, like Huber, had written solo works for the organ and featured it in his other chamber works. The structure of the piece is in two movements, Molto sostenuto and Adagietto. The harmonic content is strongly tertian but includes hints of quartal harmonies. Unfamiliar harmonies in Huber’s early works can usually be accounted for as expressive, dissonant, but resolving, albeit unconventionally, non-chord tones. Bovet compares the singing quality of the first movement (Example 5) to Hindemith’s Trauermusik, but I am inclined to go a step further and argue that this singing quality even extends to parts of Hindemith’s organ sonatas, particularly the slow movements. The second movement is again written as a trio. In the decades surrounding 1950, Huber is not alone in his fascination with the trio texture—Vincent Persichetti’s sonata of 1960 (and his first harpsichord sonata from 1951), or earlier, Distler’s Organ Sonata of 1938/9. Huber’s second movement is technically a chorale trio since it features Vater unser im Himmelreich on a 4′ reed in the pedal. The composer achieves a great deal of harmonic and rhythmic interest though having only two free voices over the chorale (Example 6). It is important that performers, despite the rhythmic complexity, not lose sight of the compound triple meter that is crucial to the gentle, lilting character. Bovet has argued that this piece is suitable for liturgical use as well as concert use. In total, both movements are only around seven minutes long.

After about a ten-year hiatus from writing for solo organ, Huber returned to the instrument with In te Domine speravi (1964). It was around this same time that he composed Des Engels Anredung an die Seele, which, among other pieces, confirmed his fame and solidified his compositional identity. In te Domine speravi was composed for a three-manual Merklin organ in Basel and was awarded first prize in the Kulturwerk Nordhessen composition competition for organ. It is a short fantasy followed by a quieter section in compound meter. Though the piece seems intimidating since it includes irregular and challenging rhythms, prominent double pedal, and four staves, the piece is significantly easier than it appears (Example 7). Bovet humorously writes, “Despite the complicated appearance of the score upon first look, the piece is not difficult (One does not even need to know how to count since the composer indicates ‘senza misura’!).”6 The dense beginning may mark a definite change in style from his earlier organ works, but in the second section, Huber returns to a tranquil trio texture in compound meter. The piece concludes with a rapid crescendo returning to the opening material. This work is around six minutes long, making it even shorter than the previous works.

Cantus cancricans (1965) was composed the following year. Though the title seems to indicate the presence of a crab canon, Huber does not provide a strict one. However, the opening is mirrored at the end. Cantus cancricans, unsurprisingly, is scored as a trio. It was composed for “Schweizerischen Arbeitskreises für Evangelische Kirchenmusick,” a church group in Zurich. Originally, it was to be played after the reading of John 3:30 on the feast of Saint John the Baptist. The piece also includes a short congregational song that should be sung at the fermata on page five before continuing. By this point, Huber’s writing style had become much more complex, both harmonically, but especially rhythmically (Example 8). Logistically, to follow Huber’s dynamic markings, it is necessary to either utilize two expression boxes or frequently change registrations. The former is probably preferable since it would allow the colors to remain intact even though operating two boxes can often be cumbersome. Cantus cancricans is only about four minutes in length, yet is likely the hardest of his works, excepting Metanoia.

Following Cantus cancricans, Huber took an even longer hiatus from solo organ but returned in 1995 to write his longest and by far most complex work for the instrument, Metanoia (1995). The work is a meditation that lasts slightly under thirty minutes. The score consistently has five staves that, though difficult to read, accurately and helpfully portrays the intended colors by manual and register. The work has been published only in manuscript facsimile that, although adequately clear, still makes it more challenging to learn. Metanoia I, from the same year, is the same composition reworked for organ, alto trombone, two boy sopranos, and some simple percussion. It received its first performance, despite being written later, earlier than the original score. The Greek title literally means repentance or penitence and is a reference to the fundamentally Christian admittance of sin. The score calls for an organ in a non-equal temperament.

Metanoia begins by alternating stacked harmonies broken up by various colors and rhythms and frequently changing densities (Example 9) with sections of fast polyrhythmic passagework (Example 10). When these passages include a pedal part, they can be dauntingly challenging. At other times, similar passagework is presented over pedal tones. After the third fast passage, the texture returns to broken harmonies as expected (as in Example 9), but the dynamic suddenly changes to fortissimo and it introduces double pedal. Following this, Huber returns to quieter dynamics and presents a new texture. The work then returns to the newly introduced fortissimo section of broken chords with double pedal. At the end of this section, only about halfway through the piece, Huber changes again and does not return to any of the opening material. From here to the end of the piece (around fifteen minutes), Huber presents alternating chords on different manuals. He calls for alterations of pitch by various degrees of a semitone that are not possible when restricted by equal temperament.

Bovet describes the overall aesthetic of Metanoia: From the listeners’ perspective the experience is not truly musical: it is more like a musical-theatrical happening, or a long meditation; in short, the experience is total. Time is abolished; the sonorities inspire dreams. In the end, Metanoia is a large dream: a moment when the listener gives himself or herself the time, where life stops in a sort of parenthetical reflection on eternity. In our time when no one has time for anything, this can be pure happiness.7

A harpsichord work

Though not an organ work, readers may be interested in La Chace (1963) for solo harpsichord. The Diapason has enough harpsichord readers that I believe interest in this work is probably self evident. The piece was written for and dedicated to Antoinette Vischer, though she did not premiere it. It is scored in four staves, two for each manual, which, though complicating the notation, displays his specific intentions related to the use of each keyboard. His registration markings are clear and useful. Interested harpsichordists will find this a technically challenging and musically satisfying piece of music.


Huber’s organ works are rarely recorded or performed. Given his influence on the world of twentieth-century composition, it is curious that he seems to have almost no place in the organ literature. Several of his pieces, as Bovet has pointed out, could be used in more exploratory church music programs. Concert organists should take note of the relatively short duration of most of Huber’s pieces, making them programmable. If nothing else, I hope that organists will take note of Huber, not only for his works, but also for the extent of his influence elsewhere. Having passed only recently in 2017, we should take stock and remember the significance and beauty of the music of Klaus Huber.


1. Guy Bovet, “L’œvre pour et avec orgue de Klaus Huber (né en 1924),” La Tribune de l’Orgue – Revue Suisse romande, 62/3 (2010): 3–11.

2. Max Nyffeler, “Huber, Klaus,” Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2001, accessed June 6, 2017, www.oxfordmusiconline.com.

3. “Klaus Huber,” accessed June 6, 2017, www.klaushuber.com.

4. “Klaus Huber: Compositeur Suisse né le 30 novembre 1924 à Berne,” Ircam-Centre Pompidou, accessed June 6, 2017, http://brahms.ircam.fr/klaus-huber.

5. Nyffeler.

6. Bovet, 8.

7. Ibid., 11.

Scores by Klaus Huber

Cantus Cancricans. Basel: Bärenreiter-Verlag Kassel (5486), 1968.

Ciacona. Kilchberg: Sinus-Verlag (10016), 1954.

In memoriam Willy Burkhard. Basel: Bärenreiter-Verlag Kassel (4462), 1965.

In te Domine speravi. Basel: Bärenreiter-Verlag Kassel (4463), 1966.

La Chace. Mainz: Edition Schott (5429), 1965.

Metanoia. München: G. Ricordi & Co., 1995.

Sonata da chiesa. München: G. Ricordi & Co., 2004.

Photo credit: Harald Rehling

Related Content

May 01, 2019
Elements of old and new make for fertile ground in organ composition; Klaus Huber (1924–2017) built his organ works on this ground. Although even the…
February 05, 2019
In 2019 there are several composers whose anniversaries can be commemorated, albeit some of the precise birth and death dates are not known for…
December 05, 2018
The interview took place January 31, 2018, in Girton, Cambridge, and preceded a luncheon Mr. Rutter attended, given by Lady Rachel Willcocks, the…