Franz Liszt and Johann Gottlob Töpfer: A Fruitful Relationship in Weimar

August 5, 2013

Jens Korndörfer is organist at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He has published articles in English, French, German, and Russian music journals. He has performed widely, including at Westminster Abbey in London, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Minster in Ulm, Suntory Hall and Metropolitan Art Space in Tokyo, Kyoto Concert Hall, St. Thomas Aquinas in Boston, St. James Cathedral in Toronto, and Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal.

Jens Korndörfer holds degrees from the Bayreuth Conservatory (Church Music Diploma in 2004), the Paris Conservatory (Organ Diploma in 2007, studio of Olivier Latry and Michel Bouvard), the Oberlin Conservatory (Artist Diploma in 2009, studio of James David Christie), and McGill University in Montreal (D.Mus. in 2013, studio of Hans-Ola Ericsson, John Grew, and William Porter). His website is



During the travels of his virtuoso years, Franz Liszt liked to try out and even perform on various organs throughout Europe.1 However, it was only after his move to Weimar in 1848 that he was in regular contact with other organists2 and began to compose for the “pope of instruments”3—in fact, as Alan Walker points out, it is “unthinkable that Liszt would have written his two organ masterpieces Ad nos, ad salutarem undam and Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H in any other environment than . . . Weimar.”4

As the Catholic Church in Weimar was small and the organ—as well as ‘modern’ music (e.g., chromaticism)—unwelcome in the liturgy, Liszt became acquainted with a circle of Protestant organists, known as the Weimarer Organistenkreis.5 The leading figure among the organists in Weimar was Johann Gottlob Töpfer (1791–1870), organist at the Stadtkirche, professor at the Lehrerseminar in Weimar and—perhaps most importantly—a leading authority in organ building in Germany.

In this article, I will explore the professional relationship between Liszt and Töpfer. The mutual influence between the two relates to four different areas: 1) Their direct relationship, including knowledge and performance of and influence on each other’s compositions; 2) Mutual students; 3) Organs that were built according to Töpfer’s ideas and well known to Liszt; 4) Indirect influence on each other’s registrational practice.


Professional relationship 

between Liszt and Töpfer

When Liszt first arrived in Weimar, the older Töpfer was “first skeptical and hostile towards the progress instigated by Liszt. . . . Later he was honest enough to admit that much nice and great music has been created by the new direction.”6 That there was indeed a significant improvement in their mutual esteem can also be witnessed by Liszt dedicating two of his arrangements for organ to Töpfer (Aus tiefer Not, BWV 38, in 1856 and Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21, in 1860), Töpfer’s first performance of two compositions by Liszt (Psalm 23 for soprano, harp, and organ, and Psalm 137 for soprano, violin, harp, and organ in October 1859, on the same program were two pieces by Töpfer: his Sonata in D Minor and the Nachspiel in C, performed by Gottschalg and Buckel),7 Liszt’s contribution of two pieces for Töpfer’s ‘Jubelalbum’ in 1867 (Consolation No. 4 in D-flat and Hosanna: Choral for Organ and Trombone),8 and other premieres of Liszt in Töpfer’s church (Seligkeiten in 1859 and Psalm 18 in 1861). In 1870, Liszt even led Töpfer’s funeral procession.9

Liszt owned several of Töpfer’s compositions, including the Choralstudien (edited and published by Gottschalg in 1871), a collection of Intonations, Preludes, Trios, and ‘Konzertsätze’, which he liked.10 Milton Sutter believes that two of Töpfer’s early works for organ (the Fantasia in C and the Sonata in D, of which the latter had been performed in a recital with Liszt’s and Töpfer’s works!) “influenced Liszt to a certain extent in that the first version of the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H (1855) contains some material that seems to be an expansion of some of Töpfer’s ideas as expressed in the Fantasia and the Sonata.”11

Whereas Töpfer’s influence on Liszt’s organ compositions cannot be ascertained, there is more evidence for an influence in the other direction. Töpfer’s three Choral Fantasies (1859) can be considered the precursors of Reger’s compositions in the same genre: the increased chromaticism in these three pieces (compared to earlier works by Töpfer), the quotation of the chorale in pianissimo just before the hymnic final in major in Jesu, meine Freude (in exactly the same position as in Liszt’s “B-A-C-H”), and the connection of the different variations with thematic interludes in all three fantasies (similar to Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 6 and Liszt’s “Ad nos”) point towards an influence of Liszt’s oeuvre on Töpfer’s late works.12 As Bähr points out, Töpfer did maintain his conservative style throughout his lifetime, but he also was open to new influences from eminent colleagues like Liszt.13 


Töpfer’s students and Liszt

During his 53-year-long tenure as city organist and professor for organ at the seminary, Töpfer taught numerous German organists: three of them also became students of or collaborated with Liszt. We can assume that through their playing and in their discussions, they further familiarized the pianist Liszt with Töpfer’s ideas.

The most important organist in Liszt’s life, his editor and link to other organists as well as his close friend, was Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg (1827–1908).14 A student of Töpfer, Gottschalg became the great pianist’s disciple when Liszt accidentally overheard Gottschalg practicing one of Liszt’s organ arrangements in Tiefurt and had technical difficulties. His low technical level also prevented Gottschalg from playing Liszt’s large-scale organ works, but Liszt would teach him nonetheless (Orgelconferencen in Denstedt and Tiefurt in 1860) and rework many of Gottschalg’s arrangements (for example, the Pilgerchor from Wagner’s Tannhäuser).15 Gottschalg’s Repertorium (1869–75),16 a compendium of mostly nineteenth-century organ music (original compositions and numerous arrangements), contains twelve works by Liszt that exhibit the ‘new spirit’: pianistic virtuosity, orchestral registration, and constant connection to Bach are essential for Liszt’s view of the ideal organist17 and his music.

The virtuosity that Gottschalg lacked was Alexander Winterberger’s (1834–1914) strength: Winterberger, one of the first students of Liszt (since 1848), premiered both “Ad nos” and
“B-A-C-H”.18 Thus, he was Liszt’s most important performer and was instrumental in disseminating Liszt’s organ works with his recitals in Germany and Holland.19 Winterberger’s beginnings as an organist are not entirely clear: Hintzenstern claims that he studied with Töpfer in Weimar (but does not give proof for his claim), whereas Holloway suggests that he probably studied with Carl Ferdinand Becker (1804–1877) in Leipzig and maybe also with Töpfer in Weimar.20

Christoph Bernhard Sulze (1829–1899) studied with Töpfer and became his successor in the Stadtkirche in Weimar.21 He arranged some of Liszt’s works and developed—together with Liszt—a new system of pedal notation (notes for the right foot beamed up, for the left foot beamed down).22


The organs in Weimar (Stadtkirche) and Denstedt

“Töpfer’s credentials as a teacher were impeccable, [but] his real claim to fame was as an organ builder, a field over which he exerted great influence.”23 Two of the instruments that were built according to Töpfer’s ideas24 were very important to Liszt as he used them for performances and teaching: the Trampeli/Schulze organ (1812/1824) in the Stadtkirche in Weimar and the Peternell organ in Denstedt (1859/60).25


Peternell organ in Denstedt (II/19)

Hauptwerk C–f′′′

16 Quintatön

8 Principal

8 Hohlflöte

8 Viola da Gamba

4 Octave

4 Hohlflöte

3 Quintflöte

2 Octave

Mixtur IV

Oberwerk C–f′′′

16 Lieblichgedackt (from Co)

8 Geigenprincipal

8 Lieblichgedackt

8 Harmonika

4 Geigenprincipal

4 Flauto dolce

Pedal C–d

16 Subbas

16 Violon

8 Principalbass

8 Gedacktbass






Calcantenwecker (wind signal)



Weimar, Stadtkirche (III/49)


16 Principal

16 Quintatön

8 Octave

8 Gedackt

8 Spitzflöte

8 Gamba

4 Octave

4 Spitzflöte

4 Gamba

2 Octave

Cornet IV

Mixtur IV

Cymbal III


16 Bordun

8 Principal

8 Schweitzerflöte

8 Hohlflöte

8 Flauto traverso

4 Octave

4 Gemshorn

2 Octave

Mixtur V

Scharff III

8 Vox humana


8 Principal

8 Gedackt

8 Salicional

8 Flauto dolce

8 Harmonikaflöte

4 Octave

4 Flauto dolce

2 Octave

Cornett III

Mixtur IV


32 Untersatz

16 Principal

16 Violon

16 Subbas

8 Principalbass

8 Octave

8 Violon

8 Bordun

51⁄3 Quint

4 Octave

Cornett V

32 Posaune

16 Posaune

8 Trompete

4 Clarine


The Weimar organ is considered to be the “earliest example of [a] German romantic instrument,”26 and is characterized by its full, warm sound (dominance of foundation stops), the ‘thunderous’ pedal, its quick response, and its expressive and poetic voices, which were praised for their Lieblichkeit; however, it had neither a swell box nor playing aids.27 

The organ in Denstedt was designed for service playing and not for concert. However, the essential—and poetic—foundation stops are there, and some of Liszt’s works can be performed on such a smaller instrument.28


Liszt’s registrational practice

These two instruments (as well as the Ladegast organ in Merseburg), together with the organists Gottschalg and Winterberger, were of vital importance to Liszt, as he would explore his (new) ideas for registration with them. As we shall see, this had repercussions for Töpfer, as he was either present at recitals that Liszt had prepared or—in the case of Gottschalg—would hear his former student play in a different way.

Numerous contemporary sources, like Gottschalg and von Bülow, tell us that Liszt had “little knowledge of local organ practice [and] was willing to experiment with registration,” that he was praised for his “brilliant registration, [and] his rich range of nuances in creating only soft tone colors,”29 and his amazing skill in the combination of stops and choice of registration, as well as in the alternation of the four manuals in Merseburg.30 In short, “Liszt enjoyed using the full resources of the instrument and . . . had no time for the cautious, colourless renderings of Bach’s works which then prevailed in Germany,”31 to the extent that—after the performance of “Ad nos” in Merseburg in 1855—“other organists, who grew up in the old tradition, and who used to play a quarter of an hour long on the same registration, ranted and raved about this deconsecration of the church organ.”32

When Gottschalg played Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Passacaglia in accordance with the teachings of Töpfer, Liszt answered: “Do you really believe that Bach played these two compositions continuously on the full organ? Never! He was a far too great and sensitive artist!”—and they reworked the piece, making use of Liszt’s “fantastic sense for sound.” Gottschalg reports exactly the same chain of events for his playing of the Toccata in D. He later played all of these pieces in the ‘new way’ for Töpfer, who endorsed the new approach whole-heartedly and urged Gottschalg never to play in the old-fashioned way again.33

Interestingly, Töpfer indicates a crescendo by adding stops in two of the final movements of the three chorale fantasies.34 This could very well be another influence of Liszt and his novel usage of the organ on the older Töpfer.



During the thirteen years that Liszt spent in Weimar, Töpfer and Liszt gradually overcame their initial skepticism and learned to appreciate each other. Common students and the usage of the same instruments provided a fruitful platform for mutual exchange in their ideas on organ composition and registration. Especially in the latter area, there can be little doubt that Liszt’s new approach to the organ’s dynamic and expressive possibilities—“guided by the spirit, not the letter of the law”35—convinced the representative of the old “Thuringian Organo Pleno tradition for the works of Bach”36 to reconsider his position and to incorporate a gradual crescendo in his later works. ν


1. Hermann J. Busch, “Die Orgel Mendelssohns, Liszts und Brahms,” in Proceedings of the Göteborg International Organ Academy 1994, ed. Hans Davidsson and Sverker Jullander (Göteborg: Göteborg University, 1995), 237. For a list of Liszt’s performances on organs in Europe between 1823 and 1847, see James Dale Holloway, “Performance Convention and Registrational Practice in the Weimar Organ Works of Franz Liszt” (Seattle: University of Washington, D.M.A. dissertation, 1998), 36.

2. Holloway, 40.

3. Martin Haselböck, Franz Liszt und die Orgel, in Franz Liszt, Sämtliche Orgelwerke, Vol. X/b (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1998), 411.

4. Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years 1848–1861, Vol. II (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 7.

5. Michael von Hintzenstern, “Franz Liszt und der Weimarer Organistenkreis,” in Das Weimarer Schaffen Franz Liszts und seine Ausstrahlung auf die Weltmusikkultur, ed. Uta Eckardt and et al., 140–152 (Weimar: Der Arbeitskreis, 1987), 141ff.

6. Ibid., 144.

7. Ibid., 144f.

8. Holloway, 44.

9. Hintzenstern, “Franz Liszt und der Weimarer Organistenkreis,” 145.

10. Ibid., 143f.

11. Quoted in Holloway, 45.

12. Hans-Peter Bähr, “Im Schatten Liszts: Johann Gottlob Töpfer,” in Zur deutschen Orgelmusik des 19. Jahrhunderts, ed. Hermann J. Busch and Michael Heinemann, 209–217 (Sankt Augustin: Butz, 1986), 193ff. Holloway, 45, 275.

13. Bähr, 195.

14. Michael von Hintzenstern, “Der Kreis evangelischer Kirchenmusiker um Franz Liszt,” Musik und Kirche 3, no. 56 (1986), 120. General discussion in Michael von Hintzenstern, “Franz Liszt und sein ‘legendarischer Kantor’: Zur Zusammenarbeit mit Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg,” Musik und Kirche 3, no. 56 (1986): 115–120.

15. Haselböck, Franz Liszt und die Orgel, Vol. X/b, 311, 438.

16. Holloway, 49ff.

17. Michael Gailit, Julius Reubke (1834–1858): Leben und Werk (Langen: Günter Lade, 1995), 44. Haselböck, Franz Liszt und die Orgel, Vol. X/b, 436.

18. Gailit, 32.

19. Holloway, 275.

20. Hintzenstern, “Franz Liszt und der Weimarer Organistenkreis,” 145. Holloway, 60.

21. Holloway, 64.

22. Hintzenstern, “Franz Liszt und der Weimarer Organistenkreis,” 149f. Haselböck, Franz Liszt und die Orgel, Vol. X/b, 405.

23. Walker, 159.

24. Holloway, 78ff.

25. Stoplists in ibid., 105, 108.

26. Ibid., 43.

27. Hermann J. Busch, “Die Orgelwelt Franz Liszts und die Klanggestalt seiner Orgelmusik,” in Zur deutschen Orgelmusik des 19. Jahrhunderts, ed. Hermann J. Busch and Michael Heinemann, 115–134 (Sankt Augustin: Butz, 1998), 104f. Busch, “Die Orgel Mendelssohns, Liszts und Brahms,” 238.

28. Busch, “Die Orgelwelt Franz Liszts und die Klanggestalt seiner Orgelmusik,” 114f. Hintzenstern, “Franz Liszt und sein ‘legendarischer Kantor’,” 116.

29. Holloway, 48, 160.

30. Haselböck, Franz Liszt und die Orgel, Vol. X/a, 71.

31. Walker, 159.

32. Martin Haselböck, “Franz Liszt als Orgelkomponist,” Musik und Kirche 5, no. 56 (1986), 218.

33. Haselböck, Franz Liszt und die Orgel, Vol. X/b, 441f.

34. Bähr, 193.

35. Holloway, 162.

36. Ibid., 276.



Bähr, Hans-Peter. “Im Schatten Liszts: Johann Gottlob Töpfer.” In Zur deutschen Orgelmusik des 19. Jahrhunderts, edited by Hermann J. Busch and Michael Heinemann, 209-217. Sankt Augustin: Butz, 1986.

Busch, Hermann J. “Die Orgel Mendelssohns, Liszts und Brahms.” In Proceedings of the Göteborg International Organ Academy 1994, edited by Hans Davidsson and Sverker Jullander. Göteborg: Göteborg University, 1995, 235–250.

——————. “Die Orgelwelt Franz Liszts und die Klanggestalt seiner Orgelmusik.” In Zur deutschen Orgelmusik des 19. Jahr-hunderts, edited by Hermann J. Busch and Michael Heinemann, 115–134. Sankt Augustin: Butz, 1998.

Gailit, Michael. Julius Reubke (1834–1858): Leben und Werk. Langen: Günter Lade, 1995.

Haselböck, Martin. “Franz Liszt als Orgelkomponist.” Musik und Kirche 5, no. 56 (1986): 215–218.

——————. Franz Liszt und die Orgel. In Franz Liszt, Sämtliche Orgelwerke. Vol. X/a, b. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1998.

Hintzenstern, Michael von. “Der Kreis evangelischer Kirchenmusiker um Franz Liszt.” Musik und Kirche 3, no. 56 (1986): 120–125.

——————. “Franz Liszt und der Weimarer Organistenkreis.” In Das Weimarer Schaffen Franz Liszts und seine Ausstrahlung auf die Weltmusikkultur, edited by Uta Eckardt and et al., 140–152. Weimar: Der Arbeitskreis, 1987.

——————. “Franz Liszt und sein ‘legendarischer Kantor’: Zur Zusammenarbeit mit Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg.” Musik und Kirche 3, no. 56 (1986): 115–120.

Holloway, James Dale. “Performance Convention and Registrational Practice in the Weimar Organ Works of Franz Liszt.” Seattle: University of Washington, D.M.A. dissertation, 1998.

Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years 1848–1861. Vol. II. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.



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