Wilhelm Middelschulte


Born: April 3, 1863; Werve   Died: May 4, 1943; Dortmund, Germany  
Wilhelm Middelschulte was a uniquely paradoxical figure in the annals of music, a modernist pioneer whose work is squarely grounded in tradition, a German composer who was also American and one of the greatest organists of all time. Middelschulte was the scion of a farming family and gifted at the keyboard from a very early age. He was gearing toward a career in teaching until an encounter with organ pedagogue August Knabe, with whom Read more Middelschulte forged a lifelong friendship and took his first formal lessons. After Knabe, Middelschulte studied at the Königliche akademische Institut für Kirchenmusik in Berlin, and in 1886 was named an assistant professor there. So quick did Middelschulte's reputation build that in June 1888 he was asked to play at the funeral service of the short-lived German Emperor Frederick III; Middelschulte was then only 25 years old.

In 1891, Middelschulte moved to Chicago, which would prove his home base for most of the remainder of his life; from that time through the end of the 1930s, Middelschulte held a dizzying array of posts playing, teaching, and conducting choruses at churches and Conservatories in and around Chicago. After experiencing tremendous successes playing organ recitals at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Theodore Thomas appointed Middelschulte "organist for life" of his symphony orchestra, which later became the Chicago Symphony. In Chicago, Middelschulte also studied with Bernard Ziehn, a transplanted German who had developed a system of harmony utilizing "symmetric inversion," a technique in advance of atonality that Middelschulte embraced. Upon meeting Ferruccio Busoni during the latter's American tour of 1910, Middelschulte introduced Busoni to this technique, which inspired Busoni's own Fantasia Contrappuntistica; Busoni subsequently dedicated the work to Middelschulte. Middelschulte made an arrangement of Fantasia Contrappuntistica for organ, and later performed it in a version for organ and orchestra made by the Chicago Symphony's conductor, Frederick Stock.

With the United States' involvement in World War I, Middelschulte found himself under increasing pressure to declare absolute allegiance to the U.S., which he refused to do. For his intransigence, Middelschulte was removed from his post as "organist for life" with the Chicago Symphony and lost at least a couple of his other positions; henceforward, he wouldn't remain in any given job for very long. From about 1920 Middelschulte began to concertize in Europe, though critical notices were often mixed, with many European writers taking a cynical attitude about Middelschulte's association with "hog butcher of the world" Chicago. Middelschulte's wife of more than 30 years died in 1928 and he quickly remarried the following year. In 1939, intending to head off a repeat of the events of 1918, Middelschulte returned to Germany with his American spouse and promptly fell ill. Aware of the great danger she was in as an American living in Nazi Germany and weary of the constant air raids, Middelschulte's wife abandoned him and returned to the United States in the summer of 1942. He did not long outlast her departure, dying the following May at the age of 80.

Although he was a prolific composer, Middelschulte's list of surviving works is painfully small, owing to his frequent moving about and the bombing or dispersal of facilities where his manuscripts were stored; almost no manuscripts survive in his hand and more than half the works that do are non-original. However, Middelschulte's highly complex, chromatic, and technically difficult music is both highly advanced for its time and dazzlingly effective; the end of the twentieth century began to witness the first critical editions of Middelschulte's compositions. Read less

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