The German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert's real name was Karg, the 'Elert' having been added early in his career at the suggestion of his concert-agent. He studied at Leipzig Conservatoire under Reinecke, Salomon Jadassohn, Homeyer, etc., served for a time as professor at Magdeburg Conservatoire, and was appointed in 1919 to Leipzig Conservatoire, where he taught pianoforte, theory and composition. Though his earliest ambitions lay in the direction of composition, his chief distinction during his student days, and for some years after, was as a pianist of unusual brilliance. Some meetings with Grieg turned his ambitions once more towards composition, and the result has been a very large output in a great variety of forms - over 100 songs, sonatas for violin, pianoforte, etc., many sets of pieces for pianoforte, a symphony, string quartet, and much music for organ, etc.
There is also a valuable series of studies and pieces written specially for the 'Kunst-Harmonium,' an instrument, usually of two manuals, with considerable resources in tone-colour of the imitative-orchestral type. Karg-Elert toured as a recitalist on this instrument, and his works for it range from little pieces of delicate fancy to lengthy works, including a sonata and a highly original Passacaglia, the latter being subsequently re-written for organ, in which shape it ranks with the finest examples of the type. Probably this association with the 'Kunst-Harmonium' led Karg-Elert to take up the study of the organ, mainly with a view to composing for the instrument. (For a time he acted as accompanist and soloist at St. John's, Leipzig.) There can be little doubt that he found his true métier as an organ composer. Few modern organ works have been more widely and deservedly esteemed than his 'Sixty-six Choral Improvisations,' 'Twenty Choral Preludes and Postludes,' 'Ten Poetic Tone Pictures,' the Passacaglia in E flat minor, and, among lighter works, the 'Three Impressions,' and 'Three Pastels.'
Sigfrid Karg-Elert shows great harmonic resource - a factor that appears to advantage in his frequent treatments of ground basses - and an easy mastery of contrapuntal devices. His strong feeling for colour no doubt led to his great interest in organ registration - indeed his enthusiasm and ingenuity in devising subtle schemes of organ tone-colour often lead to demands that few players or instruments can meet. A tendency to extravagance shows itself in other ways, e.g. over-chromaticism, the piling up of gigantic stacks of notes, with chords of three (and even four) notes for pedal, a too-frequent employment of prestissimo rushes up the keyboard, violent dynamic contrasts, etc. But his pronounced mannerisms are trifling blemishes on an organ output of nearly 200 pieces, some of large scale and many of rare beauty and originality. He is at his best in his numerous treatments of chorales.
It is not too much to say that the present revival of interest in the Chorale Prelude in England is largely due to the impression made on English organists by his 'Sixty-six Chorale Improvisations,' which appeared in 1909. They show a variety of treatment, an intimacy of expression, and a wealth of harmonic and contrapuntal resource that make the collection the nearest approach, and a worthy successor, to J.S. Bach's labours in the same field. There appears to be no method of treatment used by Bach that Karg-Elert does not also employ, plus some devices of his own, e.g. an ingenious use of dance measures as rhythmical bases. But whatever the chosen form may be, the music is intensely alive and expressive. He has also written effectively for other instruments in combination with the organ; and in certain of his larger solo works has added, in the Coda, parts for brass and drums. Interest in England is almost confined to the organ works.