We’ve seen a lot of composer anniversaries in recent years. In 2006, we saw the 250th anniversary of the birth of W.A. Mozart. 2009 was the bicentennial of Haydn’s death. We’ve since seen the Schumann and Liszt bicentennials come and go. This year marks the 140th birthdays two very different composers, namely Max Reger and Arnold Schoenberg.
Max Reger is perhaps best known in organ circles. In many of his organ works, he seeks to marry the adventurous harmonies of Richard Wagner with the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. Like the later Paul Hindemith, Reger was a formidable master of counterpoint. In some ways, he was a sort of Bavarian Brahms. He did not compose any operas. All of his compositions are in abstract forms. Apart from the organ works, his two most famous orchestral works are the Mozart Variations, Op. 132 and the Hiller Variations, Op. 100. Despite his Catholic birth and upbringing, many of Reger’s works feature German Lutheran chorales. During the time of Bach and before, German composers made many fantasies and preludes on various chorales or hymn tunes. The practice still continues among composers for the organ today. The hymn tune appears in one of the voices where it is played against two or more other voices. An excellent example is Bach’s Chorale Prelude “Wauchet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”. The work starts out with a beautiful melody. However, this is not the hymn tune. You will hear the hymn tune played very slowly on one of the reed stops of the organ. In this recording, the organist is playing the hymn tune on the lowest manual (keyboard).
The late organist Virgil Fox once said of Reger that it was “the mathematical complexity of Sebastian Bach times five!” One of the pieces of Max Reger that I most like is his Chorale Fantasia on “Hallelujah, Gott zu loben bleibe meine Seelenfreude”, Op. 52, No. 3. The hymn title in English is “Hallelujah, To Praise God Remains My Soul’s Joy”. The Korean organist Ji Su-Ryeon performs this very demanding work quite well. This is a sort of late-Romantic take on the whole Baroque tradition of Chorale Preludes and Chorale Fantasies.
Max Reger is famous for another reason, too. Like many composers, Reger had an adversarial relationship with some of his critics, especially Rudolf Louis of the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten. Around this time, there was a great deal of bad blood between the followers of Johannes Brahms and those of Richard Wagner. Reger was more in the Brahms tradition, as he valued traditional forms and abstract music over opera. Louis was solidly in the Wagner school and was a friend of Richard Strauss. After one particularly caustic review of Reger’s work, Reger wrote Louis “Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe Ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nächsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein.” Or in English, “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review before me. In a moment, it will be behind me.” Sibelius, who had received more than his fair share of criticism once caustically remarked “Nobody has ever built a monument to a critic”. There are monuments to Sibelius all over Finland today. Max Reger has a concert hall and a high school named in his memory.
Reger is an interesting composer to me. Ever since I was a child, I loved the textures of fugal writing. Reger provides a lot of dense Baroque counterpoint, albeit in a solid Romantic idiom. Perhaps it’s natural that I would develop an affinity for the man and his work. Apart from the two variation sets I’ve mentioned, I’m most familiar with his organ works. When it comes to organ composition, the French tend to dominate the Romantic period. However, I am interested in German contributions to the Romantic repertoire and Reger’s contributions are substantial.