Max Reger

(1873 - 1916)

Max Reger

Singers in the Washington S„ngerbund will have seen the name Max Reger as arranger on choral music, including several interesting pieces in our Fall 1999 repertoire, such as Die Wzburger Gl”cki and Untreue (In einem khlen Grunde). Max Reger's musical output spanned several genres, including choral works, but he is recognized and appreciated particularly as a composer of organ music.

In order to help us understand some of the influences on this German composer, let's have a brief look at the times into which he was born. A decade before his birth Wagner's Tannh„user had been performed in Paris and Liszt had written Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1861). Between 1865 and 1885 the world was exposed to Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Darwin's The Descent of Man, and Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckelberry Finn. In 1871 Bismarck was chancellor of Germany. In 1874 the music world could hear Verdi's Requiem, Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus.

Reger, the son of a school teacher, was born in Brand, Germany on March 19, 1873. He began musical studies at a young age and by the age of fifteen was already composing in earnest. He was expected to become a school teacher like his father. However, before he took his first teaching job, he met the eminent musicologist Hugo Riemann, who was so impressed by Reger's talent that he urged him to devote himself entirely to music. Reger enrolled at the Sonderhausen Conservatory where he studied under Riemann; he then followed his teacher to Wiesbaden (where it is said his drinking habits began). After holding some minor posts, he became Music Director of the Leipzig University (1907) and Professor of composition at the Leipzig Conservatory - a post he retained to the end of his short life.

In 1911, he was invited to be Director of the Court Orchestra in Meiningen. In the two years he held this position, he was able to rebuild it into the first-rate orchestra it had been under Hans von Blow. He was able to achieve similar results with other orchestras that he conducted. His interpretations were admired for their subtlety and his ability to establish in the orchestra an understanding of his own musical feeling. Following his short time at Meiningen, Reger moved on to the University town of Jena where he devoted himself to composition. It was during one of his weekly trips to Leipzig to teach at the Conservatory that he died of a heart attack at age 43.

In his short lifetime, Reger wrote a vast quantity of music - often in large forms, and with opus numbers that encompassed groups of works, not just single compositions. His musical mind was that of a genius: being able to write music in almost any circumstances, and music that was often of great contrapuntal complexity.

According to one source, only three composers are known to have written down the music they first prepared in their head: Bach, Mozart, and Reger. The writing bored Mozart (as he complained to his father), while Reger simply could not find the time to write the music down. During the long nights in coaches and trains, on his way to concerts and back home, he found time to compose in his head. Sometimes he had several compositions ready to be written down, but he just hadn't found the time. He could promise his publishers a new work of so many bars, with specific instruments, for he knew this in advance of writing it down. Indeed, Reger is reported to have had conversations with people in the room while writing his music, which shows his enormous powers of concentration.

Reger wrote a vast quantity of music spanning several genres. Among choral compositions by Reger the eight Geistliche Ges„nge are considered especially moving, but his choral works and songs are not commonly performed today. Reger enjoys a particularly high reputation among organists, to whose repertoire he made important contributions. Reger's organ music offers a considerable challenge to performers, and some works are said to have been composed as a challenge to his friend, the organist Karl Straube. Notable organ works include Chorale Fantasias on Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, Op. 27, and other Lutheran chorale tunes. His compositions for organ include a Fantasia and Fugue on the name of Bach. Reger himself was a magnificent organist and an acknowledged master of improvisation on the organ. His spiritual predecessor was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music Reger revered above all other. Reger was a firm supporter of 'absolute' music and saw himself in a tradition going back to Bach, through Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. In his later piano music he pursued Brahms's continuous development and free modulation, often also invoking, like Brahms, counterpoint in the style of Bach. Many of his works are in variation and fugue forms; equally characteristic is a great energy and complexity of thematic growth.

Reger was a man of excess, as he admitted. "I must work. I have no time to waste because I feel infallibly that my lifespan will be short. I have often toiled, drunk and smoked more than is normal and I will be exhausted earlier than normal." One writer agreed -- Reger drank, ate, smoked and composed to excess. His critics charged that he wrote too much music and that his music contained too many notes.

Nicholas Slonimsky, in his highly entertaining Lexicon of Musical Invective, provided this insight into Reger's personality. Reger, who was known for his crude humor, penned what is perhaps one of the most notorious replies to a music critic. To Rudolph Louis, critic for the Mnchner Neuste Nachrichten he wrote: "Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nachsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein." ["I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!"]

The Max Reger Institute was established in 1947 by Elsa Reger, the widow of the composer, in the awareness that Max Reger had been unjustifiably forgotten 30 years after his death in 1916. She chose Bonn as the Foundation's location, where, over a period of nearly 50 years, the Institute became the center of international Reger research. Early in 1996, the Foundation moved to Karlsruhe, and in 1998 to its ultimate home in Karlsruhe-Durlach. The Institute is a private, non-profit organization, which is the sole heir to copyrights for Reger's works as well as a portion of the royalties resulting from their performance.

The Institute now houses a materially and musicologically valuable collection which documents the entire life and work of the composer. The archive is open to all interested persons and is used by researchers and performers throughout the world. The Institute owns about a fourth of Reger's works; included are works of all genres and periods, including organ works, chamber music, piano works, songs, orchestra works, and choral works. The Institute houses Reger's arrangements of his own and other works, as well as conducting scores; sketches, drafts, proof copies, and editions with notations in Reger's hand for all major genres; correspondence; photographs, paintings and drawings, caricatures, concert programs; Reger's published music in first and later editions; international literature on Reger; CDs, records, and tapes, as well as Welte mignon music rolls with Reger himself performing piano and organ music! It also has a location index of all Reger's known autographs including microfilms and photocopies of those manuscripts and letters not owned by the Institute.

This brief biography, compiled by Carol Traxler from several internet sources, appeared in the August 1999 issue of Quarter Notes, the newsletter of the Washington Saengerbund, Walter Mueller, editor.