Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Max Reger (1873-1916)

String Trio Op. 141B (1915)

 

"This Reger is a sarcastic, churlish fellow, bitter and pedantic and rude. He is a sort of musical Cyclops, a strong, ugly creature bulging with knotty and unshapely muscles, an ogre of composition. He has little delicacy, little finesse of spirit. In listening to these works with their clumsy blocks of tone, their eternal sunless complaining, their lack of humor where they would be humorous, their lack of passion where they would be profound, their sardonic and monotonous bourdon, one is perforce reminded of the photograph of Reger which his publishers place on the cover of their catalog of his works, the photograph that shows something that is like a swollen, myopic beetle with thick lips and sullen expression crouching on an organ bench. There is something repulsive as well as pedantic in this art.....There is a sort of brutal coldness, the coldness of the born pedant...with Reger creation becomes routine...His works are stereotyped; stale terribly quickly." (Paul Rosenfeld, Musical Portraits 1920)

 

It would seem that Nicholas Slonimsky, in his highly entertaining and instructive Lexicon of Musical Invective, had he wished, could have produced a volume on Max Reger alone. Not only did Reger catch it, he could fling it as well. Reger, who was known for his crude humor, penned what is perhaps one of the most notorious replies to a music critic - as well as giving new meaning to being thick-skinned. To Rudolph Louis, critic for the Muchner Neuste Nachrichten he wrote: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!" ("ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nachsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein")

 

Reger, the son of a school teacher, was born in Brand, Germany on March 19, 1873. He began his musical studies at a young age and soon revealed exceptional talent. By the age of fifteen, he was already composing in earnest. He was expected to become a school teacher like his father and to this end passed the necessary examinations for certification. However, before he landed 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. 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 Bulow. 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 complete understanding of his own musical feeling. His short tenure in this position was brought about by the death of Duke George, who had hired him for the post. Reger then 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.

 

Reger was a man of excess, as he himself knew. "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." Reger drank, ate, smoked and composed to excess. His critics charge that he wrote too much music and that his music contained too many notes. Reger composed more than 250 songs, over 150 piano pieces, and a prodigious amount of organ and chamber music, as well as a large amount of choral and orchestral music. He was also an acknowledged master of improvisation on the organ, as well as a fine pianist.

 

What was it about his music that drew such vitriol? In his day, he was considered a revolutionary composer, yet he had the distinction of drawing fire from both ends of the musical spectrum. To conservatives his harmonic progressions were harsh and unmannerly; to musical progressives, his love of Bach and Brahms and Mozart and his elaborate counterpoint and fondness for 18th Century forms were retro. "I can say with a clear conscience that of all living composers, I am perhaps the one who is most closely in touch with the great Masters of the past". Such statements probably did not endear him to either side. Yet, he was not without his admirers, including Arnold Schoenberg who in his Society for the Private Performance of Music (1918 to 1921), made good on his belief in Reger’s genius by programming more of Reger’s works than any other contemporary composer except Debussy. Bartok, Szymanowski and Prokofiev were also admirers of Reger.

 

The String Trio op l4lb dates from 1915. Both it and its companion piece, the Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola op l4la were written in less than two weeks. The pairing of the pieces were modeled after Beethoven who followed his op. 8 Serenade for Violin, Viola and Cello with a set of three String Trios op 9. Reger’s model for the "Serenade" was not actually Beethoven’s op. 8 but a Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola which though given the opus number 25, was actually written before the Serenade op. 8. Is that confusing enough? Reger wrote two pairs of identically titled and scored works, the Serenade and String Trio op 77 A & B, and the Serenade and String Trio op l4l A&B. These works are all the things Reger’s music is not supposed to be. They are neither long winded, overly chromatic, or choked with too many notes. There is no doubt that Reger’s aesthetic is one that embraces opulence. Other composers who favored such an aesthetic are being heard again through recording - Symanowski, Sorabji, Medtner, to mention just a few. It may be that today’s musicians are more up to the task of performing this music to its advantage. Indeed, it was Schoenberg who quipped, "My music isn’t modern, it’s just badly played."

1994-95 Season, Program III, Sunday January 22, 1995

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