Think of three great composers active in the first decade of last century, all with two-syllable names ending in ‘r’. Elgar... yes. Mahler... yes. But the third? Max Reger. Max Who? That’s just the trouble. Reger is well known in his native Germany, but his name has obstinately refused to travel abroad.
Admittedly, Reger could be his own worst enemy. He refused to court popularity with symphonies and operas. Some works are long, or knotty, or both. Like all the best music, his work needs to be heard several times before it reveals its secrets.
But he creates his own soundworld, with passages of heart-stopping beauty, aching nostalgia and wistfulness – and if you like a good German fugue, he’s your man. Once you find the way in, his harmony and chromatic melody will possess you.
Born near Bayreuth on 19 March 1873, Reger was brought up in Weiden. His father was a highly musical teacher, his mother a devout farmer’s daughter. From 1884 he learnt piano and organ with Adalbert Lindner and in 1888 he saw Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Parsifal at Bayreuth, a seminal experience. From 1890 he studied composition with Hugo Riemann in Wiesbaden. In the context of his time, he was a maverick.
In life, he was a striking figure. Australian poet and critic WJ Turner wrote that ‘the first and last impression one gets of the man is size; even in Germany he was noted as a colossal beer-drinker. He was about six feet tall and very heavily built. The face was striking, being square and heavy, with a magnificent brow, but at the same time mobile, sensitive, and expressive; the most remarkable feature, however, was the full, over-hanging, and somewhat imperious mouth. The whole man gave an impression of enormous vitality’.
This Reger was best represented in music by massive, somewhat dense, orchestral works such as the Sinfonietta and the Piano and Violin Concertos, and in life by his putdown – borrowed from Voltaire – of the Munich critic Rudolf Louis: ‘Sir, I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.’
On the other side was the deeply religious man who composed towering organ music for his friend Karl Straube and touchingly lovely short choral pieces; who played the piano or conducted with delicacy, underplaying the written dynamics in his own music and achieving pianissimos quite at odds with his bullish physiognomy; who revered Bach and emulated him in intellectual yet rewarding counterpoint; who was capable of deep loyalty and tenderness in his personal relationships.
Reger would have liked to be a violinist, but consoled himself with the friendship of fiddlers. Even he admitted the Violin Concerto of 1907-8 was ‘a monster’; yet Adolf Busch had huge success with it, and in 1938 lightened the scoring as Reger had intended to do. The solo violin music carries on from JS Bach; and the late solo viola and cello suites are even more attractive.
Reams of Romantic chamber music flowed from Reger’s pen: good entry pieces are the exquisite A minor String Trio and the E flat String Quartet. Towards the end of 1915 he wrote a Clarinet Quintet which, in its transparent texture and easy flow of melody, pointed to a new style which he was never to exploit.
On the night of 10-11 May 1916, after taking his usual classes at the Leipzig Conservatory and having dinner with his publisher, Max Reger died of a heart attack. He was 43. On a bedside table were the proofs of his Sacred Songs, Op. 138, open at the first choral entry: ‘Man lives and flourishes for only a brief time, and all the world dies with its splendour.’
Reger on Disc – Six recommended recordings…
Brilliant 94663 (11 discs)
A bargain, as ten of the orchestral performances have claims to be the best. Konwitschny’s Hiller Variations is one of the great recordings of anything.
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
Hänssler Profil PH07003
Blomstedt’s is the real deal, spontaneous but beautifully played. Each variation is subtly paced and the fugue tops it all.
Violin Concerto; Two Romances
Kolja Lessing (violin); Göttingen SO/Mueller
Telos Music TLS 097
A gorgeous disc of Reger’s music for violin and orchestra, Kolja Lessing’s idiomatic solo work backed by an equally sympathetic conductor.
String Quartets; Clarinet Quintet
Karl Leister (clarinet), Drolc Quartet
DG 477 5518 (3 CDs)
The Drolc turn on their Romantic manner but respect the structural demands. In the Quintet, Leister’s mellow clarinet is ideal. Download only.
Solo Viola Suites; Solo Violin Sonata
Luigi Alberto Bianchi (violin & viola)
Astonishing depth of tone from Luigi Alberto Bianchi in the viola suites and Solo Violin Sonata, which ends with a glorious chaconne.
Organ Works Vol. 2
Ludger Lohmann (organ)
A good sample of the organ music played on the 1906 Link organ at Giengen an der Brenz. Vol. 1 features Bernard Haas on the same authentic instrument.
Original text by Tully Potter
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.