Listening to Reger

Written on April 3, 2009 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Reger I have been listening recently to the music of the German late-Romantic composer Max Reger (pictured, grimly), who died of a heart attack shortly after his 43rd birthday in 1916. At his death, Reger's popularity was at its apex. In the roughly hundred years that have followed, however, critical judgment has not been favorable. Of his prodigious output, which includes numerous chamber, orchestral, and organ works, almost none has survived in the modern concert hall. Even his most famous composition, the Variations on a Theme by Mozart, has largely fallen into obscurity in modern concert programming. (His version for two pianos can be watched here.)

Reger is an odd figure. His work is exceptionally interesting at a time when the German musical tradition was struggling to reconcile the competing pulls of Wagner (and later Richard Strauss) on the one hand with the legacy of Brahms, Beethoven and J.S. Bach on the other. This became a kind of aesthetic civil war in German music. One group, following the Wagnerian tradition, convinced themselves that Music should be harnessed to the service of higher spiritual goals – such as assembling opera singers to shout at the audience for 3 days about obscure Teutonic Gods, aka Der Ring des Nibelungen. The other maintained the primacy of the abstract (or absolute) aesthetic in musical expression. Music doesn't have to aspire to any expressible meaning – music is meaning.

Reger was firmly in the second camp. And while his enthusiasm for Bach's brand of adventurous counterpoint can be discerned across his music for organ (of which there is, shall we say, more than enough), in his orchestral and chamber music, Reger adopted the musical language of Johannes Brahms, the artistic godfather of the Absolute School. In essence, Reger's musical efforts amount to an attempt to develop forward from the model elaborated by Brahms, which itself can be seen as a (not always successful) struggle to wed Beethoven's aesthetic with a Romantic idiom. From this perspective, Reger offers a kind of open book on what musical thinking looks like in the face of the German romantic paradigm.

If the history is interesting, however, the listening is not. There is a good reason why performances of Reger have fallen off the stage: most of his music is pretty poor. (Although organ aficionados will probably still warm to some of his pieces for that instrument.) I decided to give a listen, score in hand, to his Piano Concerto in F minor, published in 1910. Now it is obviously a bit unfair to judge composers by their lesser efforts, but this work exemplifies the problems of musical expression in the post-Romantic aesthetic mold and helps explain why classical music shifted so abruptly away from its tonal, classical antecedents with the advent of the Second Viennese School.

First off, it's pretty dull. And, at 40 minutes, way too long. At times it feels less like a piano concerto and more like a monotonous lecture on the principles of tax accounting punctuated by the professor occasionally shouting to get the point across. Second, it's almost comically overwritten. You don't have to read music to see a score overburdened with notes. Here's a sample, chosen more or less randomly: 

RegerKl Konz My fingers hurt just looking at that. In the face of such relentless note-clobbering, Reger's cue "espressivo ed agitato (expressively and agitated)" seems like hopeless optimism. I'm sure pianists just step down on the pedal hard and hope they make most of the notes.

But perhaps most tellingly, the piece aspires to little more than an overstretched pastiche of Brahms. And here's the point: while Reger clearly enjoyed a superabundance of craftsmanship, his musical thought was constrained by an aesthetic model which by his lifetime was more or less exhausted. Bound by that tradition, Reger could do little more than stitch together overwritten idiomatic elements into long three quarters of an hour. 

The first movement concludes with an out-of-nowhere irruption of a ridiculously overwrought crescendo to triple-forte, marked helpfully by Reger in the score as "Grave." You can discern Reger's point: after 19 minutes of this stuff, the movement draws to a monumental and tragic close, with the entire orchestra shrieking in F minor as loud as it can. But the effect is rather different – as if at the end of that dull accounting lecture, someone suddenly threw a pie in the professor's face.

My stretched metaphor aside, it does seem a fitting coda for Reger's overall style: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or to quote another English playwright, "even the finest passages are of no service ; for the poverty of his own language prevents their assimilating ; so that they lie on the surface like lumps of marl on a barren moor, encumbering what it is not in their power to fertilise."


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