Josef Gabriel Rheinberger

Josef Gabriel Rheinberger


• 1839 1901


Rheinberger was a 19th century German composer, organist, conductor and teacher. He is best known for his teaching, as he trained many important musicians includingHumperdinck and Furtwängler.

Joseph Rheinberger was born in Liechtenstein in 1839 to Peter Rheinberger and Elisabeth Cariger. His father was the treasurer to the Prince of Liechtenstein. Johann first had music lessons at the age of five from organist Sebastion Pöhli, who quickly recognized his vast talent. Astonishingly, he became the organist in Vaduz at the young age of seven, and had already begun writing music, including a three-part mass with organ accompaniment.

Rheinberger took lessons from Philipp Schmutzer, the choir director of Feldkirch, in harmony, piano and the organ. Through Schmutzer he was also introduced to the music of Bach and the Viennese Classical composers. Despite already having achieved a great deal of success as a pianist, the composer Nagiller convinced Johann’s father to send him to Munich for further studies in 1851. Rheinberger settled in Munich for the rest of his life.

A major influence on his works came from Franziska von Hoffnaass, a former student of his with whom he married in 1867. Hoffnaas was very influential socially and possessed a gift for poetry. Rheinberger often set much of her poetry to music. She also kept a biographical diary of their lives, though this remains unpublished. Some of his noteworthy songs are included in his 6 Gesange  Op. 131. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen Op. 35 also provides a fine example of his clear and elegant vocal music.

By the late 1860s, Rheinberger suffered from frequent poor health, however he continued to compose with vigour. 

Rheinberger’s career was successful, but lacked splendour and spectacular achievements. His successes did however bring him many honours such as the title of privy councilor in 1894 and an honorary doctorate from Munich. In addition, he was a member of the Berlin Royal Academy from 1887, as well as a corresponding member to the Paris and Florence academies. In 1877 he became Hofkapellmeister, a position which allowed him to greatly influence sacred music.

As a teacher, Rheinberger was especially influential. He trained many important musicians and scholars such as Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari, Thuille, Sanberger, Kroyer, Trunk, the Pembaurs, Schmid-Lindner, Buonamici, Horatio Parker, G.W. Chadwick and Furtwängler. One of Rheinberger’s key traits was his openness to new ideas. Although he, himself, did not approve of the work of  Wagner, Liszt and the New German School, he never attempted to influence his students based on his personal views of music. He taught them based on the Classical tradition and imparted significant knowledge to the young composers. Important composers in his teachings included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven  and the early Romantics. He strayed away from the late Romantics and many of the newer explorations of the late 19th century.

Rheinberger’s appreciation for this Classical tradition can also be heard in his own compositions, which are not full of innovation, but instead are very academic in nature and show a mastery of technique. This academic approach has led many to criticize his music for its lack of intensity and expression. 

His organ sonatas, of which there are 20, are definitely his best works. Other organ works include his 12 Character Pieces, Op. 56. His contributions to sacred music are also quite important.

Rheinberger died just weeks after his retirement. He was buried in Munich but his grave was destroyed during World War II. In 1950, his remains were moved to Vaduz. All of his scores rest in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Images courtesy of The Portobello Orchestra and public domain