1873 — 1916
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Max Reger is a German composer whose music is often overlooked in favour of composers such asStrauss or Mahler. This is likely due to his lack of symphonies, operas, or other large-scale choral works. His chamber and organ works extensively feature variation and he often paid homage to past composers, such asBach and Brahms. His variations are his strongest genre and are based on themes of composers such asBeethoven, Hiller, and Mozart. Schoenberg identified Reger as a precursor to his own music, perhaps bridging the gap between Brahms and himself.
Reger was born in Brand in the Upper Palatinate of Germany in 1873. His father was very musical; he played many different instruments and published a successful textbook on harmony. Three of his four siblings died during his childhood, contributing to a darkness that can be perceived in his later music. In 1874, the family moved to Weiden, where his father taught him music. Ten years later, at the age of 11, Reger began studying piano with Adalbert Lindner, who strongly emphasized the music of Beethoven and Brahms. It was after four years of piano lessons, in 1888, that Reger announced his desire to pursue music as a career. This was prompted by a visit to Bayreuth, where he saw Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal. Though originally inspired by this visit to the opera, he was never interested in writing an opera. His visit had an immediate influence on his organ improvisation, which suddenly featured more chromaticism. Wagner’s polyphonic style of writing, such as in the Prelude to Act III ofDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg, also influenced him. His Wagnerian influence was further, however, quite limited.
Reger’s success at the organ led him to hold the post of deputy organist for Lindner. While holding this position, he played much of the music ofMendelssohn <>, Schumann, and Liszt. He also dabbled in the music of Bach, which he later studied seriously with Hugo Riemann. With Riemann he also studied the organ works ofBrahms. These studies led him away from programmatic music and directed him toward absolute music. After Riemann’s appointment to the Wiebaden Conservatory, Reger followed him to Wiebaden. Riemann even later recommended Reger for a position at the conservatory teaching theory. Reger’s devotion to Riemann can be seen in his early, but significant Violin Sonata op. 1 (1890), which he dedicated to him. Riemann was highly impressed by the work and later arranged for the publication of some of Reger’s works, including the sonata. While studying with Riemann, Reger was pointed in the direction of chamber music, which remained his greatest genre throughout his life.
While in Wiesbaden, Reger became acquainted with Richard Strauss, Eugen d’Albert, andBusoni. After his studies he remained in Wiesbaden for several years, including one year of compulsory military service between 1896 and 1897. He moved back to Weiden in 1898 after the deterioration of both his physical and mental health, resulting from his debilitating alcohol abuse.
Reger’s output of organ works increased while in Weiden. He also began teaching privately to support himself financially. He became increasingly enthused by the Protestant chorale and between 1898 and 1903 composed many fantasias based on the chorale melodies, such as hisToccata in D minor, Preludes and Fugues <>, 52 Chorale Preludes and Monologue . The technically demanding works were premiered by organ virtuoso, Karl Straube. It seems, that though he wrote monumental and demanding organ works at this time, he was unable to maintain his own technique as a performer; he thus lacked the ability to play his most challenging works. Though technically demanding, his organ music rarely departed from the fantasia and fugue models of the Baroque era, thoughLiszt andFranck notably influenced him.
While living in Weiden, he experienced a general lack of support and many negative critiques, resulting not only from his limited music genre, but also in his lack of compassion for his musical contemporaries. He made statements such as, “homeopathic ‘Wagnerism’ had destroyed Schilling’s considerable talent.” His notoriety increased with his Violin Sonata in C major op. 72 (1903) when he referenced his critics as “schaf” and “affe” (sheep and monkey) through the use of motives. He also maintained his belief in absolute music. Despite his outspoken antics, he maintained cordial relations with both Strauss and Pfitzner. He eventually decided to move to Munich for a fresh start.
In 1902 he married Elsa von Bercken in Munich. During this time his music also gained more recognition among the Catholics. He began performing much more frequently in Munich and his reputation increased drastically after a successful performance of the Piano Quintet in C minor (1902). He also served as the accompanist for the acclaimed violinist Marteau, who later premiered Reger’sViolin Concerto (1907-8). His two sets of piano variations along with Schlichte Weisenand several other chamber works in 1904 confirmed his success in Munich. He also wrote the Concerto for piano and orchestra (1910) for his friend in Munich, Frieda Kwast-Hodapp. Reger felt a growing connection to Hugo Wolf and supported his music.
His orchestral works matured in Leipzig. Here he composed the Hiller Variations (1907) and the Violin Concerto (1907-8), along with two grimmer works, Symphonischer Prolog zu einer Tragödie(1908) and the Piano Concerto (1910). Hereafter, his tone became more romantic in nature.
Reger’s regular concert tours affected his health, but the critics were quick to blame his extensive alcohol abuse for his poor presentation. He began conducting more often, but resigned in 1915 due to his deteriorating health. He continued to compose and perform – however several of his last works are war inspired, such asEine vaterländsche Ouvertüre (1914), Requiem (1915), and Der Einsiedler(1915). Reger died of a heart attack in Leipzig in 1916 while returning from a concert tour.
Though he was succeeding in Munich, he betrayed his old mentor, Riemann, when he published a theoretical treatise in 1903, in which he denounced Riemann’s views on chromaticism. The goal of his treatise was to provide “a key to the understanding of modern modulation.”
Reger was appointed to the Munich Akademie de Tonkunst in 1904 to teach theory, composition, and organ. His visit to St Petersburg with hisSerenade, op. 95 (1905-6) greatly influenced the young Russian composers with its neo-classical style. Among the composers present at the concert wasProkofiev . In 1907, Reger was appointed director of music at the University of Leipzig.