Builder of Bridges // Reger as Relativistic Historicist

reger 1.jpeg

The New York Times issued an article in 1906 after a performance of his Max Reger’s Serenade and sacred cantata O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. The paper gave a brief review on the works performed but devotes most of its ink to Reger’s reception in Germany. Reger follows a path “that leads him in a different direction” the paper states. After comparing him directly to Brahms the paper makes mention that he is sometimes referred to as “Bach of Bavaria” and his non-admirers refer to Bach as “Reger of Saxony”. Although this bit of biting humorous nicknaming may have lost its relevance to most in the 21st century it meant a great deal to those in Germany around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. This essay will show that Reger was more than just an admirer of Bach but deeply coupled to the baroque tradition of modeling and synthesis as exhibited through his Organ Suite No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 16 with a focus on the last movement.

A 1905 article in “Die Musik” presented opinions of Bach from important and influential individuals. Like most remarks that were printed Reger stated that Bach’s music has a healing force about it, “Sebastian Bach is for me the beginning and end of all music; upon him rests, and from him originates, all real progress!What does—pardon, what should—Sebastian Bach mean for our era?A really powerful, inexhaustible medicine, not only for all those composers and musicians who suffer from “misunderstood Wagner,” but for all those “contemporaries,” who suffer from spinal maladies of any kind. To be “Bachian” means: to be authentically German, unyielding.”That Bach could be misunderstood for so long, is the greatest scandal for the “critical wisdom” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

Reger’s unique position in Germany as a composer around the turn of the century placed him in a Germany that was concerned with its musical national identity. Two months following the Die Musik article Strauss’ Salome was premiered and the growing discussions about “degenerative” music propagated. The “healthy” and regenerative powers that were believed to spring from Bach’s music were raised and placed as protagonist against the “unnatural” music from other composers of Reger’s time. (Frisch 141-144)     Bekker writes of Reger “the first in his art made reference once again to that past which for us, insofar as we want to connect with the past, is fruitful, he was thus the first to reach beyond the Classic-Romantic models to Bach.” (Frisch 149) While Bekker’s comments offer high praise to Reger and his efforts the title of being the “first” is the fault in his claim. Reger indeed used models, techniques, and procedures from Bach and beyond, but one of Reger’s own champion also had done the same.     Reger completed the organ Suite in 1895. In a letter written to his teacher Riemann Reger wrote proudly of the work, telling his teacher that his Suite “would not bring you any dishonor”. Reger dedicated his Suite, not to a living figure he admired, but “To the memory of Johann Sebastian Bach”. Brahms reaction to this dedication is most telling of the raised stature Bach had amassed through the century. Reger wrote the aging German composer just a year before his death along with the score of his Suite. The letter asked permission of Brahms to be a dedicatee of a symphony in progress. Brahms writes in return, “Permission for that is certainly not necessary, however! I had to smile, since you approach me about this matter and at the same time enclose a work whose all-too-bold dedication terrifies me!” (Frisch 154-55) It is interesting to note that at the time of receiving the letter Brahms had not yet composed his final work of 11 Choral Preludes, Op. 122. (Frisch 159)     

The Organ Suite No. 1 of Reger is comprised of four movements: I. Introduction and Fugue, II. Adagio assai, III. Intermezzo – Trio, and IV. Passacaglia. The Suite’s design Reger may have adopted from both Rheinberger and Brahms. Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 8, which, for its four movements, have similarities in both keys, tempos, and formal procedures which include an Introduction an Fugue as the first movement and passacaglia in the last. Brahms first three symphonies contain “larger outer movements in both scale and nature, and inner movements which are smaller and more intimate”. This is structure is evident in both the Rheinberger and Reger organ works. It is the last symphony of Brahms, the E-minor, which warrants the most comparisons. In addition to the key similarities within the movements all three of the works share a similar “Bachian” feature, the passacaglia as the final movement. (Frisch 155-56, 303)     Elements for a standard passacaglia include the triple meter and following an eight-bar pattern. Example 1 shows passacaglia subjects from Bach, Brahms, and Rheinberger (a contemporary of Brahms generation). Drawing elements from these Reger formulated his own. From Bach and Rheinberger he adapts the contour of large leaps followed by half-step or whole-step motion. From Brahms he takes the initial rising stepwise accent and the introduction of a single chromatic note (aside form the leading tone) the raised fourth (A-sharp). The tradition of adopting aspects of other works and creating a new work out of amalgamation is what Reger is achieving.

Deeper into the final movement of the Suite noticeable comparisons in form arise. The 29 variations Reger sets down are akin to Bach’s 21 variations, Brahms’ 30, and Rheinberger’s 24. (Frisch 149-50) The first variation of Bach’s C-minor passacaglia introduces rhythmic syncopation in the upper voices. Where Bach abandons the syncopation in his second variation Reger continues and develops it. Reger similarly develops features as he moves the ostinato into the middle and upper voices and stages a “return” to the bass, Frisch asserts this as a stylistic adaption of a Brahms procedure. The ostinato remains in the bass until variation 12, where at the first dynamic climax, it moves into the top voice, it then retreats into the bass again through the major key variations.  For the return to the minor in variation 22, another critical moment in the work, the ostinato return to the melody voice. Bach and Brahms do the exact opposite in their return to the minor. Reger brings the ostinato to the bass in variation 25 for the remainder of thee work. Frisch calls this treatment “a sophisticated synthesis of Bach and Brahms”. This “synthesis” is an important aspect of Reger’s output and has placed him as a historicist composer. (Frisch 159-60)

Example 1. Passacaglia Ostinatos, Frisch, 307


The defining feature of a historicist is the ability to consciously reach back to a generation that was not directly behind ones self. Composers for centuries had been building and creating off of existing music of their day. It is through analysis of music of Johannes Brahms that this historicist matter came to light. Repeatedly through Brahms’ works there are stylistic procedures and formal processes that connect to generational styles and manners beyond his foregoing generation. From workings of Palestrina-like counterpoint heard in his choral works, conservative orchestration techniques reminiscent of composers in the early middle 1800’s, to his baroque influenced passages in his symphonies relay a conscious effort to work through and with musical practices from far-reaches of the past. The increasing emergence of availability of scores and musicology which continued to “unearth” these scores helped to fuel the fire of this phenomenon and helps to explain why this had not arisen to such a great extent with earlier composers. Reger’s historicist alignment may have been encouraged through his knowledge of Brahms works but was formed most likely early on from his teacher Riemann, who was a musicologist. This initiated him to be quite prolific in his active years as composer (1895-1916). Aside from his own works he edited, arranged, or transcribed 428 pieces of Bach. (Frisch 300) In his own works though he set out not to arrange or reassemble works of Bach and other masters of his but to create. Walter Frisch further closes in on the term by adding “relativistic”. Relativistic historicism celebrates its distance with the past rather than attempting to collapse it (the collapsing he calls sentimentalism). Reger faced the historical gap and sought to bridge it, not cross back over to it. (Frisch 150)

The 1906 New York Times article stated Reger had his supporters but also non-admirers. The New York Times article points to how different Reger’s music was, “They [the modern composers] are trying to out-Baireuth Wagner in music drama, or out-Weimar Lizst in symphonic tone poems and realistic effects… But Reger has made no concessions to the modern taste.” Reger’s music is rich with a non-conservative amount dissonances but dislike was perhaps taken with his enthrallment with forms and styles of the distant past. Not all understood his wanting to bridge the historical gap when there were new frontiers being explored.   While it also makes mention the high praise Reger receive in his town of Munich where he taught counterpoint by 1920 his non-gravity toward “modern tastes” promoted this review by Paul Rosenfeld in Musical Portraits,

"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."(Wey)

Although deceased four years prior to the printing of the seemingly slanderous review Max Reger held to his firm to his musical philosophy during life aligning himself as a sort of spiritually musical chosen one, "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". Bach, Reger’s most revered master, coupled him to the baroque tradition of modeling and synthesis as exhibited through his Organ Suite No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 16 and to acknowledge and bridge the historical gap between the two German composers.

references + sources

Frisch, Walter. “German Modernism: Music and the Arts”. University of California Press. 2005. pp. 138-161.

Frisch, Walter. “Reger's Bach and Historicist Modernism”. University of California Press. 19th-Century Music, Vol. 25, No. 2-3 (Fall/Spring 2001-02), pp. 296-312

Wey, Joseph. “String Trio Op. 141B (1915)”, Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes1994-95 Season, Program III, Sunday January 22, 1995.

“Max Reger and His Music” New York Times (1857-1922); Mar 11, 1906; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2008) pg. X1