Max Reger, A Patriotic Overture

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 19, 1873, in Brand, Germany
Died May 11, 1916, in Leipzig, Germany
Composed in 1914
Premiered on January 5, 1916 in Wiesbaden, Germany
Approximate performance time: 16 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), organ, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses

The outbreak of World War I was greeted by feelings of euphoria by large segments of the German population—certainly by the upper and middle classes. ‟The spirit of 1914,” as it came to be called in history books, was a mixture of national pride, deep contempt for the enemy countries, and an unwavering confidence in a German victory that seemed a foregone conclusion. Max Reger, normally not a very political person, was also swept up in this whirlwind. Rejected by the military for medical reasons, he picked up his pen and composed a Patriotic Overture which he dedicated ‟to the German Army.”

Reger’s works have become something of a rarity on concert programs these days, yet he must be counted among the leading German composers of his generation, with a unique late-Romantic voice that brings together elements that were seldom combined in quite the same way. One cornerstone of Reger’s musical universe was J. S. Bach. A prominent organist, the Bavarian native was a master of counterpoint and wrote chorale preludes, passacaglias, and fugues like his great predecessor. At the same time, Reger was also very much a child of his own time, heavily influenced by Wagnerian chromaticism, and also revering Brahms (then considered Wagner’s antithesis), whom he followed in eschewing program music and cultivating the traditional forms of sonata, quartet, and concerto. His huge catalog contains close to 150 opus numbers—an astonishing productivity, especially if one considers that his life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 43.

All of these influences and artistic tendencies are on display in the ‟Patriotic Overture.” Far from being the potboiler the title and the dedication might suggest, it is a work of considerable complexity, as if Reger had wanted to put all his learning and all his craft in the service of the Fatherland. In his overture, he wove together several national melodies, all well known to his audiences, starting with the Deutschlandlied (‟Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”). This, of course, is the famous Austrian Imperial hymn composed by Joseph Haydn that had become a popular patriotic song in Germany with new lyrics composed by Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841. (In 1922 it became the official German national anthem, and was re-adopted after World War II.) According to the often repeated but probably untrue story (that Reger must have read in the papers), German soldiers sang this melody as they marched into the battle of Langemarck, Belgium in October 1914, where they suffered heavy losses at the hands of the British. Others claimed that the soldiers sang the Wacht am Rhein (‟The Guard on the Rhine”), another famous anthem—and Reger used that as well, as he did the Lutheran chorale Nun danket alle Gott (‟Now Thank We All our God”), which Bach had also arranged, in addition to Gelübde (‟Vow”), familiar from Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (1880). Reger combined all these melodies with the contrapuntal art for which he was famous; the extensive motivic transformations and fragmentations to which he subjected his material were themselves perceived as quintessentially German compositional techniques. (He sent several of his friends a draft that shows the combination of the chorale with the Deutschlandslied, with the comment: ‟It’s very good that it fits!”)

In its formal outline, too, the overture avoids the obvious. It opens with a lengthy slow introduction where the traditional melodies are presented, and the ensuing Animato section, with its intense counterpoint, is interrupted by a Tranquillo section where a new, and original, melody is heard (an early commentator dubbed this the ‟theme of peace”). Halfway through the piece, the tempo even drops down to Largo before it picks up again for the final apotheosis. At one point, Reger calls for two extra trumpets and two trombones to be placed in the hall.

Reger conducted the first performance of the overture in Wiesbaden on January 5, 1916. Predictably, the work was very successful; nor should it surprise anyone that it remained a favorite during the Nazi era, which in turn made it anathema in Germany after 1945. Yet in 2014, one could hardly imagine a better lesson in history or a more palpable demonstration of what ‟the spirit of 1914” really meant.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.