Max Reger, Piano Concerto in F minor

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Giant in the Shadows, performed on March 17, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 19, 1873, in Brand, Germany
Died May 11, 1916, in Leipzig
Composed in July 1910
Premiered December 15, 1910, in Leipzig at the Leipzig Gewandhaus conducted by Arthur Nikisch with pianist Frieda Kwast-Hodapp
Performance Time: Approximately 44 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 5 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and piano soloist

Few major composers have been quite as misunderstood or neglected in the repertoire as Max Reger. This may partially be due to Reger’s bumptious and mildly scatological sense of humor: anecdotes—true and apocryphal—about his witty ripostes to vituperative critics and feckless performers are still retold to this day. While these stories about Reger’s sense of humor do contain a grain of truth, all too often these traits are used to dismiss the composer as a jester whose music was heavy and unrelievedly contrapuntal.

Reger was prone to extremes of mood and at times his hectic high spirits and the deep depression combined, as in the composition and reception of his massive, tragic Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 114. The concerto was composed for the fearless pianist Frieda Kwast-Hodapp (1880–1949), who had delighted Reger with her brilliant performance of his finger-twisting Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach, Op. 81 at a three-day festival devoted to his music in May of 1910. Exhilarated by her performance as a signal tribute to his work, Reger returned home and immediately began work on a piano concerto. He completed the heroic first movement by the end of June. Reger played the slow movement to his friend Karl Straube in mid-July; the finale was completed and scored in just seven days. The autograph score, which was destroyed when the offices of Reger’s publisher were bombed in 1943, is said to have included a characteristically heavy-handed dedication: “This beastly stuff belongs to Frau Kwast. The Chief Pig, Max Reger.”

Sadly, The Chief Pig was deeply hurt by the vicious critical reception of his new concerto after its premiere in Leipzig on December 15, 1910, with Kwast-Hodapp at the piano with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Arthur Nikisch. One critic called it the “latest miscarriage of the Reger muse.” In 1912, a despondent and defensive Reger wrote to a patron: “My Piano Concerto is going to be misunderstood for years … The musical language is too austere … The public will need some time to get used to it.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.