Max Reger, Psalm 100, Op. 106

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Outside of the arcane world of the organ, the works of Max Reger are not generally known. This is odd because in the early years of the last century, many musicologists predicted certain immortality for the Bavarian composer. A representative textbook of the period states that Reger and Arnold Schoenberg are the future of Germanic music. Gustav Mahler, by contrast, does not even receive a mention.

Density in music is not discussed that often, but there is definitely something about the organ which makes its adherents who turn to composition for other combinations of sonorities fill each measure with as much activity as possible. Perhaps it is all of that counterpoint which permeates the great literature for the queen of instruments. More elementally, however, it is the overtonal ceiling created by the air emerging from the conflatorium which results in a constant drone interacting with the individual musical moment to produce at least an expectation of harmonic thickness. Whatever the root cause, there is no doubt that the mature music of Max Reger is some of the most chockablock in history.

Like the Academic Festival Overture of Brahms, Reger’s setting of Psalm 100 was written as an acknowledgement of an honorary doctorate, in this case from Jena University. The work is structured as a full-scale choral symphony in four movements.

The first line of the psalm is “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” and the composer follows the suggestion literally. After the initial orchestral explosion, the vocal writing is highly contrapuntal. Reger would have been considered a Brahmsian in the Brahms-Wagner feud that carried over into his generation, and relied very heavily in many of his mature compositions on the fugue to develop his ideas.

The Andante second movement, on the words “Know ye that the Lord he is God,” begins mysteriously, almost spectrally, and contains echoes of the third movement of Brahms’s A German Requiem. The solo violin at the conclusion of the second movement, during the description of “the sheep of his pasture,” leads into the gentler, pastoral introduction of “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,” which in turn develops into the triumphant blessing of the holy name.

The most complex part of this essay is the finale, containing a full-scale double vocal fugue reinforced in the orchestra by a grandiloquent intonation of Bach’s “Ein’ feste Burg,” a fitting quotation to explicate the last line of the psalm “and his truth endureth to all generations.” Some composers, notably Paul Hindemith, have endeavored to revise this piece in order to make it sound more clearly defined, but the American Symphony Orchestra has chosen to present it in its original, gloriously polychromatic form.

Reger also made an important academic contribution and was a teacher of the great George Szell. But as a newspaper critic, I most admire the man for his response to a bothersome notice. He wrote, “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your review is before me. Soon it will be behind me.”