The Crucial Missing Link: Max Reger

by Leon Botstein

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

The untimely death of Max Reger a century ago in 1916, during World War I, when he was only 43, explains in part his unique place in music history. His is a name always cited respectfully in accounts of music history that begin with Brahms and end with Schoenberg. Indeed, in the span of two decades, from the mid-1890s until his death, Reger produced an astonishingly large number of compositions. With these widely performed and discussed works, Reger rose to striking prominence in German musical life. He was regarded by many as the best hope for the future of music in Germany, the next in line after his famous and somewhat older contemporaries, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

Reger’s music was also controversial. There were those who found it too advanced and demanding on listeners. He was hard to categorize and label. On the one hand, Reger’s ambition was in orchestral, chamber, vocal, and choral music. His lack of interest in music for the theatre suggested that he was a worthy successor to Brahms, worthy of bringing new life into a classical-romantic tradition. At the same time, however, Reger’s music was marked consistently by an advanced novel harmonic language, a brilliant use of chromaticism that could easily be heard as an extension of Wagnerian practice. Although he shied away from the narrative drama audible in Mahler’s symphonies or more explicitly in Strauss’ orchestral music, Reger’s sound world was comparably lush and luxuriant. Reger applied sonority densely to his musical canvas in an unmistakably distinct manner, one that bears a family resemblance not only to the fin-de-siècle music of Mahler and Strauss, but also to his contemporaries Franz Schreker and Alexander Zemlinsky.

Reger’s favorite keyboard instrument (he was primarily a pianist) was the organ, an instrument also dear to the heart of his protégé, Adolf Busch. But unlike Bruckner, who transferred the monumental scale of the sound of the late 19th-century organ to his orchestrations and underscored the organ’s unique and wide range of distinct contrasting choirs, Reger was inspired by how the organ can blend contrasting sounds, registers, and pitches and can generate long meandering lines and diverse streams of sound, which is why it has persistently been an ideal vehicle for improvisation.

Reger quickly found his voice and fashioned a musical aesthetic in which fantasy and narrative spontaneity—a musical legacy of the early romanticism of Schumann and Liszt—are integrated synthetically with the imaginative extension of the classical, formal logic we associate with Viennese classicism—Mozart and Beethoven, for example—and later, Mendelssohn and Brahms. This idiosyncratic achievement marks Reger’s music, defines its originality, and renders it immediately recognizable.

Reger’s special modernism, born out of a synthesis of disparate influences and cast in traditional genres, also earned him a good deal of criticism. Like the music of Strauss from the 1890s and most of Mahler’s works, Reger’s music was often pilloried. This led the composer—who was intense, witty, hard-drinking, and also deeply empathetic— famously to write to one critic that he was reading the critic’s review while seated “in the smallest room” in his house, and he wanted to assure the critic that the review would soon be “behind him.”

The number of Reger’s works and the consistency of their quality are astonishing. However, the intersection of his death and the political and social transformation wreaked by World War I profoundly influenced Reger’s posthumous reputation. There were those who never lost faith in the power of his music and fought against its gradual slide into obscurity. Many modernists in the 1920s, including Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, expressed admiration for Reger’s work. His music vindicated their notion that the over-cited so-called “Brahms-Wagner” conflict between apparent conservatives (Brahmsians) and futurists (Wagnerians), which dated from the mid-19th century, was a thing of the past. Reger demonstrated how Brahms could be an inspiration for progressive contemporary composers and how classical procedures of thematic development and variation, the non-theatrical approach to instrumental composition that foregrounded music’s autonomous formal power, were vital sources of an authentic and rigorous contemporary music. Berg’s use of formal structures in Wozzeck (1914–22), for example, owes a debt to Reger’s conviction that classical practices such as variation and imitative counterpoint were not obsolete.

Another composer who emerged in the 1920s and sustained a lifelong admiration of Reger was Paul Hindemith. Like Schoenberg, Hindemith construed his mission—particularly in his later years—as extending a line of musical composition that was directly connected to the great tradition of musical history (particularly the German musical heritage) but in neither a reactionary nor a nostalgic manner. It was by explicit design that Hindemith’s 1958 “Pittsburgh” Symphony was premiered on a program that included Reger’s Hiller Variations.

Indeed, Reger was a staunch German political nationalist (and like Schoenberg, a cultural chauvinist). This in part explains his choice of a theme by Johann Adam Hiller (1728–1804), one of the first conductors of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and a well-known and highly regarded composer who is perhaps most often cited for his advocacy of a specifically German form of musical theatre: the Singspiel, a combination of music and spoken theatre, of which Mozart’s The Magic Flute is probably the best known example in today’s repertory.

Among the most ardent Reger champions since 1916 have been the several generations of fabulous musicians connected to the family of Adolf Busch. Busch, one of the greatest violinists and finest musicians of his generation, was devoted to Reger and his memory. He was Arturo Toscanini’s favorite violin soloist. He also founded what became a legendary quartet and helped establish refined and superb chamber music as a centerpiece of modern concert life. All of today’s many fine chamber music groups, concert series, and festivals in the United States owe a debt to Busch, who was instrumental in founding Marlboro. Rudolf Serkin, Busch’s son-in-law, continued to perform Reger’s music after World War II in solo recitals and occasionally with George Szell (a Reger pupil). And now the mantle of advocacy for Max Reger has passed to Rudolf Serkin’s son, Peter, my esteemed colleague at Bard College.

Adolf Busch, like many of the great performers of his generation, not only relished playing new music but also was himself a composer. The work on this program comes from Busch’s later years, after he had fled to the United States. Busch’s emigration (and that of his brother, the great conductor, Fritz) was a rare act of conscience. The Busch family was not Jewish. His opposition to the Nazis and Hitler was in no sense involuntary. In fact, he sacrificed fame and material comfort and resisted the persistent overtures of the Third Reich from the very start of the regime in 1933. Our admiration for Busch’s character deepens over time as we come to realize how extraordinary such refusal is among artists to collaborate with evil. Busch showed a decency and moral clarity that we would like to call “common” when it is, in fact, rare.

The work on this concert program not only illuminates Busch’s craft, but his good nature. The three études are defined by a commonplace but also affectionate sense of superiority on the part of chamber musicians and soloists towards the pitfalls inherent in basic orchestral practice. They are written to highlight the challenges of orchestral intonation created by the scale and variety of instruments involved, the difficulties in achieving precision in ensemble, and getting orchestras to alter tempo and negotiate shifting meters.

The ASO has had a long tradition of programming Reger. The list of works it has performed includes his Variation and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 132 (1914); Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Beethoven, Op. 86 (1904); 4 Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Op. 128 (1913); and Psalm 100, Op. 106 (1909); as well as orchestral songs and shorter works. We believe Reger to be a great original voice from the turn of the last century, a composer whose works deserve to be returned to our concert stages, both in orchestral and chamber concerts. With a ravishing harmonic language, stunning orchestral color, and an entirely non-pedantic appropriation of musical logic, Reger communicates the beauty, drama, and emotional power of music with intensity quite in contrast with the confessional theatricality of Mahler and the ironic distance and bittersweet nostalgia of Strauss.