Max Reger, 100 years after his death

An excommunicate Bavarian Catholic obsessed with the Lutheran Bach, Reger was long considered Richard Strauss’s sole Teutonic rival, and warrants greater fame among music-lovers today.

Late on the night of May 11, 1916, in a Leipzig hotel bedroom, a guest who had recently been visiting the Netherlands suffered a fatal heart attack. He was only 43 years of age, but decades of alcoholism and obesity made him look much older. With him, there died one of the chief figures in late-Romantic German music: Max Reger, or to give his full baptismal name (which he never publicly used), Johann Baptist Joseph Maximilian Reger.

During the early 20th century it was Reger, not Mahler or Schoenberg or Webern – let alone Engelbert Humperdinck or Hans Pfitzner – whom both connoisseurs and the general public regarded as constituting Richard Strauss’s chief Teutonic competition. To quote the words of Philadelphia-born critic James G. Huneker, writing in Reger’s lifetime: 

[T]here is no denying that Max Reger is the one man in Germany to-day who is looked upon as the inevitable rival of Richard Strauss … Some think that Arnold Schoenberg may be a possible antagonist in the future, but for the present it is Reger and Strauss, and no third in opposition.

So why has Reger not been better remembered? Berlin-based musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, a century after Reger’s birth – which occurred at Brand, Bavaria, on March 19, 1873 – dismissed Reger as “a pedantic reactionary.” Harold C. Schonberg, New York Times correspondent and author of the extremely influential volume Lives of the Great Composers (1970), referred to Reger as “today ignored, except to appear on critics’ lists of the 10 most disliked composers” (though Schonberg subsequently indicated that this verdict was unjust). There are four main reasons for the almost complete disappearance of Reger’s fame, before the 1990s witnessed a slight revival of that fame.

First of all, Reger (along with his French contemporaries Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne) is associated almost entirely with the organ, an instrument that, alas, enjoys nothing like the general recognition, and importance to mainstream musical life, which it possessed before the Second World War. Strangely enough, the Bach-obsessed Reger – he called Bach “the beginning and the end of all music” – was, unlike Bach and unlike most other composers for the organ, not himself an outstanding organist. He himself expressed surprise that most people associated him chiefly with organ works, which form only about a quarter of his total output (he left behind him almost 150 creations with opus numbers, and dozens of others without them). But posterity has decided to typecast Reger as a purveyor of organ writing, with all the image problems which this typecasting has caused to his reputation.

The second factor militating against Reger’s wider celebrity was his prolonged residence in Germany’s east (principally Leipzig, Meiningen, and Jena). Therefore, before German reunification, extremely numerous archival documents concerning Reger remained simply inaccessible, save to approved researchers in the DDR. And the important role which sacred music played in Reger’s creativity (he was born a Catholic, but was excommunicated when he married a Lutheran divorcee in a Lutheran parish) made East Germany’s communist rulers reluctant to encourage interest in him. Not till recently – thanks above all to the labors of the American musicologist Christopher Anderson – has a clear scholarly picture of Reger’s total achievement emerged.

A third reason for the unpopularity of Reger is his extreme fondness for thick polyphonic textures. Two of his longest and most oft-cited orchestral compositions, the Mozart Variations and the Hiller Variations (Johann Adam Hiller was an obscure 18th-century Singspiel composer who took Reger’s fancy), are characterized by extraordinarily elaborate, yet austere, counterpoint altogether lacking the obvious charms of, for example, Strauss’s tone-poems. Though in such pieces Reger used a typically large late-Romantic orchestra, he wholly eschewed the hedonistic and voluptuous qualities – not to mention the super-abundant melodic flow – which Strauss lavished upon Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldenleben, and Don Quixote. Nevertheless, the astonishing craftsmanship which Reger exhibits in his orchestration has its own hypnotic appeal; and to anyone who cares for the idiom of Paul Hindemith (a great admirer of Reger’s music, by the way), Reger will have a similar impact.

But to have a similar impact, Reger needed to be heard; and before Compact Disc technology became almost universal in the late 1980s, Reger’s style could very rarely be done any justice by recordings. It demanded a range of volume – especially in his orchestral and organ productions – with which the LP and cassette media just could not cope. This is the fourth reason for Reger’s protracted neglect. Only with the advent of the CD could his climaxes resound exultantly without seeming congested, and only on CD could his softest passages be captured without surface noise or tape hiss. Thus, it is appropriate that Reger’s music is far better represented now on CD than it ever was before.

Quarrelsome, vituperative, and often rendered incapable through his drunkenness, Reger did himself no favors by his personality. When (in 1906) Rudolf Louis, a critic at the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, derided Reger’s Sinfonietta, Reger responded to Louis with a letter not merely insolent but scatological: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me!” Near the end of his short life, Reger had become so fat that a niece of his said: “When Uncle Max arrives, we’ll have to take the door off its hinges.” He fought against publisher after publisher, and this fact exacerbated the difficulties involved with trying to revive his creations.

But with Reger, as with other composers, it is ultimately the music that matters; and in most types of vocal and instrumental music, in fact every genre except symphony and opera (neither of which he ever attempted), he contributed something worthwhile. Even if concert promoters mostly continue to ignore Reger, it is time that we took the pretext of his death’s centenary to discover the wealth of material which the recording industry has supplied to us.


• SELECTED ORCHESTRAL WORKS / Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Sweden / Leif Segerstam / BIS CD 601

• SELECTED PIANO WORKS / Marc-André Hamelin / HYPERION CDA 66996

• COMPLETE ORGAN WORKS / Edgar Krapp, Hans-Jürgen Kaiser, etc. / NAXOS 8.501601 (16 discs)

• REQUIEM; AN DIE HOFFNUNG / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Monteverdi Chorus, Saint Michael Chorus, Hamburg Symphony Orchestra / Gerd Albrecht / ORFEO 209901

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About R.J. Stove 0 Articles
Australia’s R.J. Stove, organist and adult convert to Catholicism, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).