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ClassicsOnline Home » REGER, M.: Organ Works, Vol. 12 - Organ Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (Sturm)
In both volume and artistic distinction there is little doubt that Reger was the greatest German composer for the organ since Bach. He relished Lutheran chorales and employed them freely, a sense of grandeur and gravity permeating his music for the instrument. The Suite No 1 in E minor was completed in 1895, and admired by Brahms. Its four movements offer a compendium of Reger’s genius for both complexity and transparency. His later Suite No 2 in G minor, cast in seven taut movements, similarly employs contrast, imitation and variety whilst ending in a glorious and triumphant Fugue.
By Alistair Johnston
Choir & Organ
Max Reger (1873–1916)
Organ Works, Volume 12
Max Reger owed his earlier interest in music to the example and enthusiasm of his father, a schoolmaster and amateur musician, and his early training to the town organist of Weiden, Adalbert Lindner. Reger was born in 1873 at Brand in the Upper Palatinate, Bavaria. The following year the family moved to Weiden and it was there that he spent his childhood and adolescence, embarking on a course of training as a teacher when he left school. Lindner had sent examples of Reger’s early compositions to his own former teacher, Hugo Riemann, who accepted Reger as a pupil, at first in Sondershausen and then, as his assistant, in Wiesbaden. Military service, which affected Reger’s health and spirits, was followed by a period at home with his parents in Weiden and a continuing series of compositions, in particular for the organ, including a monumental series of chorale fantasias and other compositions, often, it seems, designed to challenge the technique of his friend Karl Straube, a noted performer of Reger’s organ music.
In 1901 Reger moved to Munich, where he spent the next six years. His position in musical life was in some ways an uneasy one, since he was seen as a champion of absolute music and as hostile, at this time, to programme music and to the legacy of Wagner and Liszt. He was successful, however, as a pianist and was gradually able to find an audience for his music. The period in Munich brought the composition of his Sinfonietta, of chamber music, and of fine sets of keyboard variations on themes by Bach and Beethoven, followed in later years by his well-known variations on a theme by Mozart.
1907 brought a change in Reger’s life, when he took the position of professor of composition at the University of Leipzig, at a time when his music was reaching a much wider public. This was supported by his own distinction as a performer and concert appearances in London, St Petersburg, the Netherlands, and Austria, and throughout Germany. In 1911 he was invited by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen to become conductor of the court orchestra, an ensemble established by Hans von Bülow and once conducted by Richard Strauss, at the outset of his career. Reger held this position until the beginning of the war, when the orchestra was disbanded, an event that coincided with his own earlier intention to resign. He spent his final years based in Jena, but continuing his active career as a composer and as a concert performer. He died in Leipzig in May 1916 on his way back from a concert tour of the Netherlands.
The music of Max Reger has a special position in organ repertoire, and he is regarded by many as the greatest German composer of organ music since Bach. A Catholic himself, he nevertheless drew on Lutheran tradition and the rich store of chorales, the inspiration for chorale preludes, chorale fantasias and other works. The esteem in which his organ compositions were held even in his own time owed much to the advocacy of Karl Straube, also a pupil of Riemann and from 1902 organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
Reger wrote his first significant work for organ, the Suite in E minor, Op 16, in 1894-5, dedicating it Dem Manen Joh. Seb. Bach’s (To the Spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach) and drawing inspiration from an article by Riemann on the fundamental importance of Bach in music for the organ. The work was published in 1896 and won the approval of Brahms, to whom Reger had sent a copy. The first movement opens with an Introduzione, marked Grave, starting with a harsh discord and alternating emphatic chords with intervening passages of quasi-recitative. The following fugue has an extended subject, with four voices entering in descending order. The subject is heard in inversion, and original and inversion together, before the introduction of a second theme. The fugue ends with subject and inversion over a dominant pedal, mounting to a climax, before an unexpectedly soft conclusion. The second movement, in B major, presents an aria in the outer section, with a central section bringing references to two chorale melodies, Aus tiefer Not (Out of the depths) and Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist (When my brief hour is come). The following A minor Intermezzo, marked Un poco Allegro, ma non troppo, has passages of two-part writing for the pedals, and recurrent elements of canonic imitation. It frames an E major Trio, marked Andantino. Both Intermezzo and Trio are relatively transparent in texture. The Suite ends with an E minor Passacaglia, the ground first stated on the pedals. This mounts in intensity, with a middle section in E major. The return to E minor has the original ground in the right hand on Manual I, with triplet semiquaver figuration rising above it in the left hand on Manual II. A variation of rapid intensity leads to a massive final variation, with the ground in octaves in the pedals.
In 1905 Reger succeeded Rheinberger as a staff member of the Munich Akademie der Kunst, teaching organ, piano and composition. His Suite No 2 in G minor, Op 92, was published in 1906. The first of its seven movements is a Präludium in which, after an introductory passage that is to return in final recapitulation, a series of points of imitation are introduced. The second movement is a Fugue, its chromatic subject announced first in the alto, answered in the soprano, followed, in turn, by the bass on the pedals and finally by the tenor voice, proceeding to further episodes before the final climax over a dominant and then a tonic pedal-point. The B minor Intermezzo, in 6/8, starts with fleeting semiquaver figuration, bringing a lighter air to a piece marked by a number of dynamic contrasts. The Basso ostinato that follows, in G minor, allows contrapuntal imitation and characteristic modulations over a four-note ground, repeated throughout. The fifth movement, marked Larghetto, is a Romanze in A flat major, with a middle section in B minor, after which a version of the opening returns, based largely on the opening motif. The G minor Toccata is in the spirit of Bach, the rapid figuration of the opening passage contrasted with chordal sections marked quasi Adagio. The Suite ends with an impressive Fugue, the subject announced by the upper voice, followed by entries in descending order, capped by the final pedal entry. The subject makes its last appearance over a dominant pedal in octaves, leading to a grandiose and triumphant conclusion.
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