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ClassicsOnline Home » REGER, M.: Organ Works, Vol. 13 - Monologe: Nos. 7-12 / Organ Sonata No. 1 / Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor (Barthen)
Max Reger’s special position within organ repertoire places him for many as the greatest composer for the instrument since JS Bach. Drawing on Lutheran tradition, his Fantasia and Fugue, Op 29 is in the spirit of Bach, though with a characteristic harmonic language which also infuses the varying complexity in the Monologues, Op 63. The Sonata No 1, Op 33 reflects a connection with Liszt, concluding in an impressive Passacaglia. Award-winning German organist Christian Barthen performs on an instrument from Reger’s period, the 1911 Steinmeyer Organ in Mannheim which is one of the biggest in Germany.
Max Reger (1873–1916)
Organ Works • 13
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’s demanding Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, Op 29, was completed in 1898 and published the following year, with a dedication to Richard Strauss. The imposing Fantasia, very much in the spirit of Bach, but in Reger’s own characteristic harmonic language, is followed by an intricate and impressive four-voice Fugue.
The twelve organ pieces of varying complexity that constitute Monologues, Op 63, were issued in three volumes in 1902. The first set of four pieces was dedicated to the Hanover organist Hermann Dettmer and the second volume to the organist and composer Robert Frenzel. The seventh piece, Ave Maria, in A major and marked Andante sostenuto (ma con moto), is included in the second album and is relatively simple. It is followed by a contrapuntal Fantasia, in C major and marked Vivace. The third volume was dedicated to Richard Jung, organist at the Stadtkirche in Greiz. The album opens with a Toccata in E minor, a substantial piece that leads to an E minor five-voice Fugue. The volume continues with a D major Canon at the seventh, between the upper parts. This is followed by a final chromatic Scherzo in D minor, marked Vivace and in triple metre.
Reger completed his Sonata No 1 in F sharp minor, Op 33, in 1899, dedicating it, in gratitude, to the Court Organist of the Grand Duke of Saxony, Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg, Liszt’s ‘legendary cantor’. Gottschalg had been a friend of Liszt and, as organist and cantor at Tieffurt, had joined Liszt in an exploration of organs in the region of Weimar, turning Liszt’s thoughts towards composition for the instrument. Something of Gottschalg’s connection with Liszt is reflected in the sonata, although Reger was generally regarded as an exponent of abstract music, rather than a follower of Liszt and Wagner, and the spirit of Bach is seldom far away. The first movement, an F sharp minor Fantasia, marked Allegro energico, includes
a short contrapuntal interlude, a fugal exposition, Un poco meno mosso, but the more grandiose chromatic textures of the opening return to bring the movement to an end. The second movement, Intermezzo, a Sostenuto moving from E minor to E major, is a prelude to the impressive Passacaglia, that concludes the sonata, the ground heard at the opening on the pedals and marked ppp. For much of the time the ground remains in the pedals, only in the later stage to be moved to the left hand, in octaves. The Passacaglia ends in a triumphant F sharp major.
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