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MAX REGER — the full birth name is Johannes Joseph Maximilianus — was born on March 19, 1873 in the out-of-the-way village of Brand in the Upper Palatinate, some sixty kilometers east of Bayreuth; he died in a Leipzig hotel during the night of May 10 and 11, 1916, aged 43. As the eldest child of patriotic parents, his namesake was Maximilian II, King of Bavaria until 1864 and father of the famously eccentric Ludwig II. He is an exact contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Caruso, one year younger than Skryabin, and one year older than Schoenberg and Ives. Reger’s life seems uncannily tailored to the arc of the German Empire, a union forged by Bismarck in 1871, two years before the composer’s birth, and crushed at the end of the Great War, two years after his death. Just as the nation’s progressive optimism led it to the conviction that its historical moment had arrived, so too Max Reger navigated his brief life with the turbulent urgency of an artist determined to see a Great German Past transfigured in a Great German Future. 

His was a time of unprecedented upheaval on every front: rapid urbanization and its attendant social problems, advances in communication and transportation, a burgeoning industrial sector — all this marked Reger’s Germany. As the old socio-political orders of Europe increasingly were called into question through revolutions and reforms, a fecund atmosphere of artistic experimentation emerged, virtually demanding that serious composers test or even transgress the limits of the tonal system. Thus at Reger’s birth, Brahms had yet to complete even his First Symphony, construction on Wagner’s Bayreuth theater was still in its initial stages, and Debussy had only just entered the Paris Conservatory. At his death, Bartók had begun probing the potentials of peasant modal music, Schoenberg had composed Pierrot Lunaire, and Cowell was experimenting with tone clusters. In a breathless twenty-five year period between 1891 and 1916, Max Reger responded to the overheated world around him with an astounding oeuvre of 146 opus numbers and much uncatalogued music besides, exploring every major genre except opera. The sheer complexity and raw urgency of the period are palpable in his music to a degree perhaps unmatched at the time.

Reger’s early background was colored significantly by his father Joseph, a schoolteacher with musical training, and his mother Minna, a fervent Catholic who sought to impart a strict religiosity to her children. The conservative character of domestic life resulted from a counterpoint of Joseph’s pragmatism and Minna’s piety, mingled with overtones of tragedy: Max’s sister Emma arrived in 1876, but three male siblings died shortly after their births between 1875 and 1879. Soon after Max’s first birthday, the family moved the short distance south to Weiden (Oberpfalz), where during the 1880s the boy trained for the teaching profession. During the same period he received his first music instruction from his parents, then from the young Adalbert Lindner, with whom he studied the classical piano and organ repertory, liturgical organ playing, and harmony. In 1888, overwhelmed by performances of Meistersinger and Parsifal at Bayreuth, Reger declared his intention to pursue music professionally, over the pronounced doubts of his family. Lindner promptly opened an avenue to the theorist Hugo Riemann, who expressed initial “horror” — his word — at the boy’s early attempts at composition but eventually accepted him as a pupil beginning in 1890. 

Under Riemann’s tutelage (briefly at Sondershausen, then at Wiesbaden), Reger intensively studied the polyphonic models of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. A robust interest in chamber music was the result, amounting to a counterweight, if not a retreat from, his initial fascination with Liszt and Wagner. Another immediate reward was the Violin Sonata op. 1 (1890), dedicated to Riemann and eventually published together with other early works by Augener of London. Reger’s star rose quickly, causing Riemann to recommend him to a faculty appointment at the Wiesbaden Conservatory as a teacher of piano and organ. His acquaintances with Strauss, Busoni, and others during these years likewise fueled his ambition, which expressed itself in an obsessive work ethic of herculean proportions. Reger’s evocative appropriation of Jules Verne — “I sit 20,000 miles deep in work” — would become a mantra for a composer who prided himself on sheer grit and determination in the face of opposition.

Following Riemann’s departure for Leipzig in 1895, the young composer approached a serious physical and mental crisis. Financial difficulties arose, in part connected to a debilitating year of obligatory military service in 1896–97; opposition to his music mounted; and he maintained strained relations with his family, who worried he had been lost to liberal Protestantism. He reacted with irrational outbursts, bouts of depression, and a descent into alcoholism as he stubbornly pursued his breakthrough as a composer. In spring 1897, he met the up-and-coming organ virtuoso Karl Straube, who had taken a serious interest in his music. Shortly thereafter, Reger’s endangered health necessitated his removal from Wiesbaden to the family home in Weiden, where he answered Straube’s support by virtually hemorrhaging a series of large-scale, technically difficult organ works, many of them incorporating Protestant chorales. Straube’s high-profile performances well into the first decade of the new century brought Reger the sustained attention, both positive and negative, that has since led to an undeservedly one-sided association of his name with the organ. 

In autumn 1901 the Reger family moved to Munich, in part to afford the budding composer greater professional opportunity. The Bavarian capital would quickly become a center of invective against Reger’s music, but he managed to carve out a productive if turbulent life there over the next six years. In 1902 he married Elsa von Bercken, a divorced Protestant aristocratic, fueling further alienation with his orthodox Catholic family. In the same year he completed the landmark Piano Quintet op. 64, a work on which he would build his growing reputation at the forefront of chamber music. Further consequential works followed: the Schlichte Weisen (“Simple Tunes”) series op. 76, which by the time of its completion in 1912 comprised sixty Lieder; the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J. S. Bach op. 81 for piano, which would remain his most substantial solo work for the instrument; and the Sinfonietta op. 90, his first major foray into orchestral composition. By 1904, he had acceded to a professorship at the Munich Akademie der Tonkunst, teaching composition and organ as successor to Josef Rheinberger. 

Wearied by what he experienced as an entrenched conservatism in Munich, Reger accepted a dual appointment in Leipzig in 1907 as Conservatory professor and University music director. Although he quickly relinquished the latter post, he came to value his association with the Conservatory, retaining it literally until the day of his death. He had hoped for a move to Leipzig for some time, as the city of J. S. Bach — “the Alpha and Omega of music,” as Reger habitually called him — and as the residence of his old friend Straube, now the influential organist of the “Bach church” of St. Thomas. A number of major works appearing in quick succession suggests the optimism of this period: the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Johann Adam Hiller op. 100 for orchestra, the Violin Concerto op. 101, the Piano Trio op. 102, and the monumental Psalm 100 op. 106, the latter completed in 1909 in response to the honorary PhD conferred on him by the University of Jena. The adoption of two daughters in 1907 and 1908 speaks further to the sanguine mood of the time; Reger’s characteristic love of children finds expression in the delightful songs of the fifth volume of the Schlichte Weisen (1910). 

By the time the composer put down roots in Leipzig, his supporters had expanded far beyond the organists in Straube’s circle: already in Munich he had befriended the violinist Henri Marteau and the pianist Frieda Kwast-Hodapp. In 1909, he made contact with the young Adolf Busch, who became a lifelong advocate of Reger’s music (as did Busch’s extended family: his eventual son-in-law and chamber music partner was Rudolf Serkin). 1910 saw the composition of the Piano Concerto op. 114 and the Cello Sonata op. 116, as well as the conferral of a second honorary doctorate from the University of Berlin. 

The premiere of the Piano Concerto with Kwast-Hodapp and the Gewandhaus Orchestra only furthered a wave of withering criticism that would contribute to Reger’s decision to leave Leipzig in late 1911. He accepted the position of Kapellmeister to the famed Meiningen Court Orchestra, led in previous decades by Bülow and Steinbach. Reger threw himself into the task of refashioning the group into the first-class touring ensemble it had once been, trying out his orchestration ideas in daily rehearsals. Some of the composer’s finest creations for orchestra followed: the neo-classicizing Concerto in the Old Style op. 123, the Romantic Suite op. 125, and the uncharacteristically programmatic Böcklin Tone Poems op. 128.

But an ominous threat lurked just below the surface of these successes. Driven by the same obsessive urges that had led to his breakthrough years earlier, Reger insisted on maintaining a relentless performing and composing schedule alongside the Court Orchestra’s tours, as well as weekly teaching obligations in Leipzig and a volume of incessant correspondence. He summarily dismissed warnings about his health; even the repeated urgent counsel from the Duke of Meiningen went unheeded. The inevitable result was a devastating nervous breakdown during a concert of the Court Orchestra on 28 February 1914, followed by the composer’s resignation from Meiningen altogether. During his convalescence, Reger produced what is surely his most performed orchestral work, the charming Mozart Variations op. 132. 

Now a series of tragedies struck in quick succession. The Duke of Meiningen died in June, the Great War began in August, and Reger’s beloved ensemble was disbanded for good. His world fundamentally changed, the composer moved to the university city of Jena in March 1915, intending to pursue composition in a quiet atmosphere. The German war effort roused him to some patriotic works — the Vaterländische Ouvertüre op. 140 and the Hebbel “Requiem” op. 144b are perhaps the starkest examples — but the greatest fruits of Reger’s so-called free Jena style are probably the Fantasy and Fugue op. 135b for organ and the consummate Violin Sonata op. 139. 

10 May 1916 found Reger in Leipzig, fulfilling his Conservatory teaching duties upon return from a performance tour in the Netherlands. After dinner with the C. F. Peters executive Henri Hinrichsen and an evening get-together with friends at one of his Leipzig haunts, he complained suddenly of stomach pains. He was seen by a doctor and taken to his hotel. The following morning, the musical world awoke to the shocking news of his passing. 

— Christopher S. Anderson, May 2015
 


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