Robert Gilchrist reflects on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Max Reger

The German composer and musician Max Reger was both a conservative and a visionary, looking back to the musical forms of the 18th century and forward to the harmonic adventures of the 20th. Reger inherited the gifts of his musician father, quickly developing an ambition to become a composer. This resulted from hearing Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal during his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth.  

Reger took a teaching job at the age of 17 at the music conservatory in Wiesbaden. It was a congenial activity for him and his pupils included composers such as Schulhoff and Schoek. After military service, Reger suffered a nervous breakdown, returning in 1898 to his parental home where his spirits and his productivity improved.  

This time in history saw rapid urbanisation, social upheavals, and the burgeoning industrial sector calling into question the old socio-political orders of Europe. Reger responded with an unprecedented work ethic that produced 146 opus numbers and a large amount of un-catalogued music.  

A splendid pianist, concert tours formed an integral part of Reger’s life. A tour in 1907 to Karlsruhe led to Reger securing the role of Professor and Music Director at the Royal Conservatory in Leipzig. Only a year later he jumped ship, accepting the position of Court Conductor at Meiningen, which he held until the beginning of 1914.  

Throughout his career, Reger had a highly acrimonious relationship with the musical press. Foremost amongst his critics was Rudolf Louis who considered Reger’s greatest music as belonging to “a cult of ugliness for its own sake”. After a particularly savage review, Reger famously responded: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment, it will be behind me.” A Viennese critic kindly offered this impression of the young Max Reger: “In so many ways, he reminded me of a thick-set German student who drank from morning until night and wrote colossal fugues with three subjects whilst incessantly consuming cigars.” 

Much influenced by Bach, Reger excelled at organ music. He was virtually the only German composer writing significant works for the instrument, in an era dominated by French organ composers. For most of the 20th century, Reger’s music wasn’t appreciated outside German-speaking countries. He was routinely and unfairly dismissed as a composer capable only of creating dense and muddy musical textures, however increasing exposure to his work in recent years has modified this view and many now admire his emotional depth, pathos, and wicked sense of humour.  
Although much respected by Arnold Schoenberg, Reger was savagely criticised for music that was difficult to categorise and label. In the annals of musical history, he has, undeservedly, become a mere footnote. Born in 1873, Max Reger died on 11 May 1916. 

This article appears in the March edition of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine