Max Reger | Biography


The counterpoint of Bach meets the harmonies of Schoenberg in the music of Max Reger. He was both a conservative and a visionary, looking back to the traditional forms of the eighteenth century and forward to the harmonic adventures of the twentieth. The complex and seductive textures that resulted in his music were to prove highly influential to composers like Zemlinsky and Franz Schmidt. But Reger was far more than just a link in the history of German music. Reger grew up in a musical environment. He inherited the gifts of his schoolteacher father, a skilled organist, bass clarinettist and oboist who wrote a widely respected harmony text book. Reger took piano and organ lessons in his teens. His ambition to become a composer began in 1888, the result of hearing Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Parsifal at Bayreuth. The classical traditions of form and counterpoint that permeate his music were instilled by his teacher, the highly respected theoretician and scholar Hugo Riemann. At the age of just 17, Reger was offered his first teaching post, at the Music Conservatory in Wiesbaden. Teaching proved a congenial activity for Reger, who later held significant academic posts in Munich and Leipzig. Among his pupils were the composers Erwin Schulhoff and Othmar Schoeck. Performing at the piano was another important dimension of his career. He established strong partnerships with many distinguished musicians. His most significant collaborator was the violinist Adolf Busch, for whom he wrote unaccompanied violin works near the end of his life. Reger was also a highly respected conductor. In 1911 he became director of the orchestra of the court of Saxe-Meiningen, a prestigious position previously held by Hans von Bülow and Richard Strauss. His death at the age of just 43 was tragic but not unexpected. By then, he was well-known for his chronic overindulgence in food, tobacco and especially alcohol. He also suffered bouts of serious depression. Nevertheless, he was an extraordinarily productive composer. His work list includes 147 numbered opuses and incorporates almost every genre apart from opera. Many of Reger’s famous works are sets of variations. His Orchestral Variations and Fugue on a theme by J. A. Hiller, op.100 (1907) and Mozart Variations op.132 (1914) are admired for their ingenuity. Both can be regarded as worthy successors to the Haydn Variations of Brahms. Virtuoso pianists such as Jorge Bolet and Marc-André Hamelin have made a strong case for the Bach Variations, op.81 (1904) and Telemann Variations, op.134 (1914). Reger also excelled in organ music. He was virtually the only German writing significant works for the instrument in an era dominated by French organ composers. For most of the 20th century, Reger’s music was little appreciated outside German-speaking countries. He was routinely and unfairly dismissed as a composer capable only of creating dense and muddy musical textures. Increasing exposure to his work in recent years has modified this view, and many have come to admire his emotional depth, pathos and wicked sense of humour.