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Max Reger (19.03.1873–11.05.1916)

Max Reger was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor. He worked in Leipzig as Universitätsmusikdirektor (music director of Leipzig University) and professor at the Royal Conservatory.

  1. Biography
  2. Private Life
  3. Connection to Leipzig
  4. Reception
  5. Works
  6. Sources and Links

1. Biography

Johann Baptist Joseph Maximilian Reger was born on March 19th, 1873, in Brand in the Upper Palatinate as the first child of Joseph and Philomena Reger. His father was a teacher at the village school and worked as an organist. His mother began early to teach him to play the piano, his father the organ. After finishing secondary school in 1886, he began to prepare for the teaching profession, as his parents wished. He also played the organ at the Catholic Sunday services of the town parish church of St. Michael. In 1888 he attended the Bayreuth Festival, to which his uncle had invited him. Thereupon his desire grew to pursue a musical career against his father's wishes.

In 1890 he began studying with Hugo Riemann at the conservatory in Sondershausen and with Albert Fuchs in Wiesbaden. A little later he was also employed there as a teacher for piano and organ, so that he could finance his studies. He was also able to publish his first works. In 1893 he finished his studies in Wiesbaden but remained as a teacher at the conservatory. In order to be able to make a living, he also gave private piano lessons, including to the Von Bagenskis, a family of officers. There he met his future wife Elsa von Bercken, née von Bagenski, for the first time.

In 1894, a concert of only Reger's works took place for the first time at the Berlin Singakademie (Voice Academy), which was received rather sceptically by critics. In October 1896, Reger began his service as a one-year volunteer in the military. Due to a foot injury, he spent the first weeks in the military hospital, but was not deemed unfit for service and had to serve the entire year. In 1897, Reger, who was by then heavily in debt, underwent two operations because he was suffering from an ulcer on his neck. During this time, he completed numerous works, but his publisher rejected them. In 1898, he applied unsuccessfully for Kapellmeister (music director, conductor) positions in Heidelberg and Bonn.

Reger's life and work were marked by extremes. Severe creative crises, which manifested themselves in deep depression, self-doubt and excessive alcohol consumption, alternated with phases of almost driven creative energy, in which he completed works in the shortest possible time. In the documentary “Lebensläufe” (“Résumés”) by Anna Schmidt, Herbert Blomstedt impressively describes how Reger wrote the final fugue of the Hiller Variations, 56 score pages, in a single day. Or in one night, for often the composer, as he himself said, probably sat absorbed in his work until early in the morning. Sometimes he also composed on the train, when he was travelling from one concert to the next.

The rejections in Bonn and Heidelberg, combined with the difficult financial circumstances, fuelled his self-doubt and plunged Reger into a deep emotional crisis. His sister finally succeeded, after several attempts, in bringing Reger back to the parental home, where he had to be operated on again for his throat ulcer. The move boosted his productivity and with the support of Karl Straube, who performed many of Reger's organ works, Reger achieved growing success. From then on, he worked with the Leipzig publisher Rob Forberg and the Munich publisher Joseph Aibl. With the income now flowing, he began to reduce his debts.

Since Reger was drawn to Munich, he persuaded his parents to move with him to Munich-Haidhausen. In Munich, he was highly esteemed as a chamber musician and Lied accompanist. As a result, his compositions also gained attention. Reger also continued his activity as a private teacher. Financially better off now, he married Elsa von Bercken in 1902 after a long courtship.

The following year, Reger gave recitals in Munich, Berlin, and Leipzig, where Karl Straube took up the post of Thomaskantor (St. Thomas’ cantor) with a Reger recital. An important breakthrough for Reger's career was his appearance at the Frankfurt Tonkünstlerfest (Musicians’ Festival) of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (General German Music Society, ADMV) in 1904, where he played his Violin Sonata in C major, op. 72. Engagements throughout Germany and abroad followed. The works written during this time were also very positively received. In 1905 Reger was appointed to the Akademie der Tonkunst (Academy of Tone Art), but because of disagreements he resigned from this post in 1906. His debut as a conductor followed in 1907. At the same time, the conflict between him and his followers and the “Neudeutscher Kreis” (New German Circle) came to a head, leading to his resignation from the ADMV.

In 1907, he was finally appointed Universitätsmusikdirektor and professor at the Royal Conservatory in Leipzig. He resigned as Universitätsmusikdirektor after only one year, but his work at the Conservatory attracted students from many different countries throughout his life. Since the pre-sale contract concluded in 1903 with Leipzig publisher Lauterbach & Kuhn (Aibl had previously rejected two of his works) severely restricted the composer, he tried to end the collaboration and switch to C.F. Peters but did not succeed. To escape the negative reviews in Leipzig, he often went on concert tours. In 1911 he was offered the position of Hofkapellmeister (Court music director, conductor) in Saxony-Meiningen, which he accepted, influenced by his feeling that his works were not accepted in Leipzig. He undertook countless journeys with the court orchestra and finally, completely overworked and in poor health, had to resign from the post in 1914. A year later, Reger moved to Jena, where he devoted himself to composition.
In 1916 he began to travel again, among other things to teach in Leipzig, which he did not give up throughout his life. On May 11
th, 1916, he died of heart failure in a hotel room in Leipzig.


2. Private Life

Reger's unstable mental state shaped and burdened the composer and his work throughout his life. His tendency to live in extremes manifested itself not only in his many breakdowns, but also in his numerous changes of location. When conflicts came to a head, he often resolved them by quitting his job, accepting new positions and moving away, such as when he moved from Leipzig to Meiningen. He probably couldn't stand the pressure of expectations that weighed on him, and the moves were tantamount to liberation. The big collapse came in 1898 when Reger, who was heavily in debt, hit by professional setbacks, and both physically and psychologically ill, was finally brought back to the parental home in Weiden by his sister Emma. Her first attempt to persuade her brother to return home had failed. The parents had already given up on their son, accusing him of megalomania. Emma then succeeded in June 1898. Badly marked by alcohol and the throat ulcer, Reger returned to Weiden.

The isolation and tranquillity of his home did him a lot of good, he recovered both physically and psychologically, and a very productive creative phase began. Since his parents no longer encouraged him in what he was doing, the friendship and artistic support of Karl Straube played a major role during this time. In the following year he spent several months with Auguste von Bagenski and her daughter Elsa, whom he had already met in 1893 and who had since divorced. However, Elsa initially rejected his courtship; she was rather sceptical about a relationship because of his mental breakdown. After moving to Munich, he made renewed efforts to woo Elsa. On October 25th, 1902, the two were finally married in a civil ceremony. Since Elsa was a divorced Protestant, Reger's Catholic family rejected the marriage and Reger was excommunicated. On December 7th of the same year, the couple was also married by a Protestant priest in the village church of Böll in Göppingen. Reger's need to break away was also evident in religious matters. The indignation on the part of his family and his excommunication on the one hand, and the denial of the post of organist in Leipzig because of his Catholic roots on the other, show the field of tension. His works hardly allow any reference to a single religious direction; they rather show his individual spirituality. Since Reger's marriage remained childless, but the couple could free themselves from economic worries, they adopted two orphans after moving to Leipzig. Christa and Lotti were a great joy for Reger and also a source of inspiration for some of his works: "You will feel the influence of the little child a lot in the Violin Concerto", Reger wrote in a letter about his work. The great self-doubt that plagued him again and again was certainly also connected with the fear of not being able to provide sufficiently for his family and of not being a good role model for his children: "In matters of money, I am not an artist at all, I hate the term artist in general. Being a decent, noble person is the main thing," he wrote to his mother.

Reger was notorious for his sometimes extremely ribald humour. For example, he sometimes cancelled a concert because “his shirt was in the wash”, or called himself "Rex Mager" (King Scrawny) during a prescribed diet cure. The crude jokes were perhaps also a form of self-protection for the sensitive composer.

3. Connection to Leipzig

In 1907, the Reger couple moved to Leipzig with a 90-year-old great-aunt. Reger had been appointed Universitätsmusikdirektor and professor at the Royal Conservatory. He received financial support from the Leipzig publisher C.F. Peters and was thus able to concentrate more on composing.
Reger tried to separate himself from his publisher Lauterbach & Kuhn in order to work with C.F. Peters. However, it did not succeed at first. In 1908, he completed the Piano Trio in E minor, op. 102 in Leipzig, which was premiered in March at the Gewandhaus. In the same year, the first performance of his Violin Concerto in A major, op. 101 took place in the Gewandhaus. Apart from Arthur Nikisch, who liked it very much, it elicited rather sceptical reviews. Reger now also began to work increasingly as a conductor.
Leipzig proved to be a place of hopes and disappointments in equal measure for Reger. While he received enormously positive feedback as a teacher – in addition to teaching composition, he was able to give passionate, captivating lectures – over time he felt increasingly misunderstood by the Leipzig public and critics. Every bad review and every poorly attended concert hit him hard. Some critics, among them Walter Niemann, took the first German Reger Festival, which took place in Dortmund in 1910 and in a way marked the high point of Reger's fame, as an opportunity to wage a real campaign against him. A legal dispute between Reger and Niemann began, which Reger was able to win, but which led to a hardening of the fronts.
In December of the same year, his Piano Concerto in F minor, op. 114 was premiered by Frieda Kwast-Hodap and Arthur Nikisch at the Gewandhaus and received rather negatively by the audience and critics. In addition, there were irreconcilable differences with the Pauliner-Gesangsverein (St. Pauli Singing Association). Reger had another breakdown and left Leipzig in 1911, but he continued to teach at the Conservatory until his death, returning to the city regularly. During a stay in 1916, he died of heart failure on May 11
th in the Hotel Hentschel. At the request of his wife, Reger's urn was buried in a grave of honour in Munich's Waldfriedhof cemetery on the 14th anniversary of his death in 1930; Elsa had returned to Munich in 1929.

4. Reception

Reger's work was assessed very differently. In the course of his life, he achieved great fame at home and abroad. This is shown, for example, by his enormous charisma as a professor at the Leipzig Conservatory. He experienced great success abroad both as a composer and as a conductor and pianist in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Great Britain, and Bohemia, for example. A performance in St. Petersburg in 1906 was well received, and his success was crowned by the three-day Reger Festival in Dortmund in May 1910, which was dedicated solely to his work. He received many honours, such as the Hessian silver medal for art and science as a result of the euphorically received performance of his Piano Trio in E minor in 1908 and the honorary Doctorate of Philosophy for the performance of the 100th Psalm, op. 106 for the 350th anniversary of the University of Jena.

On the other hand, Reger struggled, especially in Leipzig, with scepticism and rejection from critics and partly also from the public. His organ works in particular met with incomprehension, and his former teacher Hugo Riemann also judged him harshly. Contemporaries perceived him very differently. Sergei Prokofiev, for example, saw him in St. Petersburg and was fascinated by Reger's work. Stravinsky, on the other hand, counted himself among his critics and also rejected Reger's person: "I found him as repulsive as his music," he said in 1957. Composers of the Viennese School clearly felt Reger's influence, and he became the most performed contemporary composer in the German-speaking world in the 1920s.

In addition, Reger's work was misinterpreted for a long time - this is particularly evident in the reception of his organ works. His close friend Karl Straube had contributed significantly to this by interfering with the musical text of his editions. In the service of a "de-Romanticisation", he and some followers of the so-called "renewal movement" tried to subject the works to a fictitious, Baroque sound ideal. The desire for an authentic Reger interpretation became louder.


5. Works

Max Reger composed works for organ, harmonium, piano, violin, orchestra, solo instruments with orchestra, chamber music and vocal works.

- Organ works such as chorale fantasies, for example on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott op. 27” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, 1898), “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern op. 40/1” (“How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”) and “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme op. 52/2” (“Wake Up, the Voice Calls Us”), chorale preludes, fugues and sonatas, for example “Fantasy and Fugue on BACH op. 46” (1900), “Symphonic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor” op. 57 (Inferno Fantasy), “Fantasy and Fugue in D minor” op. 135b and the “2nd Sonata in D minor” op. 60, as well as works such as “Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in F-sharp minor” op. 73, “Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor” WoO IV/6.

- Orchestral works, such as “Sinfonietta op. 90” (1904/5), “Serenade op. 95” (1905), “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Johann Adam Hiller op. 100” (1907) (from the Singspiel “Der Ärndtekranz” (“The Harvest Wreath”), “Concerto in the Old Style op. 123” (1912), “A Romantic Suite (after Eichendorff) op. 125” (1912), “Four tone poems after A. Böcklin op. 128” (1913), including no. 3: “Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead), Variations and Fugue on a theme by Mozart op. 132”, and Schubert arrangements.

- Chamber music, such as trios, quartets, quintets, a string sextet as well as sonatas for violin, violoncello and clarinet with piano.

- Vocal works, such as 300 piano songs, sacred songs for voice and organ, “100th Psalm op. 106” (1908/09), “Requiem op. 144b” (1915) for alto (or baritone), choir and orchestra.

Also, numerous piano pieces, sonatinas, variations and fugues on themes by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Audio Samples:

Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H op. 46 (1900)   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8E_BTvm0Hug
Sinfonietta op. 90 (1904/5)   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swcRt7EfCko
100th Psalm op. 106 (1908/09)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrebSoGFvbo


6. Sources and Links

6. Sources and Links

- Cadenbach, Reiner: Max Reger und seine Zeit. Laaber-Verlag 1991.

- Popp, Susanne: Article Reger, Max in: MGG Online, ed. by Laurenz Lütteken, Kassel, Stuttgart, New York 2016ff., last published 2005, published online 2016, https://www.mgg-online.com/mgg/stable/15076.

- Popp, Susanne: Max Reger. Werk statt Leben. Biography. Breitkopf & Härtel 2017.

- Popp, Susanne / Shigihara, Susanne: Max Reger. Am Wendepunkt der Moderne. Bouvier Verlag 1987.

- Stein, Fritz: Max Reger. Sein Leben in Bildern, Bibliographisches Institut Leipzig 1956.

- Wilske, Hermann: Max Reger. Zur Rezeption seiner Zeit, Carus-Verlag 1995.

- https://www.max-reger-institut.de/en/

- https://www.leipzig-lese.de/index.php?article_id=381/ (German only)


Max Reger while in Leipzig (1909), https://www.max-reger-institut.de/de/max-reger/lebenslauf; Reger-Werkausgabe, DVD, Carus-Verlag/Ft_1909