Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Case of Max Reger

Max Reger (1873 - 1916) in a portrait by Frank Nölken

Max Reger is a historically fascinating figure. He died of a heart attack at the early age of 43 and his productive career lies mostly in the period between 1889 and 1914 that saw enormous upheavals in music aesthetics. Carl Dahlhaus, the great German musicologist, terms the year 1889 the dawning of "musical modernism" characterized by pieces like the Symphony No. 1 of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan. 1889 was also the year of the Paris International Exhibition where both Erik Satie and Debussy heard the music of the Javanese gamelan. This and the beginnings of comparative musicology both signaled the end of an entirely Euro-centric view of music.

Incidentally, to those who question the use of the term "modernism" to describe this particular epoch, which is often termed simply "late Romanticism" it was coined at the time by the Austrian critic Hermann Bahr. Modernism, in this view, therefore precedes the dissolution of tonality which came around 1908. It was this significant watershed that caused composers like Richard Strauss and Max Reger to split away from the new modernism of the 20th century which was being shaped by Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 and his Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 were both written in 1909 and are probably the precise moment when 20th century modernism and atonality in music were born. Both Strauss and Reger recoiled from this advance and, according to Dahlhaus, went through a "presumably painful renunciation of a place at the 'forefront of evolution'."

Schoenberg's first String Quartet, op. 7 and Reger's String Quartet, op 74 live in the same aesthetic universe. Unfortunately, due to the decline in popularity of Reger's music, I can't even find that quartet on YouTube. This Symphonic Prologue to a Tragedy, op 108, written in 1908 will have to stand in:

And here is the Schoenberg quartet:

Bear in mind that Reger and Schoenberg were exact contemporaries, being born only a year apart. But we find Reger, upon encountering the Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 of Schoenberg writing to a friend:
[I] can't make heads or tails of them; I have no idea whether this sort of thing can still be called 'music'. My brain really is too old for this stuff!
This was written in 1910 when Reger was only 37 years old and Schoenberg just 36. That is how quickly and radically the aesthetic climate shifted. Here are those three piano pieces by Schoenberg:

One of the problems for Reger that precluded him from trying to follow Schoenberg in this direction was the idea of a "magnum opus" that is, large pieces in the grand style of the oratorio and symphony.  The atonal style could simply not support these kinds of large structures and one of the reasons that Schoenberg later on came up with the 12-tone method was to try and find structural devices that could.

Reger, on the other hand, while not leaping into the abyss, did confront some of the fundamental problems of the day. Prior to his consolidation after 1908 he wrote music in which tonality is undermined and traditional syntax dissolved. Here is his Piano Quintet, op 64 from 1903:

While the tonality is weakened, the structural ideas of motivic development, first and second theme, exposition and development, all originating in tonal music, are still used.

Perhaps the most popular of Reger's works are the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 132, composed in 1914:

The piece that this most strongly recalls is the Haydn Variations by Brahms composed in 1873, a generation earlier and the year of Reger's birth. Is this musical nostalgia given a somewhat musty aura by the surrealism and extreme modernism of the progressives like Schoenberg?

It is disquieting to consider what was in store for European civilization over the next half century: two world wars, the Holocaust, the destruction of what had been the most advanced nation, culturally, in Europe, Germany. Perhaps nostalgia was just as aesthetically viable as being at the forefront of evolution.


David said...

Bryan, thanks for this post on Reger and his turbulent times. It is interesting to learn about the intersection of the musical revolutionary and those composers with "too old brains". I am definitely an "old brain" guy which I think is why I have such trouble with the approach espoused by Boulez ("It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All art of the past must be destroyed.") I wonder if the Mona Lisa part of that quote were emphasized as much as the bit about destruction of past art, Boulez would be as venerated as he is?

I must confess some confusion when I clicked what I thought was the Reger clip and found myself on the Watchtower. That was "too much confusion". Maybe it was a metaphor for how Reger felt in his day.


Marc Puckett said...

Listened to two Reger string quartets (nos 74 and... 54, I think) yesterday afternoon-- very nice indeed. Am listening to the Schoenberg no 11 now, trying to get my head around what must have been Reger's experience of that in 1910. Hmm. There is always a devil lurking in the back of my mind whispering that the loss of 'modernity' in music would be... quite survivable, even if it were to mean the absence of this or that particular work or corpus of work. History doesn't work like that, though, does it, musical or otherwise: but if we have arrived at a point where 'nostalgia', as well as that which preoccupies the avant-garde, is 'viable', then I'm content to accept that status quo.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think it is safe to say that if Boulez' project really was to destroy the art of the past (and replace it with his own), then barring some unforeseen developments, he has failed. And thank goodness.

I have to confess that I am actually very fond of those Schoenberg pieces from between 1908 and when he developed his 12-tone theory in 1921. They have a kind of surreal expressive power that is quite unique. Not to listen to every day, of course...