REGER: Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, Op. 57 / 7 Organ Pieces. Op. 145
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Max Reger (1873–1916): Organ Works • 7
Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue • Seven Organ Pieces
Max Reger owed his earlier interest in music to the example and enthusiasm of his father, a schoolmaster and amateur musician, and his early training to the town organist of Weiden, Adalbert Lindner. Reger was born in 1873 at Brand in the Upper Palatinate, Bavaria. The following year the family moved to Weiden and it was there that he spent his childhood and adolescence, embarking on a course of training as a teacher when he left school. Lindner had sent examples of Reger's early compositions to his own former teacher, Hugo Riemann, who accepted Reger as a pupil, at first in Sondershausen and then, as his assistant, in Wiesbaden. Military service, which affected Reger's health and spirits, was followed by a period at home with his parents in Weiden and a continuing series of compositions, in particular for the organ, including a monumental series of chorale fantasias and other compositions, often, it seems, designed to challenge the technique of his friend Karl Straube, a noted performer of Reger's organ music.
In 1901 Reger moved to Munich, where he spent the next six years. His position in musical life was in some ways an uneasy one, since he was seen as a champion of absolute music and as hostile, at this time, to programme music, to the legacy of Wagner and Liszt. He was successful, however, as a pianist and was gradually able to find an audience for his music. The period in Munich brought the composition of his Sinfonietta, of chamber music, and of fine sets of keyboard variations on themes by Bach and Beethoven, followed in later years by his well-known variations on a theme by Mozart.
1907 brought a change in Reger's life, when he took the position of professor of composition at the University of Leipzig, at a time when his music was reaching a much wider public. This was supported by his own distinction as a performer and concert appearances in London, St Petersburg, the Netherlands, and Austria, and throughout Germany. In 1911 he was invited by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen to become conductor of the court orchestra, an ensemble established by Hans von Bülow and once conducted by Richard Strauss, at the outset of his career. Reger held this position until the beginning of the war, when the orchestra was disbanded, an event that coincided with his own earlier intention to resign. He spent his final years based in Jena, but continuing his active career as a composer and as a concert performer. He died in Leipzig in May 1916 on his way back from a concert tour of the Netherlands.
The music of Max Reger has a special position in organ repertoire, and he is regarded by many as the greatest German composer of organ music since Bach. A Catholic himself, he nevertheless drew on Lutheran tradition and the rich store of chorales, the inspiration for chorale preludes, chorale fantasias and other works. The esteem in which his organ compositions were held even in his own time owed much to the advocacy of Karl Straube, also a pupil of Riemann and from 1902 organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
Reger wrote his Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, Op. 57,in 1901, dedicating it to Gustav Beckmann. It was, however, Karl Straube who gave the first performance in Berlin in 1902, with Beckmann following with a performance in 1904. The work is very challenging, both to performer and listener, and is conceived on an orchestral scale. In a letter to Beckmann Reger claimed inspiration from Dante's Inferno, describing it as the most difficult work he had written for organ. The Fantasia is broadly a movement in sonata form, its chromatic first theme and triplet secondary material brought together with great clarity in a central quasi Adagio. After this the music leads forward to a recapitulation. The intense chromaticism proved unacceptable to some critics at the time, but in many ways it was a foretaste of other musical changes to come. The Fugue has persuaded some to find in it a symphonic structure. The subject is stated and answered by four voices in turn, leading to a quieter passage in which a new subject is introduced, the counterpart of a slow movement, leading to a resumption of the pace of the initial Allegro brillante e vivacissimo in which the first and second themes are heard fragmentarily, until both return in contrapuntal combination in a final section.
The Seven Pieces for Organ, Op. 145, were written in the winter of 1915 and early 1916. The first of the set is in memory of those who had fallen in the war in 1914 and 1915, Trauerode (Mourning Ode). The opening, with repeated injunctions for very dark colouring, leads eventually through the darkness to the light of peace and resignation expressed in the chorale Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (What God does, that is well done). Dankpsalm (Psalm of Thanks) is dedicated to the German people. It starts with the brilliance of a toccata, but a more meditative, darker passage intervenes before the introduction of the same chorale, now with added triplet accompanying figuration. This returns before the music moves gently forward to a second chorale, Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (Praise to the Lord, the mighty King of Honour).
Weihnachten (Christmas), the third of the pieces, its theme reflecting the improvisations that formed part of Reger's organ concert repertoire at the time, has a slow and inevitably chromatic introduction, followed by the Christmas Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen (There came a ship, laden). Material derived from this provides the basis of an episode, ending with a darkening of colour before the entry of the chorale melody Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (From Heaven on high I come here), through which Stille Nacht (Silent Night) emerges fragmentarily. Passion offers a piece of greater solemnity, prefiguring the chorale Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen (Beloved Jesus, how have you offended), with its characteristic falling third.
Ostern (Easter) offers an immediate contrast, following precedent in deriving elements of its opening passage from the chorale that is later introduced, Auferstanden, auferstanden (He is risen), proclaimed in a bold D major. The sixth piece, Pfingsten (Whit), makes its gradual and chromatic approach to the chorale Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (Come, Holy Ghost, Lord God), which eventually appears, marked ppp dolcissimo but mounting to a final climax. The set of pieces ends with Siegesfeier (Victory Celebration), marked Grave and again including elements of toccata figuration. The opening leads in appropriate triumph to Nun danket alle Gott (Now thank we all our God), its verses separated by celebratory interventions. Finally Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (Germany, Germany, over all) appears in the pedals and then in the upper part to seal emphatically the victory.
Passau Cathedral Organ
The organ at Passau Cathedral was built by Ludwig and Wolfgang Eisenbarth between 1978 and 1981, in continuation of G.F. Steinmeyer's organ from 1928, which was the world's greatest church organ at that time. Today's organ contains 233 speaking stops with 17,774 pipes