RHEINBERGER: Organ Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
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Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901)
On the matter of combining organ and orchestra,experts have spoken in no uncertain terms. HectorBerlioz in his Treatise on Instrumentation from the1850s stated that the resources of the organ \are sonumerous and diverse that no composer, in our opinion,can understand them adequately unless he himself is anaccomplished organist". He also felt that "the even anduniform tones of the organ can never fuse completelywith the extremely variable sounds of the orchestra;there is a secret antipathy between these two musicalpowers", which he likened to a pope and an emperor.
Berlioz, though, himself combined them, together withvoices, in his massive Te Deum, and Richard Strauss,who updated the Treatise half a century later, and let theforegoing remarks stand, called for the organ in suchscores as Also sprach Zarathustra and the AlpineSymphony. Clearly, then, a successful combination ispossible, but it requires a composer with experience andsolid technique.
Few people could have been any more qualifiedthan Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger. He became organistof his hometown parish in Liechtenstein at the age ofseven, entered the conservatory in Munich at twelve,was offered a professorship in piano there at nineteen,later acquired positions in organ and composition thathe held until shortly before he died, and was the directorof church music to the King of Bavaria from 1877 to1894. Rheinberger is known today primarily for hisorgan music, notably twenty sonatas, all in differentmajor or minor keys, and the two present concerti, andyet the organ figures in only about one-sixth of his 197published works. Certain convenient generalisationsabout late-nineteenth-century German music do himinjustice, one being that Germany during this periodproduced no historically significant Roman Catholiccomposers, and the other being that most musicianstook sides between Johannes Brahms and RichardWagner and never set foot in the other camp once theydid so.
If German Catholics are under-represented in thisspan of history, it may have something to do with theCaecilian movement of the day. This well-meaningretrenchment from opulent excesses sought to reviveGregorian chant and sixteenth-century polyphony, but itset some unhelpful boundaries and arguably lent acertain stodginess to the works of its disciples. PopeLeo XIII awarded Rheinberger the Knight's Cross ofthe Order of St Gregory in 1879 for the Op. 109 Cantusmissae for double unaccompanied choir, which mightlead us to believe that this Mass setting is merelyanother dry Caecilian work. Quite the contrary: Ifanything, it is something of a guilty pleasure, with itsLiebeslieder-like Benedictus and overall melodicprofligacy. Clearly, as did Palestrina centuries earlier,Rheinberger had found a way to reconcile liturgicaldignity with contemporaneous musical know-how.
Many writers on German music correctly describerancorous debates between partisans of Brahms andWagner, for whom these men embodied, respectively,ideals of tradition and innovation. If Rheinberger'soutwardly conventional and conservative music wouldseemingly consign him to the Brahmsian side of thedebate, his professional actions argue otherwise. Mostnotably, he took up the Wagnerian cause to the extentthat he lent a hand in the first performances of bothTristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, works that atrue reactionary classicist would have avoided like theproverbial skunk in the road. Likewise, as a professor ofcomposition he appears not to have established anylock-step conformity, turning out a diverse body ofmusicians including Engelbert Humperdinck, ErmannoWolf-Ferrari, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and futureAmerican luminaries George Chadwick and HoratioParker. The latter, incidentally, trained Charles Ives, theAmerican experimentalist. Rheinberger's early studieswith Franz Lachner, an associate of Schubert, thus makehim a key link in an otherwise improbable chain fromSchubert to Ives.
For his late-career organ concertos Rheinbergerchose a string orchestra with judicious touches ofcolour, a trio of horns in the First Concerto and pairs oftrumpets and horns with timpani in the Second. Inchoosing these accompanying forces, he thus walked afine line between the strings-only austerity of Handeland Mozart and the full-orchestra tonal extravagance,and perhaps redundancy, of certain French-schoolcomposers, of whom Guilmant, Dupre, and Jongencome to mind. The resulting works are appropriaterepertoire both for church performance with chamberorchestras and for concert halls with symphonic organsand room enough for a late-Romantic contingent ofstrings.
Interestingly, Rheinberger composed his organmusic in the context of a constraint that many modernorganists would find troublesome: the instrument towhich he was accustomed could change degrees ofloudness only by the addition or reduction of stops, notwith the adjustable louvered panels, called swell shades,that nowadays customarily enclose at least part of anorgan's pipework. In the sheet music for these works,there are no crescendo or decrescendo markings in theorgan parts, only in the accompaniment. Rheinberger ineffect reverts in the solo part to the so-called "terraceddynamics" of the pre-Classical repertoire, but hismoment-to-moment choices of instrumentation avoidmonotony. These involve everything from organ andorchestra speaking separately in succession to the twoentities doubling one another for emphasis, withcountless gradations in between. Sometimes the organis meant to dominate, but some of the time it takes asupporting r??le to the orchestra, an aspect that theperformers on this recording chose to make clear.
Rheinberger himself once advised that musicshould not require a lot of explanation to be appreciated.
Indeed, neither the First Concerto nor the Secondrequire elaborate programme notes to help a first-timelistener to enjoy them, but there is probably no harm inpointing out some attractive features in the music. As issometimes the case with a self-effacing careerist - thatis, one quick to lend a hand to worthy colleagues but notinclined toward self-promotion - this composersometimes reveals less of himself in principal themesand more in secondary themes. In the first movement ofthe Concerto in G minor, the major-key subsidiarytheme threatens to modulate almost immediately to aminor key but reassuringly finds its way back.
Similarly, the confident finale of the Concerto in Fmajor offers a particularly endearing second theme, andthe same movement offers a fugal passage with thebeneficial effects but without a fussily drawn-outprocess. It is also the only movement in either work tocontain a significant solo cadenza.
Finally, it is a pleasure to report good news withregard to dissemination of Rheinberger's largelyneglected music. Though the Rheinberger archives weremoved to his native Liechtenstein in 1944, the creationof an official collected edition, with 48 volumesplanned, did not begin until nearly the sesquicentennialof his birth, but thanks to funding from the principality,this is currently well underway. The new millenniumalso saw the formation of an institute for scholars and amembership society for music-lovers. Rheinberger mayend up being better appreciated in the current centurythan in the preceding one in which he appeared all toobriefly.R. Gregory Capaldini