Let’s celebrate the most boring composer that ever lived

Gesualdo and Dutilleux apart, 2016 is not a great year for composer centenaries.

So step up Max Reger (1873-1916), a musician who can lull any non-German audience into instant torpor.

In Germany, however, he’s one of the greats.

His facial expression makes a wet Wenesday in Margate look enticing.

Max Reger at the

As for the music, this is probably his greatest hit… and the one great theme in it is not his.

 

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    • Busoni? No way! His piano concerto. And Dr Faustus! His Back adaptations.
      And Satie has his tiny little niche in which he was very good.
      But I don’t agree on Reger either. His Böcklin suite (as Schönberg acknowledged by adapting it for his chamber ensemble) and his piano concerto are fabulous.
      I would rather go for Telemann. Or Palestrina a part of his time (not all).

        • The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus … is a play by Christopher Marlowe, based on the German story Faust. Doctor Faustus was first published in 1604…

      • I’m pretty sure Tony was reacting to 2016 supposedly being a bad year for composer anniversaries, not boredom quotients. 2016 is Busoni’s 150th having been born in 1866.

    • How about that other “R” man, Joachim Raff? Very prolific, but almost forgotten now. I can’t think of any recent or even not so recent outings for him by any symphony orchestras.

  • 2016 also marks the centenary of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), a pioneer of both serialism and electronic music in the US.

    I agree that Reger is too dull and insipid.

  • The Brahms Variations can be overwhelming in the right performance. Serkin is justly celebrated but he’s too finely honed for my tastes. The set works best given a more granite like treatmen eg. Jonathan Powell.

    • Same for the Telemann Variations. There is a first rate recording by Jorge Bolet. I have to agree though that apart from the Bach and Telemann variations most of the rest of his output is pretty dull fare.

  • Let’s give credit where it’s due (from a UK website called The Phrase Finder):

    “Reger was notoriously irascible and didn’t react well to a savage review by Rudolph Louis in Münchener Neueste Nachrichten, February 1906. His response was:

    “Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nachsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein”

    (“I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!”)”

    Ricardo Muti quoted that line to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1984 after he read a New York Times quote by Celibidache who did not speak kindly concerning the Philadelphian’s conductor.

  • Alfred Brendel was certainly no admirer. Remember reading him once saying that given the choice between having to play the Reger Piano Concerto and death, he’d rather choose death!

  • Even though I’m an organist — some of us like Reger — I won’t disagree. Perhaps exception made for his organ Variations & Fugue on an Original Theme, op. 73, which is not as formulaic as the other big organ works. Still a bit turgid, though.

    • Ah, come on, Michael. The “Wachet auf!” and “Wie schön leuchtet” fantasies are pretty fantastic. I think most non-organist musicians have little real awareness of the organ repertoire (which is more interesting that not). I agree that the Böcklin suite is tremendous, and the Hiller Variations are kinda fun. Peter Serkin continues to champion Reger. The little Requiem (Opus 144b), too, is heart-melting.

      • Yes the Böcklin Suite. There is a great recording by Järvi with the Concertgebouw orchestra. And Schöneberg found the piece worthy to adapt it for his chamber ensemble

  • So convenient to trot out a few clever, prejudicial anecdotes. Haha.
    A Finnish orchestral player complained to his conductor about playing so much Sibelius. The conductor responded, ‘Well, that’s what we do in Finland. It could be worse, you could be English.’
    Most orchestras outside of Germany haven’t played a note of Reger, but might start with his Böcklin Suite. There’s a beautiful recording with Neeme Järvi conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

    • Yes agree. And funny remark by that Finnish guy. Although yesterday I played Vaughan-Williams’ Pilgrims Progress, which is great. (The EMI recording with Boult has recordings from rehearsals, very funny. His humour is impressive, including during recording this so solemn piece. Hilarious. But this is a side topic.)

  • I realize there’s no disputing taste, but we all know that good judgment requires familiarity.

    My own experience in playing Reger has been as follows:

    The first two or three times, he makes no sense whatsoever;

    The next few times, he begins to make some sense;

    After half-a-dozen times, I begin to “get it,” and afterward, with greater familiarity, I will often say “This is the most beautiful piece ever!”

    I think that people in Bach’s day — those that took the trouble to repeat and really *muse* over the music — would have had the same experience.

    P.S.: Been reading Slipped Disc since it’s inception and this is the first time I’ve ever been moved to comment.

  • Charles V. Alkan wrote endless boring piano pieces.
    Svyatoslav Richter played Max Reger piano concerto, but some of
    music he played was boring-N.Rimsky-Korsakov piano concerto.

  • Reger’s music evokes cavernous, surreal architectures, uncertainties within certainties, Quixotic states and churlish, Mahler-ish excursions into black humor.

  • J.M.W. Turner found many a wet Wednesday in Margate profoundly inspirational. Also, if there’s a good show on at Turner Contemporary in Margate — as there often is — then on a wet Wednesday anywhere in the world, that’s the place to be! But you’re right about Max Reger being B-O-R-I-N-G. Ditto Franz Schmidt, Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez etc etc etc.

        • Franz Schmidt is most certainly NOT boring; he’s just poorly understood and insufficiently performed.

          That aside, there are far more boring composers than Max Reger, who is best understood as a kind of synthesis of Brahms and Wagner (you can see why Schoenberg admired him so much). His greatest sin was to be so prolific. If he’d lived as long as Havergal Brian (rather than pegging out at 43) he’d have heard all of The Beatles’ albums before he died, and his opus numbers would probably have been in at least six figures!

  • Don’t forget some of his choral music as well. As far as “the most boring composer that ever lived” title goes, once one realizes that hearing ≠ listening, that description doesn’t hold true.

  • Oh this hurts! Well, I have to agree that Max has his limitations and plowed the same field over and over again (orchestral variations). In fact I tend to avoid the orchestral variations other than the Mozart ones.

    But I love the following:
    Boecklin suite (especially the Isle of the Dead)
    Romantic Suite
    Piano Concerto (yes, the piano concerto, esp. the slow movement)
    Serenade op. 95
    Clarinet Quintet

    And I just happened to hear the Sinfonietta for the first time yesterday. And the op. 121 quartet.

    I’ve played the clarinet sonatas and the op. 20 humoresques.

    And reger’s biggest hit is the maria wiegenlied – pops up all the time.

    • PS: ‘Boring’? Listen, after the wild toccata, to the fugue which is set-up dignified, diatonic, very traditional, like a straight Bach fugue, and at the end some extreme Wagnerian harmonies unsettle the fabric but they are violently bent-back towards the tonic. The whole piece could have been written by late Wagner if he were an organist (Meistersinger and Tristan in one).

    • Variation 6 of the Mozart Variations (adagietto) is a little gem….it’s a hard heart which doesn’t melt at those lovely 7th harmonies in bar5 .

  • Just listen to A.Busch and A.Serkin in some Reger sonates and you’ll change your mind!
    When i was a student in Berlin in the 90′,we played his piano concerto with Peter Serkin,Seiji Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic….Great piece!
    His violin concerto,that A.Busch played all his Life is Also a very interesting piece!
    And do you know his Piano quartet,trio,quintett?
    He is like Busoni,Hindemith….under estimated.it’s a pity.
    Best wishes
    Renaud Capucon

    • A German orchestral programmer once proudly gave me a CD of Reger’s violin concerto… very pompous, and the music goes nowhere and especially the rhythm is square which makes very tiring listening. I listened to it 2 times and could not remember anything of it afterwards (2 x !). My suspicion is that this music – which has, it should be said, often beautiful ideas – is entirely dependent upon the performer who has somehow to ‘recreate’ it. I’m sure that could be trusted in your hands.

  • There is plenty of great Reger waiting for those with resilience to received wisdom and the patience to absorb music that reveals its treasures slowly. And treasures they are. Already mentioned is the Böcklin Suite, but also the Hiller Variations are one of his masterworks, as is the Clarinet Quintet, the 4th and 5th String Quartets, the Sextet, and yet more. Before I crossed over to the Dark Side I played in the section of the Boston SO in the Piano Concerto with Ozawa and Serkin, and it was an incredible, moving and hypnotic experience. I highly recommend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Capriccio recording of Reger’s orchestral songs; it is unmissable.

  • Such lazy nonsense. We played the Romantic Suite to an audience in Birmingham and it brought cheers from the audience and comments comparing it favourably to Mahler. The Bocklin Pictures followed the next season – again, enthusiastically received with remarks like “why don’t we hear this music all the time?” (quick answer: because of silly prejudices like those on display here).

    The Hiller Variations are even more entertaining than the Mozart set and the Clarinet Quintet is a genuine and extremely beautiful masterpiece.

  • How about Hindemith for boring?
    Or Gustav Holst for turgid?
    and Delius for vapid wanderings?
    And let us consign those eclectic Victorians, Parry and Stanford to a large dustbin….O the list is much longer….apart from Benjamin Britten and some Elgar, and some RVW, England is full of second-rate composers in the 20th century and we can’t compete with the likes of R.Strauss, Mahler, Sibelius, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, Messaien, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Schostakovitch, Stravinsky for greatness…we have so many namby-pamby miniaturists drowning in bargain-basement versions of our continental rivals….

    • But that is now amply compensated for with David Matthews, and the young James Francis Brown.

      The reason of this 20C ‘lack of greatness’ – for which I would make an exception for Elgar, really – is the custom of afternoon tea, which happens just at the time of the day a composer’s imagination, after hours of struggling since 9:00 AM, is about to take flight: it is then considerably dampened by fluids and cakes, and the thread is lost. Before 1900 composers, painters and arts and craft workers were allowed to skip tea time if at work.

      • Prejudices are still all too alive and well, I see. Maybe the only real help English music needs is to be saved from the English…….

        • I am something of an English patriot but – Elgar aside – we are (at least since the death of Purcell) musical provincials. Reger is not boring (at least, not to any musical person who pays full attention), but the density and sheer quantity of his music are certainly intimidating.

  • To be honest, I’ve found Reger to be interesting yet uneven due to his copious output. There are defiantly some gems in his works. The solo cello suites should endure, and his variations on other composer’s tunes have something going for it. One shouldn’t call him boring, but it was formulaic which was well in step with it’s times.

  • I don’t find Reger boring, but I admit that I haven’t heard all that much of his music. Maybe because other people consider it boring.

  • Thank you all for the stimulating discussion. Some of you are correct, some of you not in your assessment of the other composers mentioned. All this means Reger is worth my time studying, so I can form my own opinion of a composer who has somehow slipped through the cracks of my knowledge. So only a few days in, and the anniversary year has had an impact on this one musician!

  • Stravinsky: “I also remember having met Reger at that time, at a rehearsal I think. I found him as repulsive as his music”. There is a wonderful, amusing passage in Max Brod’s memoirs about Reger visiting Prague which perhaps explains Stravinsky’s opinion.
    Prokofiev, however, admired him, I believe.
    Furtwaengler basically said that Reger dealt in cells and couldn’t work them into a theme, which is why he relied on the variation form using other composers’ themes. Reger does often quote but I am always surprised by the quality of his own invention – in all those shorter piano pieces for a start.
    Of course, Schoenberg, Hindemith et al admired him greatly.

    My favorite Reger work is the Sinfonietta which is supposed to be a problematic piece. I think it is inspired and chock-full of wonderful invention. Reger called it a ‘harmloses Ding’ so he was obviously pleased with it.

  • Antonio Estévez (1916-1988) Venezuelan composer, known especially for his Cantata Criolla. This is taken from a London newspaper clip. The Guardian, Jul7 21, 1989, David Nice: Festival Hall/Bolivar SO/Mata:

    “NOW we know what the Proms really needed to leap off to a fine start. Antonio Estevez’s Cantata Criolla, at least in the loving hands of Eduardo Mata and some 230 of the composer’s fellow Venezuelans enlivening the South Bank’s Latin American beanfeast, was a far cry indeed from tonight’s choice, Stravinsky’s coldly resplendent Oedipus Rex”. …

  • Yawn, another linguistic primitive salvo by Norman Lebrecht from his small rubber boat against the supertanker Continental music tradition.
    If it were at least a bit humorous and witty, but this is just lame.
    Going down in your favorite below the belt punch modus, I would be curious to learn, how many British contemporaries composers to MR are actually there, who could hold a candle to a Max Reger. More below him than above I’m afraid.
    Save your stones until you are outside of the glass house.

    • Oh, I don’t know. RVW? Holst? Bax? Maybe it’s time to stop such pointless, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the Channel” comparisons and just listen to the music for its own intrinsic qualities – they are there in the little of Reger I have listened to up to now, and I’m looking forward to exploring further. He need not lose another night’s sleep any more than the gentlemen mentioned above need to.

  • It may have been unfair but I’m afraid it’s true that a colleague ensured that his porn video remained unexplored by house guests by labelling it “Charles Groves performs Reger”

  • Why not give a try to Sebastián Durón´s music (1660-1716)? Spanish baroque composer who would deserve more performances than he usually gets….

  • I think one of the problems with Reger is that he wrote miles of organ music, and there’s nothing organists like more than boring their audience with music which is doubtless enjoyable to play but extremely dull to listen to. The organ has its place, but it’s fundamentally a very limited instrument, and it needs a great master to employ its range of colours and to make counterpoint sound interesting. Reger does neither.

  • You can all shoot me down – but if you took time to listen to Andrew Lucas’s recording of Reger’s Benedictus played on St. Paul’s Cathedral I think you’d change your minds. Its a trip….

    This is sophisticated music (often played by unsophisticated people.) Good organ teachers say “Never play Reger before you’re forty.”

    He was highly regarded in his day – check out his position in the Concertgebouw hall in the band of named luminaries that is endorsed in the amphitheatre.

    What these comments basically attest – is that the organ is SO difficult to play (I’ve been trying for 30 years) that very very few ever manage to combine that true virtuosity with real musicality – its true it sometimes falls into a technical exercise beloved of a certain type of… well – man! I enjoy women’s playing more and more as I get older funnily enough.

    • Balderdash – this fallacy that the organ is difficult to play is trotted out far too often. It requires little more coordination than a decent jazz drummer (and no offence intended to the drummers), virtually no nuance of touch and the repertoire is mostly third rate, rarely stretching anyone in terms of technique. Put a so-called first rate organist on a concert platform and ask them to play some Chopin on a grand piano, they’d be in pieces by the second bar. I’ve been ‘playing’ the box of whistles for years and reached this conclusion fairly rapidly. It’s an amateur profession at best, at worst it’s dominated by frustrated pianists and ego maniacs. And too many of them languish in cells for acts of gross moral turpitude.

  • Rubbish! Reger was a major composer, was considered such by most of his contemporaries – Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith – and even Prokofiev! – among others, had many champions – the Busch brothers, Erdmann, Scherchen, Rosbaud, Serkin, Richter, Bolet, Fischer-Dieskau, Schiff, etc.
    Works such as the Flute Serenades, String Trios, Clarinet Quintet, First Piano Trio, Fifth String Quartet, and many others are genuine masterpieces – whoever has actually heard Reger’s finest stuff, will have no doubt whatsoever about the magnitude of the man and his work – there’s so much more to him than the notorious sets of variations and organ pieces.

  • Alas, one more ignorant “music-critic” who has obviously never listened to Reger’s music. Would Mr Lebrecht once prefer listening to music instead of writing inaccurately on matters he apparently has touched upon only lightly this miight help to achieve a more accurate judgement. For those interested in Reger’s music: consult http://www.reger2016.de – there is a huge sound gallery to show aplenty that Reger is very far from boring ….

    • ‘Norman Bedford’ is not your real name. Any opinions are therefore not proposed by a real person. As for Reger, suck it and see.

  • Have you listened to his Lieder, or his string quartets, or his clarinet quintets? When I was growing up I believed all the negative publicity about Reger, until I started listening to him, intelligently and selectively. A number of composers have held a high opinion of him, including, if I am not mistaken, Arnold Schoenberg.

  • Yes that’s correct : Schönberg considered Reger as a genius.
    Sorry for my bad english but :
    sadly, Mr Lebrecht is writting about a repertoire he clearly doesn’t know much about.
    It’s really unprofessionnal…

    Surely, these works are so boring :
    – Böklin (wondering why the recent interpretation by G. Dudamel with L.A. phil. was such a success : from L.A. Times : “Friday’s persuasive performance of “Four Tone Poems After Arnold Bocklin,” which began the program, proved the crowd pleaser it deserves to be. There was scattered applause after each short movement and a partial standing ovation at the end.”)
    – Piano concerto
    – Psalm 100
    – Above all : his chamber music
    – Many of his piano music
    – Organ music : such as the variations opus 73 : the first large “german expressionnist” work for organ…
    It also contains a few hits such as “Maria Wiegenlied”, “Benedictus”, etc…
    etc etc… with a corpus containing more than a thousant works, I guess one can find, at least, one interesting piece !

    Let’s hope that 2016 will give to Mr Lebrecht an opportunity to discover this music and change his mind, or at least if he still doesn’t like, perhaps give more arguments about why !

  • I admit that Reger’s batting average isn’t very high, but the Mozart Variations (both the two-piano and orchestral versions) and the Telemann Variations are high on my “music to listen to for pleasure” list.

    As for “most boring,” well, there’s a reason I refer to a particular composer as “Big Delius.”

  • I can’t stand this. Reger is one of my favourite composers. Piano Quintet in D minor, outstanding. Reverie fantastique for piano, an outstanding piece. Variations and fugue on a theme by Bach, one of the greatest set of variations I’ve heard, and that fugue! Anything but boring…

  • My vote for the most boring composer who ever lived unhesitating goes to Virgil Thompson, an unusal composer in that he posessed no natural musical talent whatsoever and no compositional technique. The only reason any of his music was performed during his lifetime was his job, music critic of the New York Herald Tribune— which he used to scratch the backs of conductors and musicians in return for programming and performing his stupor-inducing “composition.” As a music critic, he was even less gifted than as a composer, if that is possible. Who can forget his monumentally obtuse and stupid review of the premiere ofGeorge Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which Thompson totally panned. To have completely missed the musical and dramatic power of The Great American Opera when it was introduced shows that Thompson was a musical schlemiel.

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