The anniversary composer who reads both ways

The anniversary composer who reads both ways


norman lebrecht

March 18, 2023

The Bavarian composer, Max Reger, born 150 years ago this weekend, will not receive anything like the attention that shines on his Russian contemporary Sergei Rachmaninov.

Where Rachmaninov had instant audience appeal, Reger was a methodical composer, never happier (though, being a drinker, he was seldom happy) than when working out symmetrical problems in sets of orchestral variations. He wrote a vast amount for organ, even more for choirs.
Nothing he wrote was a hit, even in Germany where his Brahmsian-Brucknerian seriousness was dutifully appreciated.

The one thing people remember about Reger is that his name is a palinndrom – it reads the same way backwards.

Some said his music did much the same.


  • Doc Martin says:

    Brendel in his book The Veil of Order said given the choice of playing Max Reger’s piano concerto and dying, he would prefer the latter option! There is something of the mollusc in Reger, Brendel mentions something about ghastly fugues.

    Adolf Busch was a friend of Reger and played his violin concerto, also helped in promoting his music.

    • RW2013 says:

      Not everything that AB wrote/said should be heeded, especially about piano concertos that he couldn’t play (including the Busoni).
      In Berlin in April we will be treated to the second performance of the concerto since Hamelin in September 2022.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Brendel is a brilliant intellect and musician, but like anyone else, he has individual tastes and opinions. I recall reading that he thought the piano works of both Ravel and Rachmaninoff are superfluous after Liszt; I’d agree only about the latter.

      • Doc Martin says:

        The point he was making was it was a wee bit turgid, have heard it and the Busoni, that is enough for me.

      • Doc Martin says:

        If Brendel was able to play the Schoenberg piano concerto, as he says in the Veil of Order, he could have played the Reger. His main issues with Reger are: 1. Incessant chromaticism 2. almost constant use of all voices. 3. The frequent loss of rhythmic contour.

  • Ricardo says:

    His piano trio, which I have performed several times, is remarkable. And it has some good tunes too.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    Reger may not be to your taste, Norman, but there’s no need for these lazy, second-hand sneers. He’s a composer of considerable achievement, especially in the area of chamber music.

  • RW2013 says:

    For those who play, sing, or listen to his music with an open, curious mind, there is plenty of good Reger.
    Those who know him don’t have to defend him.

  • Genius Repairman says:

    Reger’s music is often thick and dense; impenetrable if you don’t actively listen (or not in the mood). Moody and dark, chromatic, polytonal and often Bachian, with fugues and canons, Reger does not cater for the majority.

    Yet some of Reger’s music is witty, fun and ridiculous. His variations on a theme by Hiller is somewhat bombastic, his Mozart variations fun and engaging, his Telemann beautiful and his Bach variations sees him in full homage and is a masterpiece.

    He did not believe in compromise. If he felt a movement needed to be very long and slow then it was. Accusations of pretentiousness did not hinder him. His violin concerto is probably the longest one of a major composer.
    Above all he revered Brahms and Bach and wrote for art not entertainment.

  • Tom says:

    Listen to his Boecklin Suite or the two songs Op 144, and wonder what a film composer he might have been had he been been born a a little later (He was just 15 years older than Max Steiner) and/or lived longer.

  • Gustavo says:

    Ein Reger mit Gazelle zagt im Regen nie.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Getting past Reger the cliché/reputation to the actual music takes some effort. There are some composers you get to know in spite of yourself if you go to enough concerts and recitals, but you can go years before hearing anything by Reger, be it good or not. And there are works by Reger that seem destined to frustrate you even with the best will in the world. I tried and tried to get to know and like the violin concerto and the piano concerto and just couldn’t do it. (Ordinarily I trust Serkin’s judgment but not in this case).

    Then then you hear a work such as “Der geigende Eremit” and your heart melts. It is one of the greatest gifts to concertmasters ever composed:

    The chamber music and music for unaccompanied violin is a mixed bag but there is wonderful stuff to be heard there. But if you have been told in advance that you’ll not enjoy it, then you might well never go there. And miss out.

  • Paul says:

    Perhaps readers could mention here if they have any favorite pieces by Reger that they would recommend. The only piece of his I really know at all is the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart for orchestra.

    • Edward says:

      He actually made a very important contribution to organ repertoire (in fact some might say he is the 2nd most important organ composer after Bach). His music with it’s Neo-Baroque idioms coupled with chromatic harmonies kind of makes him Bach’s successor in some ways. I can recommend the Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor as a starting point, but also the Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, the Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, and some of the chorale Fantasias such as Wachet Auf, Straf mich nicht and Hallelujah, Gott zu loben. If you want a really dense work try the Variations op.73.

    • Zenaida says:

      Check out the just released “Ferne Klang” orchestra works and orchestra Lieder with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Konzerthaus orchestra and Chen Reiss and Matthias Goerne. Some truly beautiful music! (released on DG)

    • clarrieu says:

      Check the beginning of this, without knowing it’s from a german composer, and you’ll be surprised. But not so much surprise, when you know that Reger conducted several times Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune”:

    • Herbie G says:

      Paul, try the Maria Wiegenlied! Then the Romantic Suite.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    Before consigning poor Reger to the dustbin of history, give a listen to his Serenade for Flute, Violin, and Viola which is (uncharacteristically, to be sure) delightful.

  • Armchair Bard says:

    Never mind the palindrome. Reger is famous in our family for the fact that my late (former) stepmother-in-law’s (even later) father was the old soak’s stand-in pianist. That is, he would be called upon when the great man himself was too soaked to play.

    Further, her uncle was Hugo Ball, founder of Dada & co-founder of the Cabaret Voltaire. Unsurprisingly, his visits were a chief delight for the children.

  • Simon Dearsley says:

    Best forgotten, soonest mended.

  • James P. Colias says:

    My great teacher/mentor, the Danish-born pianist and composer Gunnar Johansen, was a huge admirer of Reger
    and often programmed his works. In fact, he performed
    the “Bach Variations” on his Carnegie Hall debut and was
    promptly told by the interested managers, “No more of that,
    or we won’t take you on.” Gunnar didn’t listen to them …
    part of the reason he was not better known! He used to
    tell the story that once when Reger was to appear before
    his employer, the Court, he walked into the room backwards.
    This apparently caused quite a surprise. When he got to
    the front of the room, he is supposed to have said, “It doesn’t
    matter which way I enter, because my name is spelled the
    same backwards or forewords!”

    I enjoy your informative and pithy comments about all
    things musical. Thank you. James P. Colias
    [Trustee of the Gunnar and Lorraine Johansen Trust,
    Consultant for Victor Borge Productions, Inc. and President
    of the Busoni Foundation]

    • Herbert Pauls says:

      Another funny Reger story I hadn’t heard!

      And, off topic, when are we going to see the re-release of Gunnar Johansen’s complete LP recordings? Many would love those on CD. They are much too valuable to lie mouldering in the archives.

  • Serge says:

    Of course the level of SL is to mention that Reger is a palindrome. Reger will never become a household composer, and his music might seem very heavy for a start, but this disappears after a few rounds of listening. For Regerian charm, I can reccommend the 2nd movement of his Clarinet Quintet and after that the whole peace – beautiful music.

  • Joel Kemelhor says:

    I much prefer Elgar to Reger. And Elgar is an apt anagram for “regal.”

  • clarrieu says:

    Hindemith allegedly said: “Ohne ihn bin ich gar nicht zu denken” (= “No him, no me”). You can’t ignore someone who wrote such a masterful piece like this:

    • Tom says:

      Agreed, ‘Die Nonnen’ is a gorgeous piece of music. It and we are fortunate that Horst Stein and the wise folks at Bamberg Symphoniker made such a recording.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    I think it was Richard Strauss that said that Reger knew too much about music to write good music. …but then again, Strauss wasn’t always fair. He didn’t like Mahler’s music, for example. Reger was a drinker, but his music is perhaps a bit too sober.

  • Herbie G says:

    There are plenty of anecdotes about Reger; one is the suggestion that, when writing orchestral music, it would be easier for him to make white marks on black music paper.

    I have always liked his music; the Clarinet Quintet, written at the very end of his life, shares the autumnal, valedictory air of Brahms’s eponymous work; his Serenade in G major for orchestra is also a fine, lyrical piece though recordings are rare and live performances even more so. I also relish the Teutonic ‘sturm und drang’ of the Piano Concerto and Symphonic Prologue, while hearing the Violin Concerto is like luxuriating in a bath of lukewarm maple syrup.

  • Unvaccinated says:

    His music isn’t played often for a reason, it’s totally unmemorable.

  • Doc Martin says:

    I have some Reger chamber music CDs in my music library, I listened to them a couple of times, then I listened to similar ones of Brahms and Beethoven, which really said it all.

    How about the Weingartner Violin Concerto. I have his 7 symphonies and symphonic poems, they are worth repeat listening.

  • Russell Platt says:

    The Suite No. 1 for solo viola is a little miracle of a piece, somehow. Perhaps he could just relax in chamber music and not relentlessly display his erudition.

  • Jobim75 says:

    I admire musicians who defend him, we need diversity in the concert hall, but i could never go through a piece… maybe he stayed 2nd or even 3rd rank musician for a reason…