SOPP411: I would very much enjoy an episode of Secrets of Organ Playing where you discuss the compositional characteristics of Max Reger's organ music
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
V: Let’s start episode 411 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Michael, and he writes:
"Hello Vidas and Ausra, I would very much enjoy an episode of Secrets of Organ Playing where you discuss the compositional characteristics of Max Reger's organ music, as well as what compositional processes Reger employs that makes his music so recognizably his own. Thank you both, Michael"
V: Have you played a few pieces by Reger, Ausra?
A: Yes, I have.
V: Me, too! I think Reger is a very special composer, don’t you think?
A: Well, definitely. Once you’ve played it, you will never forget him.
V: Yes. Some people hate him, and some people adore him. But there are probably none who are simply neutral.
A: Well, that’s, I guess, true.
V: ...who know his music, of course. There are plenty of people who don’t know his music, then, of course, they don’t have an opinion.
A: True. And, I believe that it’s like Brahms and Bach in that way. Somebody loves Bach and probably doesn’t like Brahms, and vice versa.
V: Mhm… So, Reger, I think, we need to look at his influences. Right? He definitely loves Bach’s music.
A: Well, in general, I would say that he is sort of a neo-classical composer. Don’t you think so?
V: Yes, that’s because he is so polyphonic!
A: Yes, and look at all those forms that he chose to compose his compositions. I remember I have played Six Trios by him, and that’s definitely Bach’s influence. So then, he composed Pasacaglias and Fugues, which is again, Baroque influence, and probably Bach’s influence, too. And then, of course Chorale Fantasias, which also probably come from northern German composers.
V: And most of the Fantasias have Fugues!
A: That’s right. And then, of course, Sonatas, yes?
V: Trio Sonatas!
A: Yes, which is again a classic form of the music, so, he, of course, was influenced by classical forms, and by Bach, especially. But, although he was influenced by those early times, his musical language is very much different. So, he took the classical forms, but executed them in different ways. So, would you like to tell us more about his musical language, Vidas?
V: Yeah, he died in 1916, so that was the beginning of the 20th century—the age of a mix of several stylistic influences. Right? We already have, probably, very well established Late Romanticism, but it is going towards the end. Then...what do we have then… we probably have impressionism at the similar time, and also, we might have Expressionism, too. So, a few influences at the same time. With Reger, I would say he’s mostly late Romantic with chromatic harmony. Probably not too different from Brahms.
A: Yes, I thought about that, but they have some similarities. Of course, they are very different, but also have some similarities in their musical language.
V: Exactly. So, remember those two influences: Late Romanticism and Polyphonic style derived from Bach. And basically, those two influences clash and create his own unique style.
A: What about difficulty? Would you advise beginners to play Reger’s music?
V: Complete beginner, no. But there is that wonderful 30 short Chorale Prelude collection, 135B.
A: And it again reminds of Bach—his short Chorales, like Orgelbuchlein.
V: By the way, those short chorale preludes are bonus material for my Organ Sight Reading Master Course. At the end of the 40th week, I also give a few weeks of Reger’s Chorale Preludes, just to let people sight read in legato style, more. Not only in articulated style.
A: Well, what do you think about his texture in general? Not in trio pieces, but, lets say, in Chorale Fantasies? How do you like his texture? Do you think it’s easy to control everything?
V: For some people, yes, because I’ve heard that some people have six fingers!
A: You make me laugh!
V: I think Hannibal Lecter had six fingers!
A: But ok, he was not a real person.
V: Could be. But again, if you have just five fingers and very small hands, then probably those thick textures are not for you. Trios are okay.
A: Yes, you could play trios. Definitely.
A: And maybe some of his compositions you need to choose wisely. Probably not a Fantasy based on a B-A-C-H theme. But I have heard that some people Reger, but they omit some of the inner voices. Do you think it’s a wise solution? Would you recommend to do it?
V: Well, yes and no. If you can play everything, then of course, by all means, do. But sometimes, the tempo is very fast, and inner voices are doubling each other, then in some tricky passages, it might be also suitable to omit something. What do you think?
A: Well, you know, the thing that interests me most, is that Reger was a good friend with Karl Straube, who, at his lifetime, was considered the best living organ performer
V: In Germany
A: Yes, in Germany, and only Marcel Dupré in France could compete with him. So, we had Marcel Dupré in Paris, and we had Karl Straube in Germany. And I’ve heard that Karl Straube did a good deal of arranging Reger’s music, and I don’t know if that’s good or not. Because if you will take such a piece as the quite famous Fantasy and Fugue—actually Double Fugue—of opus 135B
V: Ah. So Chorale Preludes are 135A then!
A: I believe, yes, because I think that Fantasy’s 135B. It has Fantasy and then two Fugues, and at the end, Double Fugue. It’s quite a nice piece! It’s a little bit, I think, easier than B-A-C-H, probably, but it’s hard enough, especially the second Fugue, because of its lively tempo and its theme. But what I want to say about it is that there are two editions of it. One is made by Straube, where he cut quite a large portion of the piece itself, and another edition of Reger’s original! So, if you are really interested in Reger’s music, compare those traditions and see what you think about it.
V: Do you prefer the long version?
A: Well, you know, if I would have to learn this piece fast, then I would prefer the short version, because it’s much easier, because the larger version is much more difficult.
V: It’s like B-A-C-H Fantasy, then!
A: Yes. Then it is.
V: This kind of scale.
A: So, because I know about this piece, I’m not sure about other pieces—how much Straube put his hand on those pieces.
V: But, if we are talking about omitting inner voices, would you do that?
A: No, because then the harmony loses its richness, because I think that’s the sort of outstanding feature of Reger—his rich harmony and thick texture.
V: And doubling the voices actually was common in Late Romanticism. Brahms did it….
A: Well, yes, and of course, you need to be careful on which organ you will perform Reger’s music, because I’m sure it will not work for, let’s say, some early mechanical instruments. It would be probably almost impossible to execute it well. Imagine us playing Reger at St. John’s’. I don’t think this would be such a great idea, because most of things you have to play legato, and then you have this thick texture. It makes it almost impossible, although acoustics might help, and Reger, I think, created his music mainly for what? For specific German romantic organs. For Sauer, yes?
V: For Sauer,
A: Then maybe Walcker, too.
V: Could be, but mostly Sauer,
A: Mostly for Sauer’s, so… and it has that tremendous Crescendo pedal, so basically, you could register it only by using this Crescendo pedal, and it makes life much easier, actually.
V: By the way, we will hear Reger’s Fantasy and Fugue in D minor this Saturday, performed on St. John’s’ organ by one of our colleagues here. Good luck!
A: Well, I won’t go longer on that matter.
V: Yeah, it’s a torture. For the instrument, too!
A: That’s right. Especially for an instrument.
V: Excellent! Thank you guys for sending these wonderful questions; we love helping you grow. And when you consider those elements by Reger, always analyze the piece that you are playing, if it’s interesting to you. You will get deeper knowledge this way about the Fugue, about Fantasies, about Chorale Fantasias, about all those Trios and Chorale Preludes, Sonatas that we mentioned before. Look them up and dig deeper. It’s really worth it. Okay, and remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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