Serenade Op. 141a (arr. Johnson)

During just two decades, he wrote over 1,000 compositions, gave 150 piano and organ concerts a year, and became a full professor at the Royal Conservatory in Leipzig. In his day he was very popular with the public and much in demand as a performer and a composer. Arnold Schoenberg regarded him as a genius, and many identified him as the next in line behind Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler in the great Germanic tradition. Some called him “the second Bach of Leipzig.” But what happened? Have you ever heard any of Max Reger’s works? Unfortunately, most of us have not. Six years after his death, Professor Ernest Brennecke wrote: “All that Reger’s name can now evoke is a raised eyebrow on a shrugged shoulder.” What an unpredictable fate for a man Paul Hindemith called “The last giant of music.”

Reger came of age at the dawn of the 20th century, just as the Romantic Age was giving way to Modernism. Not surprisingly, he had his musical feet in both camps, one in the past, one in the future. Reger saw himself as the rightful heir to the tradition of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but he borrowed extensively from the rich chromatic harmonies and style of Richard Wagner and his acolytes, sometimes dipping into the musical vocabulary of Schoenberg and Berg. The result of Reger’s amalgam of such different styles was to make much of his music quite controversial. The traditionalists did not like his adventurous avant-garde leanings, and the modernists balked at his roots in the past. This situation made Reger the subject of harsh criticism by critics who favored one camp over the other. One called him a “musical cyclops”, “an ogre of composition” who writes “intellectually overthought music of the clever man, largely about nothing.” Another opined that his pieces “look like music, sound like music, and might even taste like music; yet it remains stubbornly, not music.” Did Reger take this abuse lying down? Hardly. To one of them he wrote, “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.” He remarked to a friend that “Bach should be glad he’s dead already or critics would excoriate his harmonic development.”

But do not despair! This masterly serenade sits comfortably on our 21st century ears. Reger wrote it in his later years when he had turned to a simpler compositional style. It succeeds in deftly combining the best of both worlds. One second it sounds quite traditional, but the next he modulates between keys using chromatic notes that add passion, unexpected color, and variation to the fluid journey. Two moods predominate in the first and third movements, one jaunty, good natured, and playful, the other slightly blue and reflective.  Reger provides a tangy contrast to both Haydn and Rachmaninoff between whom he finds himself sandwiched.