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The Modern Bach

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow, on March 19, 1873, the “modern Bach” was born in the village of Brand, in southern Germany: Max Reger.

A complete musician, sensitive to the culture of his time, Reger is an illustrious representative of late romantic German music. He was a pupil first of his father Josef, and of the organist Adalbert Lindner († 1946), then of the musicologist Hugo Riemann († 1919). He taught counterpoint at the Munich Academy of Music; in Leipzig he was director of Music Studies at the University and professor of composition at the Conservatory (1907-1916); between 1911 and 1915 he took over the position of conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra.

His compositional corpus is very vast and encompasses chamber music (trios, quartets and quintets for piano and strings and for strings alone; sonatas and several pieces for piano and violin, for clarinet and piano, for cello and piano; numerous works for violin solo; trios for flute, violin and viola), vocal music (about 250 art songs), various music for piano, for organ, choral pages and numerous orchestral pieces including the impressive and refined Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Hiller (1907) — his most performed orchestral work — a Violin Concerto (1908), a Piano Concerto (1910), 4 Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin (1913) and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart (1914).

A deeply religious man, he composed moving choral pieces and was, like his revered Johann Sebastian Bach († 1750), one of the most prolific German composers of organ music, leaving 211 organ pieces in twenty-seven opus numbers.

At the age of only 43, he died of a heart attack in Leipzig in the night between 10 and 11 May 1916. The proofs of his 8 Spiritual Songs, Op. 138, for 4-8 part choir (1914) were on a bedside table, open at the first motet: “Man lives and flourishes for only a brief time, and all the world dies with its splendor.”

We want to offer a musical commemoration of this “conservative modernist” by speaking of his latest choral work: the Requiem, Op. 144b, for alto (or baritone), mixed choir and orchestra. It is the second of the 2 Songs for voice, mixed choir and orchestra, composed by Reger in Jena in the summer of 1915 and placed by him “among the most beautiful things I have ever written,” as stated in his letter of September 8, 1915, to the publisher Simrock.[1]

Based on the poem of the same name by the German writer Friedrich Hebbel († 1863), this score was called “Hebbel Requiem” also to distinguish it from the Latin Requiem, for soloists, choir and orchestra, begun in 1914 but left unfinished. This non-liturgical Requiem, like the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms († 1897), was dedicated by Reger “To the memory of the German Heroes fallen in the Great War” and performed posthumously for the first time in Heidelberg on July 16, 1916. Here is the text and the translation:

Seele, vergiss sie nicht, / Seele, vergiss nicht die Toten! // Sieh, sie umschweben dich, / Schauernd, verlassen, / Und in den heiligen Gluten, / Die den Armen die Liebe schürt, / Atmen sie auf und erwärmen / Und genießen zum letztenmal / Ihr verglimmendes Leben. // Seele, vergiss sie nicht, / Seele, vergiss nicht die Toten! // Sieh, sie umschweben dich, / Schauernd, verlassen, / Und wenn du dich erkaltend / Ihnen verschließest, erstarren sie / Bis hinein in das Tiefste. / Dann ergreift sie der Sturm der Nacht, / Dem sie, zusammengekrampft in sich, / Trotzten im Schöße der Liebe, / Und er jagt sie mit Ungestüm / Durch die unendliche Wüste hin, / Wo nicht Leben mehr ist, nur Kampf / Losgelassener Kräfte / Um erneuertes Sein! // Seele, vergiss sie nicht, / Seele, vergiss nicht die Toten!

Soul, forget them not, / Soul, forget not the dead! // See, they hover around you, / Shuddering, abandoned. / And in the holy glow / which love stokes for the poor, / they breathe in relief and warm again / And enjoy for a last time / their dimming life. // Soul, forget them not, / Soul, forget not the dead! // See, they hover around you, / Shuddering, abandoned. / And if you coldly / lock yourself up to them, they stiffen / up into the deepest. / Then the storm of the night grips them, / which they, cramped together, / defied in the bosom of love. / It chases them impetuously / through an endless wasteland, / Where there is no more life, only fight / of unleashed forces / for renewed existence! // Soul, forget them not, / Soul, forget not the dead!

In this composition, extended harmonies that go as far as the boundaries of tonality, chords and timbres used as splashes of color prevail over the contrapuntal writing to which the German maestro, as a masterful tightrope walker, dedicated himself throughout his life with great skill. The result is about 14 minutes of dark, dramatic music, with some lyrical passages. The compositional form, which follows the structure of the text, is one in which a main idea periodically returns, known in music as rondo: in fact we have two large episodes punctuated by a varied refrain, sung by the solo voice (A, B, A1, C, A2).

A wide orchestral introduction (Molto sostenuto) — which refers to the introductions of the Passions of Bach cadenced by dark beats, where the key of D minor is perceived like that of Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart († 1791) is the basis for the refrain performed by the soloist, who will always sing these words: Seele vergiss sie nicht, vergiss nicht die Toten (Soul, forget them not, forget not the dead!).

The choir enters, singing the first episode, mournful, static: Sieh, sie umschweben dich / Schauernd, verlassen (See, they hover around you, shuddering, abandoned). After the varied refrain, the choir sings the second episode, violent, more dynamic (Più mosso – Allegro): Dann ergreift sie der Sturm der Nacht (Then the storm of the night grips them). In the final refrain (again Molto sostenuto) the singing of the solo voice combines with the choir who sing very softly the melody, not the lyrics, of the famous hymn O Haupt voli Blut und Wunden (O sacred head now wounded) by Hans Leo Hassler († 1612), used several times by Bach in the St. Matthew Passion. With this poignant, calm but restless moment, this beautiful and bold score concludes.


[1] In C. Schlüren, Preface to the score 2 Gesänge, Op. 114, Musikproduktion Höflich, Munich 2003.

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