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A Perfect Starting Point: Reger’s Cello Sonata No. 2, Op. 28

This series explores the cello works of German composer Max Reger (1873-1916), which comprise four large-scale sonatas written across his career, and a set of solo suites written in 1914. The first installment introduced Reger as a composer and his cello sonata in F minor Op. 5, written in 1892. Here, we visit the second sonata (Op. 28), which contrasts with its older sibling in several notable ways.

A Rough Transition

Reger’s life was not easy after graduating from conservatory in 1893. The fast-paced and cosmopolitan lifestyle of Wiesbaden, Germany, challenged him in terms of making friends and musical connections. After suffering a devastating professional defeat earlier that year from a failed concert of his works, he began to make musical enemies by writing sharp-tongued reviews in a German music journal.

Reger had little tolerance for Wiesbaden, and it appears that Wiesbaden had little tolerance for Reger. To make matters worse, he was reluctantly conscripted into the German army for a year, and his penchant for alcohol and tobacco began to control his life.

His emotional and psychological state continued in a downward trajectory from 1894 until 1898, the year of his first mental breakdown. During this time he wrote very little music.

As it turns out, Reger was not the only artist in Europe at that time to suffer psychologically. Much has been written concerning a certain “nervous condition” appearing at the turn of the century. Known in those days as Neurasthenia, the condition was a kind of chronic nervousness that impeded a person’s ability to live a healthy and normal lifestyle. Reger slowly spiraled downward in his neurasthenia, and his family attempted twice to bring him home to regain his nerves.

Reger in 1897

Reger in 1897. Photo source.

A Sonata on the Shelf

Once situated in Weiden, Reger’s compositional output exploded. In 1898 alone he wrote more music than the previous four years combined. The second cello sonata belongs to that year’s work. It is unclear exactly why he chose to return to this medium after the failure of the first sonata, and Op. 28 turned out to be not terribly successful either.

The first mention of the piece, in a letter from September 28, 1898, simply says it is “in progress.” The next mention, on October 11th, states it is already finished. No details are given, other than its key of G minor. The work was published by the firm of Joseph Aibl, along with several other pieces. Reger had Richard Strauss to thank for the connection.

Misunderstood Harmonies

However, the work remained unperformed for two years. Reger had dedicated it to the well-known German cellist and teacher Hugo Becker. According to Reger, Becker was willing to take on the project but eventually refused to play it, claiming the cello part “never fit harmonically with the piano.”

Reger retorted in a letter that the cello harmonically fit the piano at every moment. His musical language simply contained so many abrupt changes of harmony that making sense of it was difficult. However, Reger admitted that the piece would probably not be understood by most, and perhaps even be considered “offensive.”

Hugo Becker

Hugo Becker

Reger was not at the keyboard for the premiere of this piece. His close friends, Karl Straube and cellist Friedrich Grützmacher, first performed it in April of 1901. Straube was a famous organist who championed Reger’s music and premiered a number of his most demanding and modernist works for organ. Reger’s letters do not reveal whether the sonata was well received. Once again, it seems he was unlucky in his attempt to write for cello and piano.

Concentrated Cello Music

The second sonata is a more succinct piece than its older brother, lasting about twenty-two minutes. The first movement is filled with a familiar German romantic impulse, the main tune built upon a rising chromatic line. Its form is loosely that of sonata-allegro, but with deviations, including bringing back the opening melody in the middle of the second theme area. The movement lasts about eight minutes.

The cello part is significantly conservative relative to the virtuosity of the first sonata. It is a simpler, more melodic approach that cellists (including the author) will certainly appreciate. The cellist does not play a single pizzicato note in the entire piece, and there are only a few simple double stops. Gone are the left-hand gymnastics and relentless fortissimi that defined the F minor sonata.

The second movement is a playful scherzo and trio, the outer sections featuring dynamic surprises and trills. Reger moves to D minor for this movement, with the middle trio section in B-flat major. The trio is harmonically rather straightforward, and might remind some of earlier German masters such as Brahms and Schubert. Perhaps this kind of music stemmed from being home in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of Wiesbaden. For the third movement, Reger moves to the key of E major, one of his favorites for slow music.

“Succeeding” Brahms

By the time the listener has heard the first three movements, Brahms’ influence will probably be quite clear. Reger greatly admired his predecessor, and several scholars have considered him the “epigone” (or heir) to Brahms. Though not admitted explicitly, Brahms’ influence very likely remained in Reger’s mind with this sonata, as Brahms had died only a year earlier.

Reger, rocked by the news, dedicated a short piano piece to his memory, quoting the master’s Fourth Symphony at the very end. The last movement of Op. 28 will remind many of Brahms, with its luscious melodies and sophisticated contrapuntal writing.

In this movement there are two notable passages where the subdivision of the beat momentarily disappears and the music turns to relatively austere chord progressions. This is an early instance of Reger using harmony to determine the melody, rather than the conventional method of crafting a melody and then figuring out what harmonies fit it best.

A More Approachable Reger

The second sonata has gained popularity in the last several decades, perhaps due to its length and relative accessibility. Of the four, it is certainly the most straightforward, both compositionally and musically.

For the cellist wanting to dive into Reger’s works for cello and piano, this may serve as a perfect starting point. Reger scaled back the level of difficulty and put melodic content at the forefront, making the second sonata a lovely example of late nineteenth-century writing that will thrill any duo.