Museum open online 24/7. 365 (or 366) days/year

Beethoven, Business, and Beer: Reger’s Cello Sonata No. 4, Op. 116

In this fourth installment of a series on the cello works of German composer Max Reger (1873-1916), we see him not only in his compositional maturity but also in his professional and industrial prime. We have already walked through his long first sonata from his student years, his more succinct second sonata written in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, and a highly modernist third sonata that tested the ears of concertgoers in his day. The fourth and final sonata is perhaps his best known and serves as a kind of portrait of Reger in this mature form.

Life in Leipzig

Though it did not please all of the German musical community, Reger was appointed to the post of Director at the Conservatory in Leipzig in 1907. In the following years his large-scale compositions continued to draw negative reactions, most notably a large and difficult piano concerto, and an even larger and more difficult violin concerto (at 55 minutes long, it may still be the longest in existence).

This criticism pushed Reger once again to overconsumption of alcohol, a habit he kept most of his life. Reger had also recently committed his mother to an asylum, which for him was difficult emotionally. Yet for all the drinking and emotional stress, he never lost his ability to perform with a “God-stricken intimacy, a subtlety and precision…never again heard on a piano,” as noted by friend Max Brod.

Lecture hall of the Conservatory for Music in Leipzig, Grassistrasse 8, photo taken around 1900

Lecture Hall of the Conservatory for Music in Leipzig, c. 1900.

The large collections of Reger’s annotated letters compiled by Susanne Popp, former Director of the Max Reger Institute, show that, in addition to his academic post, Reger was working non-stop to compose, publish, and arrange concert tours. Over the years, his unrelenting and strong personality had formed him into a considerable force of business, and we see this very clearly in the story of his final sonata for cello and piano written in the fall of 1910.

The “Well-Behaved Child”

It appears that the initial idea for a new cello sonata was not just Reger’s but also his publisher’s, Bote & Bock. Ironically, Bote & Bock convinced Reger to write it for a different publisher altogether, C.F. Peters.

As was normal for Reger, he showed great enthusiasm about the work, and even decided to split “parental duties” with Henri Hinrichsen, owner of Peters, calling the work Hinrichsen’s “well-behaved child.” Reger completed the work without much trouble by the middle of September 1910 and immediately called for a quick turnaround of the first proofs.

The front cover of the first edition of the Op. 116

The front cover of the first edition of the Max Reger Cello Sonata No. 4, Op. 116.

Reger’s strong personality played into his business persona, sometimes to the irritation of those with whom he worked. Reger wrote to Hinrichsen before completing the sonata to request that he pay Reger less than was previously agreed upon, citing cello music as being less marketable than violin music.

Hinrichsen seemed to interpret this as an attempt by Reger to muscle his way into the affairs of C.F. Peters, and a long letter from September 20th shows Reger trying to explain himself and making apologies for his suggestion. A scholarship for young composers was started using the money Reger asked to have withheld.

A Victorious Sonata at Last(?)

The sonata went through several working versions before it was officially printed. It seems that in one copy, Reger made an error by forgetting to add a bracketed “2” (signifying a rhythmic grouping of 2 against 3), but since the original manuscript is lost, we are unsure of exactly where the error may have occurred, and whether it was in the piano or the cello part. Reger was usually more likely to shift the blame for such a mistake to the copyist.

Reger came to favor C.F. Peters as a publisher in these years, in part because he preferred the overall look of their publications, citing them as “excellent” and “tasteful.” The other reason had to do with unreasonable fee structures being imposed by Bote & Bock, with whom he eventually severed ties.

Reger requested that a number of complimentary copies be sent to cellists in the area, including Prof. James Kwast, who premiered the work in January 1911.

Max Reger, 1910.

Max Reger, 1910. Photo: Max-Reger-Institut / Elsa Reger Foundation (MRI): Max Reger Curriculuum Vitae.

Unlike the other three sonatas, the fourth seemed to be received quite favorably, and was performed several more times that year.  The work has been recorded the most of any of the four sonatas, and has drawn the most musicological discussion due to a possible resemblance to another famous sonata.

An Allusion to Beethoven?

The fourth sonata follows the typical large-scale form for four-movement works in the late Romantic era. Though no evidence has been found in Reger’s writings, some scholars believe this to be Reger tipping his hat to one of his idols, Ludwig van Beethoven (who also got one of his publishing starts with C.F. Peters).

The first movement opens with the cello on its own, introducing a searching melodic figure starting with half notes. Many cellists hear a connection to the opening of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3, considered by some to be the first “true” cello sonata.

Beethoven’s Op. 69 gave the two instruments equal footing, rather than the piano holding most of the responsibilities and the cello functioning more as accompaniment (as is evident in Beethoven’s first two sonatas). Reger’s typical emotional language is clearly heard, with a piano texture slightly relaxed relative to the other sonatas. It loosely follows a sonata-allegro form.

Beethoven's opening and Reger's next to each other

Beethoven’s and Reger’s openings next to one another.

The second movement is brief and playful. A possible reference to Beethoven’s work is also easily heard here, the key being a minor with the use of a fast triple meter. There are many suddenly dynamic contrasts, and the cellist is faced with a number of very quick changes from arco to pizzicato, if one is to abide by Reger’s tempo indication.

The third movement is in one of Reger’s favorite keys for slow music, E Major. Beethoven’s sonata also has a brief slow movement in E Major that functions in part as an introduction to the last movement. Reger seems to enjoy using the third movement for music that functions more as an intermezzo than a slow movement in the true Romantic sense.

In both this sonata and the Op. 28, the movements do not have many clear “melodies” and are usually only four or five minutes long. The third movement here is also highly chromatic, as was typical for Reger in much of his music.

Reger ends the sonata with a rondo movement that oscillates between capricious and stormy, not a terribly uncommon occurrence in his music. The technical demands for the cellist rival that of the second sonata, with little use of double stops or any common extended techniques.

In what would become Reger’s last “stage” of his compositional career (though he only lived to be 43), he moved away from chamber music towards more orchestral music with voices.

It is possible to speculate that, had Reger lived a longer life, he would have composed more cello sonatas. The fourth offers an interesting performance project for cellists who might wish to pair it with the Beethoven A Major sonata.

Reger is one of few, if not the only, major composer to have written substantial works for cello and piano with a clear progression from the height of Romanticism to emerging Modernism. Playing through the trajectory of the four sonatas is a rewarding journey for any cellist.

Further Links

Don’t Miss Out

Don’t miss out on any articles, giveaways, exhibitions, and news from the Cello Museum – sign up for our weekly newsletter.