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Reger’s Modernist Masterpiece: Cello Sonata No. 3, Op. 78

This is the third installment of a series on the cello works of German composer Max Reger (1873-1916), whose 150th birthday we will celebrate next year. The first article introduced Reger and explored his cello sonata Op. 5, and the second discussed Reger’s first psychological breakdown and his more approachable sonata Op. 28. Here, we will survey Reger’s third effort in the genre Op. 78, and also discuss Reger’s position as a modernist composer.

A Fresh Start

When we last left Max Reger, it was 1898, and he was putting his life back together after his first psychological collapse in Wiesbaden, Germany. Over the next few years, things took a turn for the better, both professionally and personally.

He moved with his family to Munich in 1901 and began making connections with performers and publishers. His close friend, Karl Straube, premiered a handful of elaborate and wild organ works that drew attention across Europe. Reger also formed a new friendship with violinist Joseph Hösl, for whom he wrote a set of solo violin pieces.

Over the next few years, Reger gained ground as an accompanist and chamber musician, and his concert schedule consistently grew. His “Reger Evening” performances exceeded 200 dates per year and took him all around Europe, often featuring his most recent chamber works and art songs.


During this period, Reger married the amateur pianist Elsa von Bercken, who studied with him briefly in Wiesbaden. The composer first attempted to court her in 1899, but Elsa refused because it was too close to his nervous breakdown. However, she accepted his proposal three years later, and the two wed in 1902.

Elsa had been married once before, and being both divorced and Protestant (Reger was Catholic), she was not welcomed by his family. However, Reger decided to accept ex-communication in order to be with her. They soon adopted two girls, and Elsa wrote an autobiography that has not yet been translated into English.

Max and Elsa Reger c.1904

Max and Elsa Reger (c.1904). Image: Public domain.

Building on the Old to Create the New – Reger: the Historicist-Modernist Composer

Reger’s reputation grew steadily in 1902 and 1903, mostly due to a musical language that was fascinating to most and infuriating to some. He was subject to extensive musical criticism, being called everything from a “swollen, myopic beetle” to a musical “fascist.” Reger was emerging as a modernist, and a unique one at that.

Modernism, as far as Western Classical music is concerned, belongs to that class of “isms,” like “expressionism,” “impressionism,” or “cubism,” that often lacks a straightforward definition. Usually, the term modernism serves to denote a musical period lasting from about 1890 to 1920. It essentially bridges the gap between the Romantic and Twentieth-Century periods. Musicologist and philosopher Carl Dahlhaus considered it to span the years 1889-1914, one of the more accepted ranges. These dates serendipitously encompassed Reger’s career almost perfectly, and he is considered to be one of the leading German Modernists, along with Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg.

To do justice to the topic of modernism would take many lengthy articles. To sort it out enough for this article, modernism is essentially marked by a desire for innovation, whether in terms of instrumentation, rhythm, harmony, or technique. The desire to do something new and adventurous is its guiding spirit, separating it from Classicism, which focused on form and tradition, and Romanticism, which sought pure expression.

Some examples of modernist cello sonatas include works by Frank Bridge, Claude Debussy, and Nikolay Roslavets. Reger’s music is definitively innovative, and scholar Antonius Bittman considers him to be an “historicist modernist.” In other words, rather than merely dispensing with the past, Reger actually sought to understand the old ways and reinvent them. This is most easily seen in his works for organ and his later orchestral song cycles. Reger’s admiration of Bach and Mozart is well documented, and he usually did not make a secret of their influence on his music. In short, Reger’s music uses the old to make something new, which sets him apart.

The year of the Op. 78 cello sonata, Reger’s modernism reached a zenith. Two works, in particular, established him as one of the most avant-garde of German composers: the violin sonata (Op. 72); and the very long d minor string quartet (Op. 74). Reger actually spelled out insults to his musical enemies in the main themes of Op. 72, and boggled the minds of the audience with his treatment of large-scale form in Op. 74. Yet, Reger wrote to Karl Straube that the new cello sonata was the “best thing I have done in the realm of chamber music,” and it may be the best example of modernism in Reger’s music.

Reger’s Modernist Masterpiece

Like the second sonata, Reger uses a standard four-movement model. Its performance time usually runs between 25 and 30 minutes, as heard in the few recordings available. The first movement truly exemplifies Reger’s modernism. The opening minute of music changes course almost every few seconds, with wild leaping figures in the cello and relentless sixteenth-triplet motion in the piano. When the dust settles, the piano plays a strikingly beautiful chordal idea in almost an entirely different musical world. The movement is very loosely based on a sonata-allegro form.

At times, Reger seems most at home writing scherzo movements and theme and variation movements, which he used for the second and third movements in this piece, respectively. The cello plays many pizzicato notes in the second movement, and Reger uses many sudden harmonic shifts to bring a sense of modernist humor to the piece. Even more interesting shifts of harmony are used in the third movement as each variation unfolds. The final movement is a playful rondo.

This third sonata makes more considerable technical demands of the cellist than the second, which has a much simpler cello part. After the first two cello sonatas did poorly, Reger was pleased to have received what he called a “very warm” response to the third. It was performed on multiple occasions over the next few years in Reger Evenings and has been recorded several times by German cellists in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.

As noted above, Reger himself believed it was the “best thing [he has] done in the realm of chamber music.” At times, the piece is wild and complex and proves challenging to put together in rehearsal. Nevertheless, it is perhaps the most perfect example of German cello music from this modernist period.

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