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The Intersection of Homage and Originality: Max Reger’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello

In this series we have been exploring the cello music of German composer Max Reger (1873-1916). The four previous articles walked through the four sonatas that spanned his career. Most cellists, however, know Reger through his set of solo suites written in 1914–15, with new recordings appearing each year. Not only are the suites more musically approachable than the majority of Reger’s music (though still not very easy to play!), they have also gained attention due to their similarity to the solo suites by Reger’s favorite composer, J.S. Bach. Today, we will look at each of the suites and consider whether or not Reger was attempting to channel the influence of Bach.

Max Reger, 1910.

Max Reger, 1910.

The Notion of “Cello Allein” (“cello alone”)

When Reger composed his suites, the notion of writing music for the cello alone was still somewhat unpopular. The Bach Suites were not yet well known, though Pablo Casals was working to promote them. A handful of unaccompanied cello works were written during the time between the careers of Bach and Reger, but few are well known. Two examples from about the same time as Reger are Zoltan Kodaly’s Sonata (1915), and Donald Tovey’s lesser-known Sonata (1913), both of which are rather long and technically demanding. Thankfully for cellists, it would not be long before unaccompanied literature began to emerge as a genre in its own right.

First page of the Tovey Sonata, First Edition (IMSLP)

The cover page of the Tovey Sonata, First Edition (IMSLP).

A Crazy Idea

Reger wrote the Three Solo Suites, opus 131c, during the first World War when he lived in Meiningen, Germany. At the time, he was also attempting to compose a great Requiem to commemorate the slain and wounded. He wrote to close friend Karl Straube in September of 1914 that he was composing suites for solo cello for the purpose of growing in “musical chastity.” He also said that doing so was a “crazy idea (verückte Idee).

Much of Reger’s music had been criticized for being complex and thick. Occasionally, Reger took the time to write in a simpler and more approachable language. Given the war’s effect on the pace of business affairs, the suites were not published until July of the next year, and little is known about the first performances. The original manuscript is also presumed lost. Reger indicated to one of the dedicatees, Julius Klengel, that the suites should be used for education “as often as possible.” Perhaps the idea was to create etudes for advanced cellists, a notion sometimes applied to the Bach Suites as well. 

Three Dedicatees for Three Suites

Reger dedicated each suite to a different cellist: the G Major Suite No. 1 was dedicated to Julius Klengel (1859-1933); the D Minor Suite No. 2 recognized Hugo Becker (1863-1941); the third suite honored Paul Grümmer (1879-1965), a student of Klengel who held notable teaching and orchestral positions in Germany. Both Klengel and Becker had already received prior dedications from Reger, and Klengel was known to perform the Bach Suites, along with his own Caprice in the Form of a Chaconne. Reger’s three suites were grouped with three suites for solo viola Op. 131d, three canons and fugues for violin duo (“In the old style”) 131b, and six preludes and fugues for violin solo 131a. Clearly the notion of writing for unaccompanied string instruments was useful for Reger at this time.

Juliu Klengel in 1903

Julius Klengel in 1903

 

Hugo Becker

Hugo Becker

 

Paul Grümmer

Paul Grümmer

Influenced by Bach?

When a cellist listens to the opening of Reger’s Suite in G Major, the initial resemblance to the Bach G Major Suite seems inescapable. It is well known that Reger admired Bach above all other composers, and Reger based compositions on Bach’s works at least a half-dozen times (usually for organ). These two facts have led many cellists to believe that Reger intentionally composed his cello suites in an effort to imitate those of Bach. The notion is possible, perhaps even romantic, and the majority of program notes draw this conclusion. But, just how likely is this connection? 

We will tackle this by first looking at the larger structure and specific content of Reger’s Suites, and then contrast them to those of J.S. Bach. To be clear, my intention is not to draw any conclusion, but rather to lay out the evidence, so that listeners and cellists may be able to come to their own opinions. 

A Brief Analysis

The key scheme of Reger’s suites seems somewhat modeled after Bach: G major, d minor, and a minor (the relative minor to C major)—almost an exact parallel of the first three Bach Suites. The first Suite has three movements: a Prelude, an Adagio, and a Fugue. It is the shortest of the three suites and the most frequently performed. The second Suite is in four movements: Prelude, Gavotte, Largo, and Gigue. The final Suite has a Prelude, a Scherzo, and a Theme with Variations. The second and third suites both run typically between 15 and 20 minutes. Note that Reger’s suites contain forms common to the Baroque suite (prelude, gavotte, gigue), but also contain other forms that were not Baroque dances (scherzo, theme and variations). 

These details certainly suggest the Bach suites as models. But the places in which Reger deviates raise questions. None of the three suites has a full complement of six movements like the Bach suites do. If Reger was intimately familiar with Bach’s suites, why wouldn’t he use the same number of movements? Why the deviation in key scheme to have the third suite in a minor?

Reger also alters the tonal scheme within the suites, having some movements in keys other than the outer movements. For example, the second movement of the first suite is in C, not G, something Bach did not do. Why are the solo violin pieces of opus 131b said to be in the “old style” but not the cello works? How much deviation in the larger picture is necessary before we consider there to be no intended resemblance?

A More Detailed Look and Listen

Suite no. 1 in G Major

As mentioned above, the first movement of the G Major Suite bears resemblance to the opening of Bach’s G Major Prelude. It opens with runs of sixteenth notes that form a sequence, just like that of the Bach Prelude. Reger’s version is in a more definite A–B–A form and is notably more adventurous in terms of technical demands and modulation. The tempo indication Reger gave has been seen by some to be too fast for practical reasons, so some editors suggest a tempo of a quarter note equal to 88 bpm. It has also been noted that a descending figure appearing at the beginning and end bears an almost exact resemblance to the opening of the Bach C Major Prelude.

Bach - G Major Prelude

Bach – G Major Prelude

Reger - G Major Prelude

Reger—G Major Prelude

The second movement also opens similar to a movement from Bach. The opening quadruple stop C major chord strongly echoes that of the C Major Sarabande. Some may say Reger is also writing a Sarabande, but little of the music really suggests a dance with stress on the second beat. The form is also A–B–A with the B section highly contrasting the A. The movement is a test in double stops for the cellist—206 of them! Reger continued to use them heavily in the rest of the suites. 

Bach - C Major Sarabande

Bach – C Major Sarabande

Reger - G Major Suite, Second Movement

Reger – G Major Suite, Second Movement

Reger ends the suite with a fugue, a form in which he was well versed. Once again many cellists will say this is clear evidence of homage to Bach. The fifth suite in c minor also has a fugue in the prelude, so the case is certainly strong. In terms of character and realization of the fugue, however, Reger’s is quite different. Large numbers of double-, triple-, and quadruple stops allow it to feel more contrapuntal, even though there is no countersubject. There is also no slow introduction, unlike Bach’s.

Reger - Fugue Subject

Reger – Fugue Subject

 Recently, an early recording by Emanuel Feuermann has been digitized and shared on YouTube with the score. 

Suite No. 2 in d minor

The Prelude in this suite does not seem to bear any definite resemblance to the Bach D Minor Prelude. Reger’s is significantly more expansive in its range, and conforms more to A–B–A form. If anything, certain moments bear more resemblance to the Adagio of Reger’s G Major Suite, or even the G Minor Prelude for Violin by Bach. It should be noted that Reger’s suites have specific and often dramatic dynamics, which obviously is a stark contrast to the Bach suites, which leave much of that to the performer’s interpretation. Reger’s music usually employs grand “waves” of dynamics.

The second movement is a Gavotte, which Bach used in his fifth and sixth suites. However, the Gavottes in those suites came after a slow movement (the Sarabande), not before it as Reger’s does. The middle section of this movement also uses pizzicato, which is a technique never used by Bach. One musicologist has noted that Reger does not strictly adhere to the gavotte rhythm very strictly. This movement makes for a fun encore for an unaccompanied recital, since it is rather boisterous in character.

Reger moves to the key of B-flat major for the third movement, and this is one place where the “musical chastity” he was working toward is most on display. There is no real section that contrasts too greatly with the opening material, and there are passages where Reger could have easily employed double stops, but does not. The result is a real sense of the cello being truly unaccompanied. 

The suite ends with a rambunctious Gigue, posing many technical demands for the performer. Reger wrote much higher notes on the cello than Bach ever did,* exemplified in one of the trickier moments halfway through the movement. There is even a hint of a fugue at the opening, with the tune being repeated in a minor at bar 12. Reger ends both the D Minor Suite and the G Major Suite with a real “bang,” but the Third Suite is a different beast altogether.

Zara Nelsova recorded the entire suite in 1956.

Suite No. 3 in a minor

By the time we get to the A Minor Suite, the sense of Reger’s voice in unaccompanied cello music has been firmly established, and any sense of Bach as a model is starting to disappear. The first movement of this suite is a slow Prelude, bearing a resemblance to other movements within the suites. Again, he uses an A–B–A form, and his typical double stops, chromaticism, and extremes of dynamics. 

The second movement departs from the idea of Bach as a model in several ways. First, it is a Scherzo and Trio, which was not a form used in the Baroque period. Reger also moves from a minor to d minor, straying from the typical scheme of all movements in the same key. The trio is also in B-flat major, a slightly more distant shift of key than in the Bach suites. Reger was skilled in writing scherzo movements in a fast three, especially in his chamber music. 

The suites come to a close with an Andante con variazioni, another form Reger used frequently.  The theme itself is quite simple, keeping to a straightforward rhythmic profile and not becoming too chromatic in any direction. The variations follow the idea of increasing virtuosity, which would make sense if Reger had some sort of educational purpose in mind. This movement may remind some cellists of the Twelve Caprices by Alfredo Piatti. Reger brings the theme back in its original form briefly near the end, and the unaccompanied journey comes to a quiet close. Here is a recent live performance of the suite.

The Burning Question

burning question

We are left with the question we started with: did Reger truly mean to model his suites after those of Bach? 

The arguments favoring the affirmative have some strong points:

  • Bach was Reger’s favorite composer
  • Reger intentionally took the works of Bach as models in his other works
  • The larger structure of the suites has some similarities to Bach
  • Julius Klengel knew and performed the Bach Suites
  • The G Major Suite especially has a strong resemblance to Bach

However, some things may argue against the notion:

  • Reger specifically named his two motives for writing them to be growing in “musical chastity” and using them for teaching young cellists
  • Reger does not name Bach in any personal correspondence concerning the suites
  • The suites progressively bear less and less resemblance to those by Bach
  • The suites are significantly more demanding and chromatic overall*
  • Reger uses forms Bach did not, and never a full complement of six movements
  • Edmund Kurtz, who worked with the Max Reger Institute in 1987 for his own edition of the Suites, makes no mention of Bach in his foreword

And these are not the full arguments for either side! Much research is still to be done in terms of performance history and context. Hopefully this information helps cellists and enthusiasts consider both sides and come to their own conclusions. The Reger Suites are wonderful and challenging works that will hopefully one day be seen in the same light as the Bach Suites.  



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*Note by Dr. Brenda Neece: The two composers worked with the instruments they knew. Fingerboards were typically shorter during the time of Bach than when Reger was composing. In addition, Reger did not make us of a 5-string instrument.

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