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“This is my best opus”: Max Reger’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in f minor

This article is the first in a new series by Dr. Peter Swanson about the cello sonatas of German composer Max Reger (19 March 1873 – 11 May 1916) starting today on his birthday. Welcome, Dr. Swanson, and Happy Birthday, Max Reger!

Max Reger – A Top Composer of His Time

Max Reger Playing the Piano

Even among classically trained musicians, German composer Max Reger is not a household name outside his homeland. Yet, in his day, he was usually mentioned in the same breath as Richard Strauss (11 June 1864 – 8 September 1949), considered by many to be the most important German late-Romantic/early 20th-century composer.

Reger was extremely prolific, with over a thousand individual works to his name. He held posts at prestigious conservatories and conducted the leading ensembles of Germany. Why do we not hear his music more in the USA?

The answer to that question is complex. Many factors are at play, resulting in nearly a century of academics and musicians advocating one way or the other. The first consideration is that Reger’s music was often tonally and harmonically avant-garde and highly contrapuntal. There was no shortage of vitriol employed against his musical language by his contemporaries.

Another factor is Reger’s personality. Impatient and industrious, he was not always easy to work with. For most of his adult life, he battled dependency on tobacco and alcohol. He worked incessantly, composing at a blistering pace into the night, teaching dozens of pupils, and traveling across Europe for hundreds of performances each year as a conductor and a pianist.

Now, there are only a handful of Reger advocates in the USA. There is also no authoritative biography of Reger in English.

A Focus on Chamber Music

Reger differed from his counterpart Strauss in that he focused on chamber music and art song rather than large-scale orchestral works and opera. He wrote neither a symphony nor an opera. His chamber catalog includes four sonatas for cello and piano and three solo suites for cello.

The suites from 1915 receive some attention from cellists today, mainly owing to their occasional resemblance to the Bach Suites. Unfortunately, the sonatas remain largely unperformed in the USA.

In this series of articles, I will be discussing each of the four sonatas in terms of history, context, and composition. 

Reger’s Cello Sonata No. 1 – A Youthful Work

Reger as a conservatory graduate, 1893

Reger as a conservatory graduate, 1893.

Reger wrote his first cello sonata, the sonata in F minor, Op. 5, in 1892 while he was finishing his studies at the Wiesbaden Conservatory. At the time, the young man was strongly influenced by his predecessor, Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883). The sonata is over thirty minutes long – about the same length as the piano trio (Op. 2) he wrote the previous year.

Oskar Brückner

Cellist Oskar Brückner

Reger premiered the sonata with cellist Oskar Brückner (2 January 1857 — 8 June 1930) on 17 October 1893. According to Reger, it made quite an impression on his teacher, Hugo Riemann (18 July 1849 – 10 July 1919).

Some months later, Reger put together an entire evening’s worth of his most mature works with several important musical names in attendance. The Op. 5 sonata was on the program along with his piano trio Op. 2. Reger had high hopes for the event, but it was considered by many (including Reger) to be a failure, in part due to the sheer scope of the program.

It proved a substantial blow to Reger’s confidence. In a letter following the “failed experiment,” Reger stated that he was “finished with all joys and pleasures in life [and had become] dark and bitter.” Based on letters collected by the Max Reger Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany, the sonata was likely only performed one other time during Reger’s life.

Reger Cello Sonata No. 1 in f minor, Op. 5

Cast in three movements, the work bears a fairly straightforward tonal scheme: f minor – D-flat Major – f minor. The first thing one notices about the piece is its almost overwhelming piano part. Reger’s tendency toward heavy piano writing challenges performers to balance the piano and cello parts successfully.

In addition, Reger was primarily an organist, and one can hear the influence of the organ in his piano writing. The cello part is also highly demanding with its many large shifts, chromatic passages, and big chords. 

I. Allegro maestoso ma appassionato

The sonata-form first movement exemplifies the extremes of emotion associated with the romantic “Sturm und Drang” movement in German music and literature. Reger turned that emotional dial up about as much as his 19-year-old self could get away with. In his letters, he remarked that he gave his “greatest efforts” to this piece.

The heroics of the first theme are followed by an elegant, almost pastoral, second subject, reflecting his life experience. Reger grew up in a small country village and never adjusted to life in the big city of Wiesbaden. (I will write more about this in a future article in this series.)

II. Adagio con gran affetto

The second movement is rhapsodic and continues to show the influence of Wagner, as well as that of Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897). A transitional passage halfway through the movement resembles a passage from Brahms’ own second sonata for cello.

The subject of Brahms and Reger has drawn the attention of several scholars, who generally conclude Reger was Brahms’ “epigone” – in a negative way. Reger was also frequently criticized as an “imitator.” The movement closes with long, lush lines from the cello while the piano reinforces D-flat Major. 


III. Finale. Allegro un poco scherzando

As if the first two exhausting movements weren’t enough, Reger saves the most technically demanding movement for last. Cast in a loose five-part rondo, the cellist is faced with tricky double stops and arpeggiated passages.

Emblematic of Reger’s last movements, the music frequently seems to change on the turn of a dime. It is known that Reger occasionally wrote entire sections of music without a plan as to where they would go in the larger scheme of a work. Once he figured out its proper place, he simply “dropped” the section into place without writing any transition. Reger did have a sense of humor, though, and perhaps it was his way of inserting a little joke into his music here and there.

The Rewards of Playing this Youthful Work

For cellists interested in tackling a substantial and rewarding project, Reger’s Sonata No. 1 is quite the contender. Its scale and challenges will put any pair of musicians to the test but will surely yield moments of musical euphoria only the young Reger could have created.

The work has been recorded a handful of times, often as part of an effort to put all four sonatas on the same release. Thus far, no recording has emerged as an “authoritative” interpretation.

This sonata stands out as a triumph of Reger’s passion unmatched by other works in his entire oeuvre.

Maximum Reger

Don’t want to wait for the next installment in this series to learn more about Max Reger and his music? This box set of six DVDs includes 12 hours of performances of Reger’s music and three feature-length documentaries:

You can watch a preview here:

Your Turn

What is your favorite Reger cello work? Please let us know in the comments.

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