Max Reger recording organ rolls at the Welte factory in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany in 1913.
Max Reger recording organ rolls at the Welte factory in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany in 1913.
This article is a translation (with some additions) of Christopher Anderson's lecture “Reger in Amerika: Bemerkungen zur frühen Rezeption der Orgelwerke,” given at the Institute of Musicology, University of Leipzig, in May 2016 for the conference “Max Reger — ein nationaler oder ein universaler Komponist?”1
The reception of Max Reger’s organ music in the United States serves as the topic of this essay, from the first documented performances through World War I and its aftermath, ca. 1920. At the center of that topic stands a crucial question, namely the degree to which Reger — here in terms of organ music, but certainly with respect to other genres as well — was and is exportable beyond German boundaries. Has Reger proven himself an international composer? In 1992 Jurriaan Harold Meyer explored the wider issue of Reger’s relationship to the US in his monograph Max Reger. Rezeption in Amerika, a worthwhile overview that concentrates on the orchestral and chamber works while treating the unavoidable question of the organ music as a secondary theme.2 The objective of the present study is to focus precisely on this latter theme as a supplement to Meyer’s work. In doing so I have left to the side those issues that turn on performance and interpretation, for example the degree to which American organs did or could satisfy the demands of Reger’s musical language early on, and the ways contemporary American organists tried to solve the often vexing interpretive problems presented by the scores. These latter factors undeniably contributed to the composer’s emerging image in the United States (as they do now), but I have chosen here to rely on the written record to sketch a portrait of his initial reception among organists.
At the time Karl Straube was introducing German audiences to Reger’s newly composed organ works, no equivalent advocate stepped forward in America, the “land of unbounded opportunity.” This was in spite of the prominent immigrant organists who had settled in America already by the middle of the nineteenth century, and who demonstrably were aware of Reger’s work. Wilhelm Middelschulte, for example, educated in Berlin and active in Chicago as composer and organist since 1891, played very little Reger well into the 1930s, and then only smaller pieces.3
A turning point came in 1905, when several essays on the composer and his music began to appear in the relevant trade journals. It seems that organists first were made aware of Reger’s organ works in the New Music Review and Church Music Review, journal of the American Guild of Organists, founded in 1896. In a brief article entitled “A New Composer for the Organ,” the German-English Novello associate and Elgar protégé August Johannes Jaeger introduced Reger as a talented composer of outrageously difficult music. “That few organists care to, or can, at present play Reger’s more elaborate works is true,” maintained Jaeger summarily. Further, a “glance at the printed page is enough to frighten away all but the most accomplished.” The author had “quoted last month a remark of Sir Walter Parratt, who ranks among the foremost of English organists, that he fancied he could play most things, but he couldn't play Reger’s.”4 That evaluation, adopted from England, exposed a skepticism that would reemerge repeatedly over the next years and, one may remark, continues to color the composer’s reception today: in Reger one encounters an unplayable and excessive music.
It is equally important to recognize that the incipient Reger image in America had to struggle against societal factors that went far beyond the usual practical and musical-aesthetic questions. One example: already in the early nineteenth century, the American Temperance Society had taken the first steps toward the abstinence movement eventually called Prohibition, effecting the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919. Mounting opposition to a drinking culture associated with poverty and moral decline issued particularly from pietist-leaning Protestant denominations. During Reger’s lifetime — the “Progressive Era” of social activism — the alcohol issue played a prominent role in the politics of the United States nationwide. It is not too much to say that Reger, composer for the church’s instrument, could advance only with difficulty in a social landscape constricted by the moral initiatives of the churches. That situation came to the fore in a 1909 editorial that compared Reger to the then-director of the Metropolitan Opera, Gustav Mahler: “Mr. Mahler, it is said, being a temperate man, avoids all stimulants but beer, ‘drinking that only sparingly.’ It is also said that Mr. Max Reger, who wallows in counterpoint, puts down vast quantities of beer, so that in Maine he would be applauded as ‘a good two-handed drinker.’”5 Such assessments suggest how readily the reputation of an intemperate drinker conflated with the perception of an intemperate musical language in a culture where the evils of alcohol were foremost on the minds of many.
Reger’s music achieved some early successes, though, despite whatever difficulties of the environment. By the beginning of the new century the composer had made contact with Americans influential in organ and church music circles. And at latest by the time he came to teach in Leipzig, Reger could count students from the US among his composition and analysis classes, even as Straube took in American pupils to his organ studio. One of the “Reger-curious” organists of the time was William C. Carl, the New York pupil of Alexandre Guilmant and director of the well regarded Guilmant Organ School, who in summer 1907 visited the composer in Leipzig. The press reported of the encounter “that [Reger] will in all probability soon visit America professionally.”6 During his Leipzig years, Reger in fact appears to have considered the possibility in earnest, although for reasons that remain unclear, he had abandoned the idea permanently by 1910.7
What is clear, though, is that Reger’s fortunes in America advanced slowly but surely in the years around 1910, precisely at the time he decided against an Atlantic crossing. 1911 brought a first official recognition by the American Guild of Organists when it included his Introduction and Passacaglia in F Minor, Op. 63, Nos. 5–6 among the required works for the following year’s national Guild examinations.8 Thereby Reger took his place alongside Charles-Marie Widor and the recently deceased Guilmant as one of the very few contemporary composers (and the only German one) whose works had been incorporated in that forum. At the outset of the war in 1914, he was regarded highly enough by leading American organists that two unidentified excerpts from the piano Gavotte in E Major (Aus meinem Tagebuch, Op. 82 No. 5) appeared in the “paper work away from the organ” for the AGO Associate examination, with the instruction to arrange the given bars for organ:
In light of these developments it should not be surprising that the number of documented performances of the organ works rose noticeably in the years before the war’s outbreak. As one might expect, the repertory drew heavily from the Twelve Pieces, Op. 59, but along with these, there emerged isolated instances of the Chorale Fantasies, the Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor, WoO IV/6, and other works. By way of example, a brief summary of Reger performances cited in The Diapason during 1913 suggests that a modest Reger circle was by no means limited to the nation’s east coast. In the German settlements of the Midwest as well as in California and Canada, organists had begun to introduce Reger’s musical dialect to their audiences. After the beginning of hostilities in 1914, what surely was the first American “lecture recital” devoted entirely to Reger’s works was mounted that October by W. Henry Baker of Grace Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.9 Likewise in 1914, pieces from Op. 59 found their way into the New Jersey convention program of the National Association of Organists, a professional organization competing with the AGO.10 Reger’s star was rising, clearly, even over America’s organ landscape.
Yet as noted earlier, this composer’s American reception was informed by circumstances that went quite beyond purely musical or aesthetic questions, as a detour into the socio-political environment may suggest. It could and should be argued that the embedding of Reger’s music, also his organ music, in the US benefited from the myriad cultural initiatives of a positive pre-war German presence in the country. In the discourses of the German elite, reflected not least in the political positions of the Reger advocate Karl Straube, the notion of a culturally deprived nation dominated, an America saturated with the “republican flaunting of money” (“republikanisches Geldprotzentum”), to cite the Kaiser’s singular expression from 1897.11 Significantly, it was precisely during Reger’s lifetime that German musicians enjoyed prominent profiles in American musical life, in churches and the many newly formed orchestras that often undertook national concert tours under their German conductors. Efforts to spread German culture — a culture that claimed a certain universal validity in the minds of the principal actors, and one that was supposed to serve a largely uncultivated public not simply as entertainment, but rather in the first place as formation — were supported by a network of overlapping interests.12 In 1914, for instance, there were 537 German-language newspapers in the US as well as various “Germanic Societies” for the promotion of German culture.13 In view of the possibility of war against the German Empire, ongoing and pragmatic policy initiatives in Berlin strove for an increasingly close German-American alliance. “By no means do we wish to do the Americans any favors with our cultural efforts,” as the German ambassador to Washington framed the situation in January 1914. “Rather we wish to ensure justice for German culture — a right that it can claim unconditionally as the premiere world culture. This too is a piece of global politics.”14 Such a climate gave reason to hope that Reger’s music would put down roots and grow.
But things unfolded differently. The Great War brought catastrophic consequences, and not only for the reception of new German music, as the conflict inevitably influenced the national mood. Antagonism arose toward the appropriation of cultural spheres on grounds of the supposed superiority of the Germans, particularly as concerned musical life, which was considered the breeding ground for a cultural imperialism in the making. By 1915, public opinion in Woodrow Wilson’s America began to turn in favor of the Allied powers — from the chancels of churches, where most organists held forth, to the circles of the artistic and intellectual elite, whose voices were decisive in musical matters. Tellingly, in a time when the Kaiserreich pushed its most aggressive rhetoric in service to its territorial claims, the American press took no notice at all of Reger’s unexpected death. Indeed, the musical press seemed to express more or less the same skeptical attitude of dismissal that had accompanied Reger’s American reception for years. Once the Wilson administration declared war in April 1917, the country’s prominent church musicians did not hesitate to air an intense patriotism in their trade journals. Now, Reger and his fellow composing countrymen would be directly politicized in a battle for the national identity.
As the war effort approached its close in 1918, the first volume of the new The American Organist appeared on the landscape. From the beginning the magazine exploded with overwhelming invective hardly imaginable today, giving sensationalist expression to organists who wished to be heard in a political forum. The fact that many organists had been among those conscripted did not go unremarked. “It is a glorious thought for the organ world,” went one such self-congratulatory formulation, “as exemplified in that great body of high ideals and high aims, the American Guild of Organists, that so many of its members have renounced much more than the average man must renounce in this great conflict, and have gone to answer the challenge of the barbarian monsters of Berlin.” The author pressed forward with a number of anglicized German terms:
"We cannot let all the effort be made on French soil. To what sort of a world will our men return when the last Cathedral is straffed, the last orchard kultured, the last vessel verboten, the last man deported, the last soul tortured? Will it be a reorganized world, or a world of chaos and ruin? … The organ world is, not through its own choosing, in the very midst of a fiery furnace; it is for us to choose our path, not let it be made by a whiff of the wind at a turn of the weather-cock from the church spire."15
After Wilson’s offer of ceasefire came the further exhortation:
"Beasts of Potsdam piped War and the world had to dance to it; now they pipe Peace, and shall we dance to that also? If so, germany has won. … Organists can’t close South American markets to german cotton, but they can close North American markets to german music. … Who in civilization could again listen to the stain of german music — a music composed by murderers, plunderers, debauches self-accursed by a billion crimes indelibly written across wreaking pages of history? The german spirit has spoken through its actions, irretrievably; mankind is deaf to its music."16
All told, it seemed that patriotically disposed organists wished to slam the door in the face of “the german spirit.”
Or at least some organists, with regard to some repertories but not others. In light of the formidable significance of the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach and the then-popular transcriptions from Richard Wagner’s operas, other voices sought to avoid categorical rejection of German music. Public discourse aired casuistic distinctions between, on the one hand, the “family man” Bach, the unassailably universal spirit of Beethoven or Wagner or even Julius Reubke, and on the other, the artistic and moral bankruptcy of modern German music. “How about [Josef] Rheinberger and [Gustav Adolf] Merkel with their kiln-dried, half-baked stuff?” one essayist queried at the end of 1918.
"And [Sigfrid] Karg-Elert, the thoroughly “modern’ german? We all know the list: let us hate it with an hatred as eternal as the stars and as burning as the equatorial sun, and so abhor it that never shall a german name again appear on our programs nor in the pages of The American Organist — not in vindictiveness but purely because American eyes, ears, and hearts cannot receive anything that emanates from bipedal beasts who could have been and should have been men. Examining it with deliberation we find our loss to be a great gain. What is the trend of ninety percent of Karl-Elert, Reger, [Arnold] Schornberg et al (spelling not worth verification)? Counterpoint, counterpoint, counterpoint; music be hanged; more counterpoint. How much pure musical beauty has germany produced since Wagner?"17
Accordingly, all printed documentation of performances of Reger’s organ works disappeared, even if the music may have reached audiences’ ears in isolated cases. Either way, between 1918 and 1922 the professional press seems to have reported not a single instance of an organist playing a Reger work. Only in 1923 did Wesley Sears venture the Benedictus, Op. 59, No. 9 during the convention of the National Association of Organists in Rochester, New York. Even this was qualified with the program note, “Reger was undoubtedly the greatest master of counterpoint since the time of Bach, but occasionally he forgot himself and gave to the world little numbers of sheer melody and lyric beauty …” — a classic backhanded compliment.18 And of course the impression of needless difficulties and excesses continued to color remarks, however clever. Gordon Balch Nevin wrote in 1924 of “Max Reger, suffering from a veritable dysentery of the intellect, producing page upon page of sixty-fourth notes, with flashes of warmth from the heart occasionally included.”19 And by 1927 John Groth was reporting that on a visit to Leipzig he had been introduced “to Karl Straube who is the greatest Reger player in Germany, and to whom Reger dedicated many of the great organ works — I guess because Straube was the only person who could hit all the keys.”20
If Sigfrid Karg-Elert, who before the war had achieved a level of celebrity among the English, survived the storm of public opinion relatively quickly, Reger’s image as “urdeutsch” or “primally German” was not granted a similar turn of fate. Ironically, the negative mood around Reger in America seems to have peaked in 1931 with an essay entitled “The Tragedy of Max Reger,” authored by the English organist Sydney Grew. Falling into a fit of overstatement, Grew dismissed Reger as “the supreme failure in the entire history of music,” his composing as “merely a feverish activity, much as running feverishly about the country in a motor car is the same for people afflicted with that disease.”21 Reger’s aesthetic was an expression of the nerve-deadening “overexertion of the human through modernity,” as Wolfgang Martynkewicz has recently encapsulated it.22 It would take the missionary energy of Günther Ramin’s North American tours in 1933 and 1934 to contribute to a fundamental rehabilitation of Reger’s organ music in what had been enemy territory. For the Americans, shocked by war and mistrustful of German cultural ambitions, the composer was simply too German. That situation largely endures.
The last word in this rather dark chapter of Reger’s reception history belongs to the organ-playing American composer Charles Ives, never short on insight and never hesitant to air it. In 1920 he summed up the prevailing opinion on Reger and his music, and hence the issues addressed here, for American readers: “A newspaper music column prints an incident … of an American violinist who called on Max Reger, to tell him how much he (the American) appreciated his music,” related Ives. “Reger gives him a hopeless look and cries: ‘What! a musician and not speak German!’ At that moment, by the clock, regardless of how great a genius he may have been before that sentence was uttered — at that moment he became but a man of ‘talent.’”23 This was the “tragedy” of Reger, the over-indulgent composer supposedly possessed of too nationalist a mindset to claim universality or exportability.
1. The article also appears under the same title in Musikgeschichte in Mittel- und Osteuropa. Mitteilungen der internationalen Arbeitsgemeinschaft an der Universität Leipzig (Leipzig: Gudrun Schröder Verlag, 2017), 164–76. Return to text.
2. “The extant concentration particularly of the older material on the orchestral repertory allows little insight into the reception of the chamber and organ music, whereas the twentieth-century sources, concentrated much more on chamber works, presents the opposite situation.” Jurriaan Harold Meyer, Max Reger. Rezeption in Amerika (Bonn: Dümmlers Verlag, 1992), 9. Meyer acknowledges further the “isolated and no longer verifiable performances of Reger’s organ works” from around the turn of the century, which were “far too unremarkable and modest, of a local or private nature, to have awakened broader interest in the press.” Ibid., 24. Return to text.
3. See further Hans-Dieter Meyer, “Wie aus einer anderen Welt.” Wilhelm Middelschulte: Leben und Werk (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007). Return to text.
4. “A New Composer for the Organ,” The New Music Review and Church Music Review 4/40 (Mar. 1905): 156. Return to text.
5. “Editorials,” The New Music Review and Church Music Review 9/97 (Dec. 1909): 6–7. Maine stood at the time as one of the focal points in the ongoing temperance debates. Return to text.
6. “Various Notes,” The New Music Review and Church Music Review 6/71 (Oct. 1907): 716. Return to text.
7. See further Meyer, Max Reger, 15–16. In 1928 Reger’s widow Elsa remembered that the reason for her husband’s not having pursued the journey lay with the fact that he needed to advocate his works on German ground. Elsa Reger, Mein Leben mit und für Max Reger. Erinnerungen (Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang, 1930), 81–82. Return to text.
8. Alongside Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564, Reger’s work was required for the Fellowship exams. “Tests of the Guild for the Next Year,” The Diapason 6/1 (1 December 1911). By comparison, already in 1908 the Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor, WoO IV/6 had appeared among the required pieces for the equivalent examinations of the Royal College of Organists in the UK. See Calendar of the Royal College of Organists 1907–08, 142. Return to text.
9. On October 13, 1914 with works from opp. 59 (Toccata, no. 5, Kyrie eleison, no. 7, Melodia, no. 11) and 65 (Consolation, no. 4 [cited there erroneously as no. 7], Fugue, no. 12). Further, “following the lecture there was a discussion on ‘Some Problems of Registration,’ for which several more of Reger’s compositions were used as examples.” The New Music Review and Church Music Review 14/157 (Dec. 1914): 26. Return to text.
10. Carl Rupprecht played the Benedictus, Op. 59, No. 9 and a Toccata (presumably Op. 59, No. 5) at the First Methodist-Episcopal Church of Asbury Park. By contrast, it would take until 1930 for an organ work by Reger to appear on an AGO national convention program (Philadelphia). Return to text.
11. Letter dated September 28, 1897 from Wilhelm II to the German foreign minister Bernhard von Bülow, cited in Reiner Pommerin, Der Kaiser und Amerika. Die USA in der Politik der Reichsleitung 1890–1917 (Cologne: Böhlau, 1986), 73. Return to text.
12. Jessica C.E. Gienow-Hecht offers an insightful analysis in her “Trumpeting Down the Walls of Jericho: The Politics of Art, Music, and Emotion in German-American Relations, 1870–1920,” Journal of Social History 36/3 (Spring 2003): 585–613. Return to text.
13. See further Hans W. Gatzke, Germany and the United States. “A Special Relationship”? (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980), 59. Return to text.
14. Letter dated January 8, 1914 from Johann Heinrich Graf von Bernstorff to Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, cited in Ragnhild Fiebig-von Hase and Jürgen Heideking, eds., Zwei Wege in die Moderne. Aspekte der deutsch-amerikanischen Beziehungen 1900–1918 (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1998), 45. Return to text.
15. “Winning That War,” The American Organist 1 (1918): 243, 263. Return to text.
16. “Armistice or Honor?” The American Organist 1 (1918): 590–91. The refusal to capitalize “Germany” and “German” was of course an unmistakable gesture of contempt. Return to text.
17. “Another Little War,” The American Organist 1 (1918), 591. Return to text.
18. S. Wesley Sears, program sheet for an organ recital in Kilbourn Hall, Eastman School of Music, for the Sixteenth Annual Convention of the National Association of Organists (28–31 August 1923). Return to text.
19. “Propaganda in Organ Music,” The American Organist 7 (1924): 192–93. Return to text.
20. “Points and Viewpoint. Germany,” The American Organist 10 (1927): 270. Return to text.
21. Sidney Grew, “The Tragedy of Max Reger,” The New Music Review and Church Music Review 30/350 (Jan. 1931): 45–48. Already in 1903 and on native soil, Arthur Smolian had condemned Reger’s “feverish” lust for modulation by a comparison to supposed advances in transportation technology. See his review of Reger’s "Beiträge zur Modulationslehre" in Neue Musikalische Presse 12/21 (1903): 377–78. Return to text.
22. Wolfgang Martynkewicz, Das Zeitalter der Erschöpfung. Die Überforderung des Menschen durch die Moderne (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2013). Return to text.
23. Charles Ives, “Essays Before a Sonata (1920),” in Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (New York: Dover, 1962), 172. Return to text.
Christopher Anderson is an organist and scholar with particular interests in early musical modernism, modern German history and philosophy, the organ’s position in Western culture, and the composer Max Reger. He has written extensively on Reger and his music in two monographs (Max Reger and Karl Straube: Perspectives on an Organ Performing Tradition, Ashgate 2003; and Selected Writings of Max Reger, Routledge 2006) and many essays in international journals. He has translated into English the second volume of Jon Laukvik’s Historical Performance Practice in Organ Playing (Carus, 2010) and edited the first complete survey of organ music in the twentieth century (Twentieth-Century Organ Music, Routledge 2011). His current work includes a critical biography of the twentieth-century virtuoso organist and Leipzig Thomaskantor Karl Straube. Dr. Anderson is Associate Professor of Sacred Music at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, where he teaches courses in history and analysis in the Perkins School of Theology and the Meadows School of the Arts. He holds the PhD in Performance Practices from Duke University.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.