Gesang der Verklärten (Song of the Transfigured) for choir & orchestra Op. 71 (Vocal Score)
Gesang der Verklärten (Song of the Transfigured) for choir & orchestra Op. 71 (Vocal Score)
For more information on the piece:
Despite a long-held view to the contrary, Max Reger was not careless or tasteless in the poems he chose to set to music. However, his manner of setting them differed noticeably from that of many other composers. He was not intent on setting great works of literature, which, he felt, rarely needed musical garb. Instead, he turned mainly to writers from his own era – the Jugendstil poets, whose lyric poetry may seem outmoded, overwrought or kitschy to many people today. Though otherwise a “man of progress” in many respects, when it came to his choice of texts Reger was a firm adherent of the so-called Lebensreform (“life reform”) social movement and “back-to-nature” lyric poetry. Hardly any great ballads are to be found among his more than three-hundred lieder, nor are there any poems by Rilke or George. Nonetheless, he was able to take just as much pleasure in Ibsen’s symbolism as in the decadent “sensualism” of Gabriele d’Annunzio. What interested him was lyric poetry that “unveils infinitively many glimpses into practically ‘uncharted’ mental states and conflicts” (letter of 1 October 1900 to Ella Kerndl), which he then sought to translate into music. It thus comes as no surprise that his harmonically and melodically rich musical palette makes ample use of Jugendstil devices. Gesang der Verklärten, which Reger encountered in an anthology of new poetry by Carl Busse (1896, 21901), was the first of a total of four Busse texts that he set to music, the other three being the lieder Schlafliedchen (op. 75, no. 14), Wenn die Linde blüht (op. 76, no. 4), and Der Sausewind (op. 104, no. 5).
Reger sent Busse’s poem to Theodor Kroyer as early as 3 May 1902: “Enclosed you will find the text for the choral work (in five voices with full orchestra). It’s very beautiful and excellent in mood, don’t you think? Something new for a change? How do you like it? – NB: That it’s occasionally a bit ‘unrhythmic’ does no harm, it gives me an opportunity to ‘work out’ the subtlest asymmetricalities.” And on 22 March 1903 he informed Kroyer: “By the time you receive this letter I’ll already be at work on the enclosed text, Gesang der Verklärten, which has been haunting my brain for a long, long time! But I have a murderous dread of failing to give it the musical clothing I have in mind as an ideal.” Soon he began to elaborate the full score and vocal score, and on 2 May he told his publishers Lauterbach & Kuhn that he “firmly believed” he would send them “a first-class work!” But other compositions were under way at the same time, including the Five Easy Preludes and Fugues for organ (op. 56) and the famous “Schafe-Affe” Violin Sonata in C major (op. 72), and Reger was also busy sorting out Hugo Wolf’s posthumous musical estate for Lauterbach & Kuhn. As a result, Gesang der Verklärten had to wait. It was not until 10 July 1903 that he could say to Kroyer that “my Gesang der Verklärten is finally finished in full score (50 pages) and vocal score with text.” He then sent the now extraneous draft to the work’s dedicatee, his wife Elsa. By 20 August 1903 he had polished the score by entering the dynamics and expression marks while vacationing in Schneewinkl near Berchtesgaden. Finally he dispatched the full score and vocal score to the printers on 18 September 1903, two days before handing in the violin sonata, adding: “You know that I give you only those works which I am perfectly capable of defending against all criticism, even the most vitriolic. Further, I ask you to believe me when I say that that no living composer, as I know full well, is ‘scrutinized’ as closely as I am, and that I am doubly cautious as a result and send you only such things of which I know that people will gnash their teeth at them in vain.” He asked for a fee of 1400 marks for the full score and vocal score together. The publisher’s decision was further complicated by the fact that, a few days later, he also submitted the Variations and Fugue in F-sharp minor for organ (op. 73). Then, on 29 September 1903, Reger angrily asked Lauterbach & Kuhn to “return the manuscripts of my opp. 71, 72 and 73 at your earliest possible convenience in case you and your experts should fail to agree to them, for I am in no position to fight the wisdom of your experts – I’m too poor a musician for that!” At this point Lauterbach & Kuhn, fearing low sales figures for the demanding choral work, returned both manuscripts, probably on 9 October 1903. Even Reger’s friend Karl Straube, who had viewed the work in a positive light in May 1903, officially advised against its publication. As early as
12 October Reger offered the work to C. F. W. Siegel, pointing out “that the world of music in general eagerly awaits from me a large-scale work such as my op. 71.” But Siegel were equally hesitant to accept the piece into their catalogue: it was not until 29 November 1903 that Reger was able to thank them for deciding in its favor, but owing to the publisher’s risks he had to make do with a fee of 500 marks – less than he had received for the Twelve Lieder (op. 66) in 1902 and no more (or less) than Lauterbach & Kuhn would ultimately give him for the other two large compositions of this period, the op.
72 Violin Sonata and the op. 73 Organ Variations.
Questions of performance rights delayed publication until they had been resolved with a supplementary agreement on 21 August
1904. On 10 October 1904 Reger asked the publisher to have the full score, the orchestral material, the choral parts, and the vocal score thoroughly proofread by a competent subeditor “before you send them to me for final revision!” Whether this happened is unclear, but the proofs arrived at his door a mere four days later. As he “had to spend half the winter in a railway carriage,” the corrected vocal score and choral parts were not returned until 15 May 1905, followed by the corrected score in mid-June. On 17 July 1905 Reger finally had the first edition of op. 71 in his hands. At roughly the same time, to further its appreciation and dissemination, C. F. W. Siegel issued a “musico-aesthetic analysis” of the piece by the musicographer Eugen Segnitz (1862–1927). Asked by Segnitz to elucidate the work, Reger responded on 15 September 1905:
I’m very, very sorry to say that this time I am not at your service! I wrote the work; that’s all I know! I’m unable to
say more; nor do I know what might interest the readers! – People should listen to the work, but I’ve no ‘hidden’ or
‘suppressed’ program, for I am ‘merely’ an absolute musician! So you see my predicament! I can’t write anything and do not know what to write! – Ask me for a fugue on twenty subjects – gladly – but people like me can not philosophize about their ‘own growth’! “Please don’t be angry with me; ‘the flesh is willing,’ but the spirit fails!
With best wishes, your most respectful and humble
Please, don’t be angry.”
The “musico-aesthetic analysis” of the piece appeared both as a separate publication from C. F. W. Siegel in 1905 and in the January and February issues of the publisher’s house organ, Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1906). Reger never worked with C. F. W. Siegel again, probably not least because of the above disagreements.
The brilliant premiere of this complex, roughly eighteen-minute work took place in the Aachen Kurhaus on 18 January 1906,
when it was excellently performed by the city’s choral society and orchestra under the baton of Eberhard Schwickerath.
Reger himself had advised against performing it at the annual convention of Germany’s General Musical Society in Essen because it would require too many rehearsals (“I would need at least twelve choral and orchestral rehearsals for this work alone! That’s simply not possible, so I’m opposed! And NB: Each of these rehearsals would have to be two hours long!”). The premiere was reviewed in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik by A. von der Schleinitz: “It is not enough to call Reger’s Opus 71, the ink still wet on its pages, the strangest and weirdest thing that has ever resounded in notes. With its dauntless accumulation of huge masses of sound, its unbridled and randomly modulating counterpoint, its strange harmonies leaping over every commonly accepted connecting link and progression, its audacious agglomeration of ugly sounds rarely interrupted by melodic flow, and its difficulties for every participant, far exceeding anything known to date, it may well reach the outermost limit of musical expression altogether, just as it sometimes seems to be an absurd game played with musical forms by a master whose command of his craft borders on genius. Faced with a musical revolution of such radicalism, even the local audience, trained by the city’s music director Professor Schwickerath to welcome Reger’s art, could not find a foothold. This première can only have been a grand enigma even to Reger’s staunchest adherents. Whatever the case, our auditory nerves could no longer endure the total exploitation of all the forces latent in a gigantic music apparatus such as Reger has demanded for this work. To find genuine pleasure in it truly requires natures capable of withstanding a state of utmost tension from the first note to the last without exhaustion. […] One can only pay tribute to this work with amazed admiration; here, too, the distinctive charm of Reger’s idiosyncratic and gritty power holds sway; the listener’s musical intelligence is stimulated enormously; but this work has nothing to say to the feelings, to the heart, unlike the poem, whose intimacy brings forth the most amicable of moods.”
Joseph Liese, writing in Die Musik, added: “The manner in which Professor Schwickerath took on this monstrous task is beyond all praise. The performance was an enormous success. The orchestra, though enlarged to music festival proportions, was unable to drown out the mighty chorus, which revealed purity of intonation and fullness of sound under his purposeful direction.” The Aachener Anzeiger seconded this opinion: “In any event, the applause at the end was intended more for the indeed excellent performance than for the work itself.… The preparation of the concert must have been very grueling, but this was appreciated and recognized by the audience. How grateful we must be to everyone concerned for the excellent performance of such difficult new works and the resultant opportunity to keep abreast of the evolution of today’s music. The applause bestowed was prodigious, and Professor Schwickerath in particular has every right to be proud of it – and of a performance that succeeded in every respect.”
But this performance was followed by few others. One was given in Leipzig in 1909, another in Kassel in 1923 (at the annual festival of Germany’s General Music Society). Reger’s former pupil Joseph Haas later sent an explanation to the owner of C. F. W. Siegel: “In its original version, Reger’s work, in its embroidered instrumental cloak, contained so many difficulties that conductors baulked at performing a work that is wholly Regerian in feel and shape.” This prompted Karl Hermann Pillney in 1932 to thin Reger’s complex orchestral writing, which can easily seem impenetrable if not properly rehearsed. (His arrangement merely calls for double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, three timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, harp, and strings. Even the parts he retained were sharply pruned.) But not even in this version was the work granted lasting success. On the contrary: the premiere recording of Gesang der Verklärten on LP in November
1979 has yet to be followed by a recording on CD. There is no justification for this. True, Reger’s former pupil Karl Hasse equated the difficulty of its choral writing to “what Beethoven demanded from the solo vocalists of his Ninth Symphony in the passage ‘wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt’ – a passage feared by every vocalist.” But as music history has progressed, these complexities have become less forbidding. Occasionally Reger ventures close to the musical universe of Arnold Schoenberg: we need only think of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night on words by Richard Dehmel, six of whose poems Reger also set to music. Indeed, there is a close historical and musical proximity between Gesang der Verklärten and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. The Gurre-Lieder, partly completed in 1900-01 but not finished until 1911, is strikingly close to Reger’s work, especially in Section III. Here the two composers stand eye to eye, above all in the expressive and richly hued choral and orchestral writing and what Hermann Danuser calls their “exorbitant modernity of execution.” The time is more than ripe to place them together on the same concert program.
Translation: Bradford Robinson
Performance materials may be obtained from the Max Reger Institute in Karlsruhe. Reprint of a copy from the Max Reger Institute.