(Johann Baptist Joseph) Max(imilian) Reger
(b. Brand, Bavaria, 19 March 1873 – d. Leipzig, 11 May 1916)

Die Weihe der Nacht für Altsolo, Männerchor und Orchester, Op. 119
(The Consecration of the Night for Alto Solo, Male Choir and Orchestra, Op. 119)


Max Reger was one of the most influential, controversial, and idiosyncratic of the composers whose works formed a bridge between the late Romantic and early modern period. While simultaneously maintaining a career as a concert pianist, organist, and conductor, Reger managed an amazingly prolific creative life as a composer: 146 works with opus numbers and over 80 without opus numbers completed in a working life of approximately 25 years. Reger’s titanic labors are all the more remarkable given persistent health problems throughout his life, a long struggle with alcoholism, and emotional difficulties that today would probably be regarded as a form of depression or bi-polar disease.

Although Reger is an unfamiliar presence today in concert halls outside the German-speaking world, in his lifetime he was a composer with considerable influence throughout the world. No less a personage than Arnold Schönberg—whose critical sensibilities were highly exacting and acute—considered Reger to be “a genius.” Schönberg’s admiration of Reger was not shared by everyone, and one would be hard pressed to find another composer whose works received as mixed a reception as Reger’s.

Reger’s compositional style is not easy to understand or summarize. Within the Brahms vs., Wagner controversy of the late 19th century, Reger clearly came down on the side of Brahms. There is in Reger’s music the constant influence of Brahms—sweeping melodies that are constructed out of smaller motifs, a predilection for the hemiola, and the reverence of older compositional forms. But Reger takes the style of Brahms one step further with a freedom of modulation that at times is almost atonal or pan-tonal in nature. Indeed, one of Reger’s most influential works was pedagogical in nature, namely, the Beiträge zur Modulationslehre (Contriubutions to the Study of Modulation) of 1903 in which Reger made the theoretical case whereby one could seemingly modulate from one key to any other key. Therefore, it was only a small theoretical step from Reger’s hypertrophic tonality to Schönberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance.”

But Reger was also heavily influenced by J.S. Bach. One of his best friends and musical collaborators was Karl Straube, cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (the same position held a century and a half earlier by Bach), and Reger being a gifted organist and church composer made Bach’s influence seemingly inevitable.

The end result is that much of Reger’s music employs an extraordinarily complex harmonic structure that is grafted upon a dense contrapuntal background. It is as though Reger has one foot in the contrapuntal past while having the other simultaneously in the atonal future. As such, his music was sometimes deemed as being too radical for conservative tastes and too backward-looking for the younger generation who would soon become enamored of movements such as expressionism, Dadaism, and futurism.

Die Weihe der Nacht was composed by Reger in the first half of 1911 when the composer was living in Leipzig and was employed as a professor at that city’s famous conservatory. This was an especially fruitful period in Reger’s creative activity, which also saw the completion of The Comedy Overture, Op. 120, the String Quartet in F# Minor, Op. 121, the Violin Sonata in E Minor, Op. 122 and several other shorter pieces before the end of the summer vacation. The work was premiered on October 12, 1911 with Gertrude Fischer-Maretzki performing the alto solo accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Leonid Kreutzer (1884-1953) conducting.

The text that Reger set was a poem by Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863), one of the most important German dramatists of the 19th century who was highly regarded for having introduced an extraordinarily intense sense of tragedy into German theater. Reger also set several of Hebbel’s poems in lieder collections as well as in the Requiem, Op. 144b, the so-called “Hebbel” Requiem. Hebbel’s poems were often set to music and an incomplete list of composers who utilized his texts includes Brahms, Liszt, Cornelius, Pfitzner, Schumann, Hindemith, Schoeck, and Wolf. “Die Weihe der Nacht” itself was also set to music by the composers Hilding Rosenberg, Walter Rein, and Harald Genzmer. But for all of his fame in the German-speaking world, Hebbel’s works have received scant attention elsewhere, ironically, a fate that he shares with Reger.

The text of “Die Weihe der Nacht: is as follows:

Nächtliche Stille! In the still of the night,
Heilige Fülle, What holy abundance,
Wie von göttlichem Segen schwer, As if heavy with godly blessing,
Säuselt aus ewiger Ferne daher. Comes murmuring forth from the
eternal regions.

Was da lebte, What lived there,
Was aus engem Kreise What from close confinement
Auf ins Weitste strebte, Strove upwards towards infinity:
Sanft und leise Softly and quietly
Sank es in sich selbst zurück It sank back into itself,
Und quillt auf in unbewußtem Swelling up in unconscious joy.

Und von allen Sternen nieder And from all the stars above
Strömt ein wunderbarer Segen, A wonderful blessing comes streaming down,
Daß die müden Kräfte wieder So that powers weary and dulled
Sich in neuer Frische regen, Are stirred anew, bright and fresh.

Und aus seinen Finsternissen And out from the depths of his darkness
Tritt der Herr, so weit er kann, The Lord emerges, as far as He can,
Und die Fäden, die zerrissen, And the threads He tore asunder
Knüpft er alle wieder an. He carefully sews together again.

Reger’s setting of the text is very straightforward. The work begins softly with an orchestral introduction at an adagio tempo. As is typical with Reger, the melody is highly chromatic and the harmonies soon stray into ambiguity. The composer takes a literal approach to word painting. For instance, in the second stanza, Reger employs ascending sequence patterns and a concomitant crescendo to emphasize the text “strove upwards to infinity,” and likewise reverses this to approximate the words “Softly and quietly/It sank back into itself.”

The emotional climax of the work is attained with the text “The Lord emerges, as far as He can.” Daybreak, which Hebbel imagines as the reappearance of God, is announced by the trumpet. The work then concludes almost sotto voce with a reiteration of the initial two lines of the poem.

The restlessness of Reger’s compositional style seems ideally suited for the poem at hand. Although Hebbel’s text might strike modern sensibilities as a bit overwrought, the impression given by Reger’s music is somewhat similar to the musical evocation of daybreak in Richard Strauss’s “Alpine” Symphony. Die Weihe der Nacht, then, can be seen as a foray by Reger into the realm of “program” music, a development that would culminate two years later with his well-known Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Op. 128.

Like most of Reger’s choral music, Die Weihe der Nacht has been completely overshadowed by the composer’s orchestral and chamber music. There are no indications that this work has ever been performed in the United States or England, and the only commercially available recording—a 1995 Koch/Schwann CD performed by the alto Lioba Braun accompanied by the Bamberg Symphony and Chorus with Horst Stein conducting—has been out of print for many years in North America.

William Grim, 2004

Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden