The Organ

Antonius Bittmann: Max Reger and Historicist Modernisms

Antonius Bittmann: Max Reger and Historicist Modernisms.
Verlag Valentin Koerner, Baden-Baden 2004.
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This title appears in the series Sammlung Musikwissenschaftliche Abhandlungen and is a revision of a PhD dissertation in which the writer attempts, using Reger as a model, to redefine the way in which concepts of modernism in music are expressed. Bittmann’s view is that musicological discussion of the subject has hitherto been largely confined to technical questions of harmonic language and tonality when it should be capable of being broadened out to encompass reactions to events and stimuli such as the death of Brahms. As he puts it, “For Reger and his like-minded peers, Brahms’s graveside became, metaphorically speaking, an abyss that conjured up doomsday visions of creative paralysis and of the decline of music as they knew it.” The response came in examining the whole dependency on the heritage of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and looking to how repertoires outside including Wagner and the New German School might point the way forward. Reger’s early exposure to Wagner, in Parsifal, is said to have determined his future career as a musician.

Bittmann includes a long and involved discussion of social and psychological influences on Reger’s development including the phenomenon of ‘Fin de siècle Nervousness’ and neurasthenia akin to modern stress-related illnesses and depression. Reger’s early adulthood was characterized by considerable excess including a dependency on narcotics and alcoholism. Reger always feared that he would suffer from the same nervous disorders as plagued his parents, which he did, and to counteract this, indulged in excessive habits as a way of trying to numb the symptoms. Bittmann devotes a whole section of the dissertation to the subject and attempts to generalize about the psychological climate using Reger as an example. Where this is meant to take the reader is uncertain: did it really affect the course of musical composition? True, it was an age when psychiatry was in the ascendant and when there was a general preoccupation with the emerging science of the mind, so that nerves, nervousness, neurasthenia etc. became ‘buzz words’ of the time. Richard Strauss didn’t suffer and neither did Schoenberg, yet all were composers of equal standing and influence – Schoenberg perhaps most of all. As biographical detail it completes the picture. Whether or not this book does more is debatable, except in so far as it may account for Reger’s and, for that matter, Karg-Elert’s’ prodigious and, at times, uneven output (he and Reger were alike in temperament and close contemporaries): work as flight from inner turmoil. The book is copiously illustrated with examples from Reger’s output and would be of interest to the serious student of early 20th century music, and the more general reader since it contains a wealth of biographical detail too. Recommended.