I have often toiled, drunk, and smoked more than is normal and I will be exhausted earlier than normal,” wrote Max Reger, the prolific German composer, conductor, and pianist. In fact Reger, who suffered from depression and heart trouble, died at the age of 43, in 1916. He had completed 147 opus numbers containing more than 800 pieces, including well over 100 for organ. Part of Reger’s canon will be heard at organ department chair Paul Jacobs’s September 10 concert in Paul Hall, along with works by J. S. Bach. Joining the Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 73, on Jacobs’s program are the Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Reger’s first mature masterpiece for the organ, and Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 539, known as the “Fiddle” because the fugue derives from the composer’s G Minor Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin.
Reger’s music has a physical weight and impact that few composers can match. In a recent interview with The Journal, Jacobs described his scores as “a feast for the eyes. There’s often more black ink than white space on the page.” There also frequently seem to be more notes, let alone expression markings, than one performer could possibly manage.
The technical demands of the score are further increased by the idiosyncrasies of the pipe organ itself. While a pianist or violinist can play louder or softer by varying their touch, to get the effects Reger calls for, the organist must manipulate the instrument in a complex ballet. Pushing buttons, or “pistons,” either with the hands or feet, engages and disengages different pipes, changing the sound color. Opening and closing a shutter mechanism, or “swell box,” with the feet varies the intensity of the sound without changing its quality. And organists often spend several days before a concert adapting to a particular organ and learning how best to obtain the right musical effect.
Reger, Jacobs said, “was a man of extremes, an arch-Romantic. It’s impossible for the performer to fully realize every dynamic and tempo marking; even certain thick chords must be judiciously pruned. But the effect must be ravishingly beautiful and wildly passionate.”
None of Reger’s works is more wild, or more passionate, than the Op. 73 Variations. His friend, the virtuoso Karl Straube, had requested a piece without sacred melodies or religious implications, and which could therefore be performed anywhere. Reger delivered him a score of about 35 minutes, his largest organ work to that point. The composer himself said that the variations have a “quite melancholy tone,” but the concluding fugue is brilliant and completes a vast trajectory from sorrow to triumph.