A Counterweight to the Dark Reality of 1915

Brahms clarinet quintet
A winter day. © Charles Thibo

A grey and wet Saturday afternoon, and I am happy. I should be. The household chores are done, I practiced a lovely Ländler written by Franz Schubert (D.734), and now I have the house for myself for a few hours until the girls return from ice-skating. Time to write, time to read. And since we explored Max Bruch’s clarinet quintet two days ago, I picked for today’s post another clarinet piece, written by a contemporary of Bruch, equally inspired by Johannes Brahms: Max Reger’s Clarinet Quintet in A major (Op. 146), performed by Sharon Kam, Isabelle von Keulen, Ulrike-Anima Mathé, Volker Jacobsen and Gustav Rivinius.

Reger lived from 1873 until 1916. He saw himself his musical roots in the Baroque era – he wrote a huge number of organ pieces – while stylistically he may be counted as belonging to the late Romantic era, closer to Brahms and Franz Liszt than to Richard Wagner however. “Brahm’s fog will stay on, I prefer it to Wagner’s glaring heat”, Reger once explained. The biographer Susanne Popp writes in her recently published book “Max Reger: Werk Statt Leben” that Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor (Op. 115) as well as Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major were the landmarks that guided Reger in his composition.

The composer began to write the quintet after the very productive summer of 1915 and finished it in December. Nevertheless he would make corrections up to the last days before his death in May 1916. His style had changed in the last years of his life, his scores became more translucent, structured in a clearer way. He lived in Jena and called it himself “the free Jena style”. He led a busy life at the time. Once a week he would stay in Leipzig to teach his music students, during the remaining days he gave concerts or composed. The quintet was the last work he finished.

Maximal expressivity was Reger’s ambition, the quintet’s mood is slightly melancholic, detached. Popp writes that Reger composed a piece of intimate music as a counterweight to the dark reality: World War I had begun a year ago, chemical weapons had been used at the Western front while the stalemate – territory captured and lost again – came at a mounting price in human lives. And when I look at today’s headlines – shutdown in Washington, the Brexit drama, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen – I feel that it is still good to have  Max Reger’s music around.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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