Joseph Rheinberger, organist of his local church by the age of seven, wrote just before his death (and somewhat autobiographically): 'People die so quickly nowadays; some are even dead long before they notice it'. He is largely remembered today as the composer of twenty seminal organ sonatas, but Rheinberger also produced symphonies, operas, mass settings, and much chamber music, all highly proficient, if sometimes conservative.
The Suite for organ, violin and cello is a genuinely original work: a real piece of chamber music for a rarely exploited combination of instruments, and one with tremendous sweep and vigour. The Six Pieces for violin and organ are equally interesting, the instruments uncharacteristically being treated as equals for much of the work.
Harvey Grace, in his book on the organ works of Rheinberger, compares the twenty Rheinberger organ sonatas and the thirty-two piano sonatas of Beethoven as being two equally substantial and unique bodies of work for a single instrument. He goes further and asks whether in fact there are twenty of the Beethoven sonatas which are superior to Rheinberger’s. Of course, this is special pleading, and as such not particularly helpful, but perhaps the time is right for a reappraisal of this prolific, if conservative, composer. As the organ, with its ecclesiastical resonances, has become less and less fashionable, so a whole group of composers, including Reger, Vierne and Widor, as well as Rheinberger, has been sidelined as being of interest only to organists. And yet, during his lifetime, Rheinberger was far from being just an organist-composer. As well as being one of the most sought-after teachers of composition and a much respected conductor, he was widely performed both on the continent and in England. Brahms’s study of the passacaglia last movement of Rheinberger’s Organ Sonata No 8 undoubtedly influenced his use of the form for the finale of his fourth symphony.
As important as the organ sonatas certainly are, there is also a substantial body of chamber works in which his considerable gift for melody and his command of form combine in music of great passion, far away from the imagined dustiness of the organ loft. The fiery first and last movements of the String Quintet in A minor, Op 82, as well as the works recorded here, demonstrate most convincingly the successful blend of classical formal balance and contrapuntal skill with the expressive world of the early Romantics, which is the hallmark of Rheinberger’s style. Perhaps this synthesis is seen at its most potent in the extraordinarily beautiful Theme and Variations for string quartet, Op 93. (The passacaglia theme, by the way, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Beatles’ song All my loving.)
Joseph Rheinberger was born on 17 March 1839 at the court of the Prince of Liechtenstein, where his father was treasurer. There was little artistic activity at home, but his talent was recognized and nurtured by a local teacher, Sebastian Pöhli, and at the age of seven he was able to assume the post of organist at the church of St Florian in his home town of Vaduz. He was clearly regarded as a local prodigy, but it was not until 1851 that his father was persuaded to send him to study in Munich, where he lived for the rest of his life. Until he was fifteen he studied piano, organ and theory at the conservatory with some of the finest teachers of the day and made a strong impression with his command of counterpoint and organ-playing skills. He earned a living by teaching the piano and playing the organ at various Munich churches, meanwhile continuing his studies privately with Franz Lachner, an influential Munich musician who had known Beethoven in Vienna. Rheinberger began composing at a very early age: a Mass for three voices and organ was performed in Vaduz at around the time of his eighth birthday and during his early years in Munich he wrote a prodigious amount of music, including three symphonies and three operas. However, he was highly critical of this juvenilia and his earliest acknowledged work is a set of four piano pieces which appeared in 1859.
In that same year he was appointed to the staff of the conservatory, at first as a piano teacher, later taking charge of the theory class. His most influential post, that of professor of composition, came in 1867 at the instigation of Hans von Bülow. Rheinberger was a remarkably versatile musician, holding at various times posts as organist of St Michael’s Church, conductor of the Munich Choral Society (where he was particularly noted for his performances of Handel oratorios), and répétiteur at the court opera. Here he witnessed the premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Clearly he was not temperamentally suited to the theatre, but he did have an early success with his incidental music to Calderón’s El magico prodigoso, and wrote two mature operas, Die sieben Raben and Türmers Töchterlein. His formidable list of compositions also includes thirteen masses, numerous smaller pieces of church music, songs, four piano sonatas and chamber works, as well as the twenty sonatas and many shorter pieces for the organ for which he is principally remembered today.
It was undoubtedly as a teacher that Rheinberger achieved his greatest influence. The high modernism of Liszt and Wagner was not to his taste and did not impinge on his style at all; but while instilling in his pupils (who included Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari and Wilhelm Furtwängler) a concern for balance and clarity he did not allow his own prejudices to stand in the way of their exploration of the new paths opening in front of them. Rheinberger’s artistic philosophy was summed up by Furtwängler thus: ‘Naturalness in music was for him the overriding law: naturalness in the voice leading, in the form, in the expression.’ In spite of receiving many awards and honours towards the end of his life, he became increasingly depressed, both by his failing health and by the feeling that his music was becoming unfashionable. Shortly before his death in November 1901 he wrote: ‘People die so quickly nowadays; some are even dead long before they notice it.’
Suite for organ, violin and cello Op 149
The Op 149 Suite begins with an extended movement in sonata form, launched in vigorous mood by the violin’s octave leap which is immediately imitated by the cello. The material of the exposition consists of several short motifs, each with a distinctive profile, presented in dialogue by the violin and cello, the organ taking a more modest, though not merely accompanimental, role. The music moves effortlessly from one idea to the next and the section ends with a three-note cadential figure played by the strings in unison. The music, having remained firmly rooted in the home keys of C minor and E flat major during the exposition, now plunges into the remote region of G flat major and develops one of the more lyrical ideas. The working out of the ideas in the development section is remarkably lucid and thoroughgoing, but without any hint of the dryness of which Rheinberger is sometimes accused; the music has a tremendous sweep and vigour. A move towards G minor, during which the violin and the right hand of the organ play a duet in thirds and sixths, marks the beginning of the long preparation for the return to the opening ideas. Again this is no mere mechanical reprise, but themes are presented in new juxtapositions and now in C major. After an impassioned climax and a gentle reminder of the initial motif the music winds down to a quiet close.
The second movement, a theme and seven variations, again shows Rheinberger’s mastery of form. The soulful, yearning theme is first presented by the organ and then repeated by the strings a major third lower, a beautiful Schubertian touch. The organ then plays a four-bar coda, which appears virtually unchanged in each of the opening four variations. The first variation follows the outline of the theme fairly closely, but already in the second Rheinberger is beginning to use it as a pool of ideas for development. As the variations progress they become much more wide-ranging harmonically – a collection of short character pieces. The fifth and sixth variations, which run into one another, can be seen as a miniature development section with the violin spinning a long impassioned melody over a pizzicato cello part. After a powerful climax the music relaxes through E flat major but immediately builds the tension again for the return to the home key of G major and the seventh variation, the longest. Brief cadenza-like figures herald the quiet end of this remarkable movement.
The Sarabande is in an uncomplicated A–B–A form, in C minor, with a contrasting trio section in A flat. The organ comes into its own in the Finale where the writing is extrovert and virtuosic with much rapid passagework. The movement makes a triumphant ending to a genuinely original work: a real piece of chamber music for a rarely explored combination of instruments.
Six Pieces for Violin and Organ Op 150
The other pieces in the set are all in fairly traditional forms, in an idiom familiar from his Monologues and Character Pieces for solo organ. Abendlied, Pastorale and Elegie all demonstrate Rheinberger’s ability to spin long and expressive melodic lines, and he thought highly enough of them to arrange them for cello. Even in the simple song form of a piece like Abendlied, he confounds our expectations by interrupting the reprise with new material. The third movement is a Gigue, with a certain earthy, peasant-like quality to it. The adagio of the sixth movement combines the sharply dotted rhythms of the French overture with the rhetorical flourishes of the nineteenth-century virtuoso. The energetic fugato which follows moves effortlessly in and out of passages of contrasting lyricism. The opening dotted style returns at the end to round the piece off in a grand and dramatic manner.
Stephen Westrop © 1996