Not Bruckner: Josef Rheinberger

For the past few weeks my reading, and consequent blogs, focused on Anton Bruckner, a strange and wonderful man and composer, whose ground-breaking compositions, influenced by Liszt and Wagner but startlingly original, puzzled and sometimes outraged his contemporaries, and propelled German Romantic music into the twentieth century.  Chorale's March 16 concert, though focused largely on Bruckner’s E minor Mass, will also include some a cappella motets by composers whose ideas, goals, and aesthetics were far different from his.

Our concert will begin with Abendlied, by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901).  Though born in the principality of Liechtenstein, Rheinberger spent most of his life in Munich, where he studied at the Royal Conservatory, and later became professor of organ and composition, first at the Royal Conservatory, later at the Royal Music School.    I read that he was a child prodigy, serving as organist in his home parish church at the age of seven and composing his first mass, for three voice parts with organ accompaniment, at the age of eight. His talents were acknowledged and encouraged by those around him, and he was only eleven years old when he moved to Munich and enrolled in the conservatory.  His keyboard and aural skills, as well as his self-confidence, were legendary:  one particularly telling anecdote has him simultaneously sight-reading and transposing Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, to the astonishment and delight of his listeners.

Renowned conductor Hans von Bülow claimed that Rheinberger was “unequalled anywhere in or near Germany” as a composition teacher, and more than six hundred composition students, from throughout Europe and America, studied with him during the last forty years of his life.  His own works—and presumably his pedagogical principles-- combined the current, conservative traditions of Munich ‘s Roman Catholic church music, with those of the Viennese classical period. Their clarity and classic structure and lack of emotional content aligned Rheinberger with the most reactionary musicians and musical trends of his time, which rejected Wagnerian aesthetics and “the music of the future,” at the very time when Bruckner, in Vienna, was adapting Wagner’s language and being labeled an incomprehensible radical.  I don’t know if the two men ever met, or if Rheinberger was even aware of Bruckner; I expect he would have hated the latter’s music, if he knew of it.  History, of course, was on Bruckner’s side; Rheinberger was esteemed and admired by like-minded musicians of his own time, but he never won universal fame, and most of his music, with the exception of his organ compositions, is not well-known today.  In his last years he became increasingly aware that his compositions had become outdated and unwanted, and responded by writing, shortly before his death, “There is no justification for music without melodiousness and beauty of sound... music never ought to sound brooding, for, basically, it is the outpouring of joy, and even in pain knows no pessimism.” This sounds like the sort of thing Eduard Hanslick was referring to when he wrote of Bruckner’s “nightmarish hangover style” at much the same time.

Rheinberger deserves better, than to be left choking in Bruckner’s dust.  His music is lovely, delicate, perfectly constructed and balanced.  I would not program Abendlied if I did not think it a fine piece, in and of itself.  Listeners will appreciate its fine qualities, and be lulled by its beauty. Rheinberger hasn’t the power, or the will, to shake them to their very foundations.  Bruckner, on the other had, seems unable to be able to avoid doing so.