Alpine Eclipse

The Principality of Liechtenstein is hardly larger than the postage stamps it issues. It is a two-ski-run country tucked into the eastern Alps between Switzerland and the Tyrol. I once had the pleasure of  visiting Liechtenstein in an official capacity in the midst of the Cold War. I was there to explain U.S. foreign policy to the somewhat bemused editor of Vaduz’s daily paper. (What, he must have wondered, are we supposed to do about it?) In any case, from the center of its charming capital, Vaduz, one can observe the modest palace of the prince overlooking the city and the nearby church of the presiding bishop. Both edifices played significant roles in the early life of Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), Liechtenstein’s greatest nineteenth-century composer.

No, this is not a case of the mouse that roared, nor am I damning with faint praise. Rheinberger went on from Liechtenstein to play a major role in the musical life of Europe. Though largely forgotten in this century, his works were very popular in the last. He was greatly respected by Johannes Brahms, Max Reger, and the famous conductor Hans von Billow, and was honored by all the leading musical institutions of his time. He was an extremely accomplished and prolific man, who published nearly two hundred works, discarded two hundred more from his youth, and left as many unpublished.

A devoutly religious Catholic, Rheinberger expressed his faith in some two hundred sacred compositions, including eighteen Masses, four Requiems, five Stabat Maters, four sacred oratorios, and numerous motets and hymns for every occasion of the liturgical year.

But he began as an extraordinarily talented boy in tiny Liechtenstein, where his father served as bursar to the prince. This association must have helped open doors for him, for we find young Josef already serving as organist at the Vaduz Chapel of St. Florian at the age of seven. At the same age, he produced a three-part Mass with organ accompaniment. Already self-assured, the young composer is said to have interrupted a performance of the Mass to correct the presiding bishop, who was singing out of tune. He also thought little enough of his predecessor’s compositions that he burned them in a poorly vented church stove, nearly driving out the congregation with the smoke.

From Liechtenstein, Rheinberger moved for further studies to Munich in 1851, making it his permanent home. There, under the direction of Franz Lachner, he steeped himself in the classics, developing a particular veneration for Bach and Mozart. This admiration did not go unnoticed in the critical press. Commenting on the performance of one of Rheinberger’s early and unpublished string quartets in 1857, the Neue Mfinchner Zeitung said, “Rheinberger knows precisely what he is after; he patterns himself after Haydn and Mozart and the results demonstrate, if not yet an individual style, at least the three cardinal virtues of an up-and-coming composer: a good deal of sensitivity, a feeling for clarity, and a sense of balance.” Rheinberger retained these traits and added his own style.

Rheinberger’s mature music is robust, big-boned, and warm-hearted. It has a generously flowing lyricism and full-throated, surging melodies. His chamber music reminds me most of Dvorak’s, and like Dvorak’s has its roots in Schubert. It has the same warmth and feeling of domesticity as Dvorak: romantic, yes, but not neurotic or self-obsessed.

The bachelor Brahms captured the flavor of Rheinberger’s surroundings after a visit to his home to hear some piano compositions that Rheinberger dedicated to him: “I must admit that I sighed a little at times while the pieces were being played through. The beautiful domesticity in which you live and compose makes for such a pleasant feeling. The likes of us must think: Aber abseits, wer ist’s?

Rheinberger clearly expressed his own view of his work: “What is actu¬ally essential in music, at least in mine, is a yearning for a state of happiness which constantly moves away from us.” One might find this perspective a prescription for pessimism, yet, within a religious framework, it is not. Aside from a touch of the autumnal nostalgia for which Brahms’s work is so noted, Rheinberger’s music is fundamentally sane and healthy. A few years before his death, Rheinberger explained why: “Music is basically an emanation of joy, and even in sorrow it knows no pessimism.”

To the extent Rheinberger is remembered today, it is primarily for his organ music (including twenty organ sonatas). Curiously, there is currently more of Rheinberger’s chamber music available on recordings than of his music in any other genre. For the ambitious, the German label Thorofon offers a six-CD set (BCTH 2161/6) containing fifteen substantial works: duos for piano and various instruments, quartets for strings, a piano quartet, a piano quintet, a string quintet, piano trios, and a nonet.

The pieces are so uniformly delight¬ful and well-crafted that I easily can recommend the full set. Fortunately, the CDs are available separately. If you need to be convinced, try the CD (CTH 2061) with the delicious Nonet Op. 139, every bit as fine a work as Ludwig Spohr’s in the same form, accompanied by the Piano Trio Op. 112 and the String Quartet Op. 93. Or begin with the two string quartets, the Op. 89, reminiscent of Schubert’s more melancholy moments, and the Op. 147, redolent of Dvorak’s dancing melodies, performed a little on the raw side, but full of life by the Camerata Quartet (CTH 2102). Thorofon CD-CTH 2060 makes an engaging coupling of the String Quintet Op. 82 with the Piano Quintet Op. 114, beautifully performed by pianist Horst Gobel (who as a producer is responsible for more than half the Rheinberger CDs on the market) and the Sonare Quartet.

The four piano trios are also avail-able in excellent performances by the Trio Parnassus in a two-CD set (MD+G L 3419/20). Hyperion has just released on CD the curious but wonderfully melodious Suite for Organ, Violin and Cello Op. 149 and Six Pieces for Violin and Organ Op. 150, engagingly performed by Christopher Herrick, organ, Paul Barritt, violin, and Richard Lester, cello (CDA66883). This is a sweet, soothing brand of romanticism, surprisingly well conveyed by this odd combination of instruments.

Turning to Rheinberger’s sacred music, one would expect from it the same full-blooded, open-hearted treatment that one finds in his chamber music and that is evident in Dvorak’s sacred compositions of the same time. However, Rheinberger fell under the influence of the Cecilian movement, which sought to restore to liturgical music a Palestrinian purity that would not detract from the Mass. Thus Rheinberger looked to preclassical models that imparted to his sacred works a distinct chasteness compared with the rich romanticism of such contemporaries as Dvorak or Gounod.

Within the confines he accepted, Rheinberger composed Masses, many of them a capella or with organ accompaniment only, that are imbued with a deep serenity and impart a profound sense of peace. They do not shout, they are sweet and gentle without any sense of strain. His Masses are reverential and venerational rather than dramatic.

There are two new CD releases of his finest a capella Mass, the Mass in E- Flat Major for two choirs (Cantus Mis¬sae) Op. 109. This exquisite creation came the year after Rheinberger broke with the Cecilian movement in 1877, chafing from its restrictions. He dedicated the work to Pope Leo XIII, who vindicated Rheinberger by rewarding him with a knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory (for whom Gregorian chant is named).

The release by the Gloria Dei Cantores label (GDCD 018) contains two other Masses, Op. 187 and Op. 190, as well as three luminous Motets Op. 133 and Hymns Op. 140. They are sung seraphically by the group Gloria Dei Cantores under the direction of Elizabeth Patterson. The other disc, from Dorian (DIS-80137), is shared by several short choral works by Rheinberger and sacred works by Brahms, including his Missa Canonica (1856). The St. Clement’s Choir from Philadelphia performs these works beautifully under Peter Richard Conte.

One reason for Rheinberger’s eclipse may be that, quite naturally, he found himself on the side of Brahms in the dispute with Richard Wagner over the “music of the future.” Rheinberger was firmly rooted in the older Viennese models and had no use for Liszt or for Wagner and his music dramas. Ironically, he shared with Wagner the favor of King Ludwig II who appointed him court kappelmeister while Wagner served as opera director (surely this is the most convincing evidence that Ludwig really must have been mad). Wagner was peevish in his criticism of the conservative Rheinberger. As reported in Richard Strauss’s Observations and Recollections, Wagner said, “Well now, this Professor Rheinberger is surely a great artist; he composes every day from five o’clock to six o’clock. I’m only an amateur—I can only compose when I get an idea.”

The more “progressive” music became, the more such scorn was heaped upon Rheinberger’s reputation, which came to be that of an “academic” composer—an odd characterization for one whose work, no matter how expertly crafted anal coherent, is so full of life. Perhaps it was an acknowledgment of the fading popularity of his music that led Rheinberger to observe shortly before his own death in November 1901 that, “People die so quickly nowadays; some are even dead long before they notice it.”

There is every reason for Rheinberger’s music to live again, as it does so well in the CDs discussed here. Rheinberger’s last student, the famous twentieth-century conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, spoke of Rheinberger’s enduring merits and appeal: “Naturalness in music was for him the overriding law: naturalness in the voice leading, in the form, in the expression.” I would only add that, naturally, you will like him.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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