The name of Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901) is not well known to American concert goers, yet his music is so well loved by influential German and Austrian musicians that there now exists a 50-volume critical edition of his complete works in score. One of the editors of that edition gives us a glimpse of Rheinberger’s style by suggesting that rather than regarding the composer as “a lesser Brahms,” we should think of him as “a South German Fauré.”
A child prodigy who began playing organ publicly at the age of seven, Rheinberger began studies at the Munich Conservatory in 1851, eventually mastering counterpoint and fugue, as well as composing over a hundred works by 1859, when he finally deemed one good enough to be published as his Opus 1.
At the end of his studies, he stayed on at the Conservatory, growing into one of its most legendary teachers. Hans von Bülow said “Rheinberger is a truly ideal teacher of composition, unrivalled in the whole of Germany and beyond in skill, refinement and devotion to his subject; in short, one of the worthiest musicians and human beings in the world.” Among Rheinberger’s students were Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari, Furtwängler, and the Americans Horatio Parker and George Chadwick.
As a composer, Rheinberger is best known today by organists and Catholic choirmasters. However, his output of secular songs and ballads for solo voices and/or choir is at least as large as his body of work for the church. And for his texts, Rheinberger turned to some of the same German poets whose verse had been set by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The poem Die Nacht by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857) attracted Rheinberger’s attention in 1859, when he set it as a simple strophic song for voice and piano. Twelve years later, the composer revisited that setting, transforming it in nearly every respect: harmonically, formally, and in terms of scoring and overall length. The solo voice became a four-part choir, and the accompaniment was rescored for a chamber ensemble of violin, viola, ‘cello, and piano, whose delicate figurations evoke the hushed sounds of the nocturnal forest. The later version of Die Nacht is also harmonically resourceful: though a composition in D-flat major, it modulates to E major just before the fourth stanza’s reference to the dawn (“the stars rise up and descend, when shalt thou come, morning wind”).
As part of his duties at the Court Church of All Saints in Munich, in 1881 Rheinberger composed eleven motets, including the four which were published as Op. 133. Like many of his Catholic colleagues (Anton Bruckner among them), Rheinberger’s instinct in composing for the church called for the harmonic language of his instrumental and secular vocal works. Nevertheless, from his earliest days inunich he was aware of the Cecilian movement, which advocated reformation of Catholic liturgical music after the “excesses” of the Viennese classical composers. The Palestrina style of 16th-century
counterpoint was held up as an ideal; understandably, creative musicians of the 19th century regarded that model as an artistic straitjacket. So Rheinberger sought a middle ground, remaining mindful of liturgical requirements, while subtly manifesting his stylistic individuality. With the six-voice motets of Op. 133, Rheinberger clearly had the Palestrina model in mind (perhaps most notably in the second motet, Meditabor), yet each motet is–as wrote Theodor Kroyer–“a paragon of six-voice composition, nurtured in utmost freedom.”
The Stabat Mater Op. 138 originated in a detail of Rheinberger’s generally poor health throughout most of his adult life. For many years, he suffered a disability of his right hand, making composition increasingly difficult. His hand broke out with an open ulcer in the first half of 1884. Then in the summer he received therapy at the Wildbad Kreuth, greatly easing the pain in his hand. Rheinberger revealed to his wife that he had made a vow to the Mother of God that if his health improved, he would compose a Stabat Mater (his second). Of this setting, Sebastian Hammelsbeck has written that the second setting is essentially a liturgical work, which does not draw undue attention to itself either by excessive length or by highly decorative features. Instead of the virtuosic combination of modern and ancient musical styles it is in a purified sacred idiom which has incorporated elements of all these styles, and which only the harmony of the day kept distantly in touch with the events outside the church….
Perhaps with a glance over his shoulder toward the Cecilians, Rheinberger composed an entirely unsentimental devotional work, which by its very restraint conveys an expression of the utmost reverence.