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Back to Reger..

I guess the organ music of Max Reger is a bit of a puzzle for me..

Here I am again with a spot of analysis, this time of the pices Op.59, though I've only just started on the opening bars of the first piece. The fact is, the sound of these pieces is 'something else'.. exotic, bewildering, deeply intriguing - a complex jigsaw of interconnected, blah, blah, .. Cut to the chase, and I want to know how to improvise it! As Lizst, reportedly while giving a masterclass on Chopin's Preludes: "I want to play this!" and took the ninth prelude as the inspiration to a prolonged improvisation. (Note, that this desire has nothing of the jackdaw copycat about it - rather, it springs from a desire for closeness with the music, the kind of closeness we can never experience from simply performing the notes.)

The problem then is one that confronts me every time I take a composition as a 'model' for improvisation. It is a problem in which I need to find the rules (or guiding principles) for copying. What must I do to capture the qualities that I like? It is difficult because the principles of performance (and there must be principles or rules of performance) are by no means literal transcriptions of the theoretical rules (rules that generally arise from analysis of the score). In short, when we work with models then we come up against the whole issue of rules in music. In the words of M.A.Sharwood Smith, 'The use of rules as opposed to principles, then, varies greatly with the particular theoretical approach ... that has been adopted. Also, both rules and principles may be couched in very abstract and technical terms such that they do not appear to offer much of immedite benefit to teacher or learner (1994, p.34).

As always with Reger, my first impression is one of impressive harmony, a subject for rules if ever there was one. So, hoping for inspiration I made a harmonic skeleton of the first few bars. The original is below:

Original openingharmonic skeleton

The skeleton, surprisingly, retains quite a bit of the drama of the original, which proved (to me at least) that quite a bit of the character of the opening resides in the harmonic motion. But this information doesn't take me very far unless I decide what it is about the harmonic motion which I like. It also depends on exactly what we mean by harmony, and in this I'm reminded of Ernst Toch's thesis that harmony, rather than being a series of chords should be thought of more contrapuntally - For although harmony may still be defined as the combination of three or more tones, it has to be interpreted beyond this concept as a momentary situation brought about by moving voices; as the cross-section arising at times of arrested motion; or briefly and plainly as arrested motion. Toch, I think is right up to a point. The difficulty for people like myself, who are not really trained to use harmony, but only to respect it from a difference, is that we have a kind of mystical reverence for the phenomenon, without really understanding what harmony might mean... As my student said "I must learn harmony" but do either of us know what it is he must learn? 

A few things I did notice about Reger's strange functions which he gives to chords: (i), they are strange indeed. In fact, what I really like about Reger's prelude style is the dramatic way in which he sets up and evades or manipulates expectations. For example, 7th chords, never function as dominant 7ths, but are resolved in other ways; another related point, is that tonal centres are never what we expect. Perhaps this second point is more characteristic of Reger: precisely because his use of triadic block-chords hints at a chorale-like language in which tonal centres are very carefully established. The result is a kind of expressive delirium, made coherent through Reger's excessively driven voice-leading. 



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