Saturday, April 19, 2008

Who is this Rheinberger guy anyway?

There is a name on the list of music for this morning's Mass at St. Patrick's that many outside of musical circles may not be very familiar with--Joseph Rheinberger, whose Gloria and Agnus Dei from the Mass in C minor, Op. 169 was sung today.

A child prodigy, Rheinberger (1839-1901) took his first job as a church organist at the age of seven in his native village of Vaduz, Lichtenstein. His mature compositional style follows in the footsteps of Johannes Brahms, J.S. Bach, and the Renaissance masters. This approach emphasized a foundation in ancient polyphonic techniques which are the hallmark of so many of the greatest composers in the West. All this was done, however, while absorbing various aspects of Romanticism as well--a kind of organic development of music, if you will. The Dona nobis pacem of this morning's Agnus demonstrates quite nicely Rheinberger's polyphonic facility. Other examples which show forth Rheinberger's familiarity with Renaissance and Baroque techniques include his sublime Cantus Missae in E-flat, which is written for double choir ("cori spezzati") and is sung a cappella, as well as his twenty organ sonatas, which feature a great contrapuntal mastery conceived for a pipe organ that had much in common tonally with what J.S. Bach would have been accustomed to.

As with a number of other genuinely talented composers of his era who incorporated the music of the past into their work, Rheinberger flirted with the idea of associating with the Cecilians. This project was however doomed, since the standards of what constituted "sacred" music to the Cecilians were entirely too restrictive and archaizing to accommodate any organic musical developmental progress whatsoever. However, whereas the Cecilians have faded from memory due to their unimpressive output, Rheinberger's marginal status in our minds today is wholly unjust, and we should do everything we can do revive the popular estimation of his music--sacred and otherwise.

Thank you, Dr. Pascual, for singing Rheinberger for us. And thank you for singing Grosser Gott in German, mit inbrust!

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