Rheinberger, Josef Gabriel



Eminent German organist and composer; born at the little town of Vaduz, in the upper Rhine valley. Neither of his parents was especially musical, but the child was most precocious, and at the age of four years showed such aptitude for music that his father placed him under piano instruction, and after two years of industrious application, he was coached in musical theory by Pohly, a retired school teacher, who prepared him for the position of organist in the parish church, the duties of which he assumed at the age of seven. Within a year a three-part mass of his own composition, with organ accompaniment, was performed there. The pedals of the organ were supplanted by a second set, placed where the child's feet could reach them an invention attributed to Pohly. Josef's next study was under the choir-director at the neighboring town of Feldkirch, where, beside his lessons, he had daily opportunity of practising concerted music with the violin, and of becoming familiar with the scores of the great masters.


In 1850 the boy was sent to the, Conservatory at Munich. Here he studied piano under Leonhard, organ under Herzog, and counterpoint under Maier, for several years, and after leaving that institution, continued private study under Franz Lachner. He also taught some pupils himself, and in 1859 succeeded Leonhard as piano teacher at the Conservatory. The following year he was appointed professor of composition, and became organist of the Court Church of St. Michael, a post he held till 1866. Maitland dates his conductorship of the Munich Oratorio Society from 1864. In 1865, the Munich Conservatory was reorganized, and Rheinberger was transferred to the position of director of rehearsals, at the Court Opera, which he resigned in 1867, accepting a recall to his former position at the Conservatory, now under the direction of von Bülow, and known as the Royal Music School. In addition to his work as professor of composition and advanced organ-playing, he was appointed an inspector. The growing ascendency of Wagner at the Opera made this, no doubt, a welcome change, as all through his life his unfeigned antipathy to the Bayreuth master was well known. He has, indeed, been called fanatical in his opposition to all new tendencies in music.


Rheinberger became world-famous as a teacher, and is said to have influenced the modern American School more than any other one European musician, through Chadwick, his most celebrated American pupil. Rheinberger has been called the best teacher of composition since Hauptmann, being thorough and systematic to a degree seldom manifested by men of equal talent. In 1877 he resigned his conductorship of the Munich Oratorio Society, and assumed the directorship of the Royal Chapel choir. This position he held until his death, which was caused by complicated troubles, involving both the lungs and the nervous system. He was also director of the Academy of Music in Munich at the time of his death. He received numerous honors and decorations, including a membership in the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, and in many choral societies of Germany and other countries.


Rheinberger was especially fortunate in the sympathetic companionship and cooperation of his wife, formerly Franziska von Hoffnass, a poetess, who wrote the text for many of his best known choral works, including the larger ones with solos and orchestra: Toggenburg; Montfort; Christoforus, an oratorio; and the Star of Bethlhem. His smaller choral works include King Erich, The Willow Tree, The Water Sprite, The Shepherdess from the Country, The Dead Bride, May Dew, Herald, and Night. His male choruses are said to be of an especially high order, interesting and original, notably, Valley of the Espingo, The Roses of Hildsheim, Wittekind, and St. John's Eve. For orchestra he wrote two symphonies, the first known as the Wallenstein, the second commissioned by the Orchestral Society of Florence, from which it was called the Florentine. Among his overtures are Demetrius, built up from national themes; a Triumph Overture, and one to Shakespeare s Taming of the Shrew. While director at the theatre he brought out incidental music to dramas by Raimund and Calderon, the latter being very successful. His one romantic opera, Die Sieben Raben (The Seven Ravens), on a fairy legend, was not produced until 1869, after he had left his post at the theatre. A comic opera, Des Thurmers Tochterlein, appeared in 1873. A devout Catholic, he wrote considerable music for the service of that church, including a mass dedicated to Leo XIII., two settings of the Stabat Mater, hymns and motets, and a requiem for the soldiers of the FrancoPrussian war. His compositions number about two hundred in all. Of these, Maitland states, it is hard to find even one that is  ot perfectly suited to the possibilities of the instrument or group of instruments for which it is written. His works are not, however, equally inspired, the earlier ones having met, on the whole, with the best success. This, however, cannot be said to hold good in the case of his organ compositions, which did not appear until after he had quitted his first post of importance as organist. Rheinberger was forced to give up organ playing finally on account of a lameness in his right hand. Besides over sixty smaller pieces for this instrument, there are his twenty sonatas, standard works that Maitland pronounces with the possible exception of Merkel's works "by far the most valuable addition to the literature of the instrument since Mendelssohn's sonatas." Lahee, in The Organ and Its Masters, goes farther, saying that Rheinberger may be said to have undertaken, for the organ, in his development of the sonata what Beethoven did for the piano, and that in this respect he may be placed among the epoch-makers in music.


Rheinberger's chamber-music is considered superior to his orchestral works. It embraces a trio and two quartets for strings; two trios and a quartet for piano and strings; a nonet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and strings; and sonatas for piano and violin. Besides his two organ sonatas there is one for piano, and a number of solos for that instrument also, including four sonatas; an effective ballade; humoresques; toccatas, and a set of left-hand studies. Some of these are extremely difficult. His chorus ballads stand first among his vocal works, but he also composed smaller part-songs and some solos. As an organist, Rheinberger adhered strictly to the old German style of playing, giving the fugues of Bach and kindred compositions without changes of manual, and with very little change in registration. His opinion was that the modern methods of producing a variety of effects in the works of the greatest of organ composers was weakening and degrading.