Resting in Love’s quiet watch

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

Born in 1839 in the small city of Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger was a poster child for musical prodigies. His father, a financial agent for the tiny principality’s monarch, was not himself musically gifted. But acknowledging his son’s remarkable abilities, he arranged for Josef — then only 5 years old — to be taught by a music teacher in Schlanders, 170 kilometers away in northern Italy. There the boy was taught music theory, piano, and organ. A second pedal board was affixed to the instrument to accommodate his short legs.

The investment paid off, as young Josef’s native talent prospered. At the ripe old age of seven, he was appointed organist at the parish church in his hometown, and the next year his first composition — a three-part Mass with organ accompaniment — was used in the parish’s liturgy. Having heard of this work and its eight-year-old composer, the Bishop of the ancient Swiss town of Chur invited Josef’s father to bring his talented son to the cathedral so the church leaders could confirm for themselves the capabilities of a potential treasure for the Church’s musical life.

Seated at the cathedral’s organ keyboard (presumably Josef’s legs were now long enough to reach the pedals without special amendments), a score for a setting of the Marian hymn Salve Regina was set in front of him and he was told to accompany the singing by the bishop and clergy. They hadn’t sung for very long before Josef stopped playing, exclaiming, “But, Herr Bishop, you continually sing out of tune.” The response of the bishop was not recorded. 

Rheinberger ended up studying at the Munich Conservatory during his teens; by the time he was twenty, he was on the conservatory’s faculty, and in 1867, he was made a full professor, a position he kept until his death in 1901. Since then, his reputation and influence as a teacher of composition has overshadowed his output as a composer, which is not inconsiderable. Among his own works, the best known are those for organ, including twenty organ sonatas and a number of miscellaneous smaller pieces. He also produced two operas, two symphonies, a piano concerto, and a large body of chamber music and lieder.

Sacred choral works

While the organ works are the most celebrated and performed — church organists occasionally play movements from the sonata as preludes or postludes — his catalog of sacred choral compositions deserve much more attention than they have received. Reminiscent of the choral works of Mendelssohn and Brahms, his church music includes fourteen Masses, three requiems, a number of motets, and several cantatas.

Among the motets, the most performed is a work he wrote when he was just 15, Abendlied, “Evening song,” with a text taken from St. Luke’s account of the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “Bide with us, for evening shadows darken, and the day will soon be over.” This poignant work for six-part a cappella choir displays Rheinberger’s sensitive attention to (in Barbara Mohn’s words) “songlike melodic lines and a well balanced harmonic development.”

Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied, sung by VOCES8

A more extensive, more mature, and subtler work is his 1878 Mass in E-flat (Opus 109), dedicated to Pope Leo XIII, known as the Cantus Missae. It is Rheinberger’s only mass setting scored for eight unaccompanied vocal parts; other masses include works for all-male or all-female voices as well as conventional four-part settings, and some larger liturgical works, such as his Stabat mater (opus 138), include organ and or string accompaniment. Music theorist Scott Foglesong judges he Cantus Missae “a finely-crafted polyphonic mass for antiphonally-placed double choir in the late-Renaissance Flemish and Venetian spirit, albeit channeled through Mendelssohn.”

Kyrie, from Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat, sung by VOCES8

About the same time he composed that Mass he wrote a set of five Hymnen (Opus 107), dedicated to the choir at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the choir which Bach employed during the composition of most of his cantatas. The fifth of these short works, Christus factus est, is based on a text from Philippians: “Christ became obedient for us unto death, even to death, death on the cross. Therefore God exalted him and have him a name which is above all names.” The first half of this brief hymn is a slow and harmonically tense evocation of Christ’s suffering on the cross, reminiscent of settings by Renaissance composers. But when the text turns the corner and affirms Christ’s exaltation, Rheinberger bursts into a joyous and enthusiastic fugue, the sort of conclusion the good burghers at St. Thomas had heard many times. Perhaps Rheinberger wanted to remind fellow Catholics that Palestrina was not the only worthy model to emulate in the composition of new music for worship.

Josef Rheinberger’s Christus factus est, sung by Vocalensemble Rastatt, conducted by Holger Speck

In 1893, Rheinberger composed a collection of Nine Advent Motets (opus 176), short and straightforward works with texts taken from Introits, Graduals, and Offertories from the season that commences the Church year. Two of these nine motets are featured below.

Josef Rheinberger’s Ad te levavi — the Introit for the 1st Sunday in Advent — from 9 Advent-Motetten (Op. 176), sung by Europa Chor Akademie

Josef Rheinberger’s Deus tu convertens — the Offertory proper for the 2nd Sunday in Advent — from 9 Advent-Motetten (Op. 176), sung by Vocalensemble Rastatt, Holger Speck, conductor

From Advent to Christmas

For Christmas, Rheinberger left us one of his largest and most satisfying works for choir and full orchestra. I confess to a special liking for Der Stern von Bethlehem (“The Star of Bethlehem,” Opus 164) as it was my introduction many years ago to a composer I had never encountered. The friend and musical mentor who introduced it to me put a record on his turntable without comment (turntables had dramatic potential absent in digital devices). A minute or so into the rich opening movement — organized around a simple but haunting four-note theme — I confidently asked him for the name of this unfamiliar work obviously by Johannes Brahms. “It’s by Rheinberger, not Brahms.” I’d never heard of the composer, let alone this lovely cantata.

The opening movement from Josef Rheinberger’s Der Stern von Bethlehem. The Bavarian Radio Chorus and the Graunke Symphony Orchestra are conducted by Robert Heger.

The nine movements in Der Stern von Bethlehem present nine scenes in the story of the Nativity, commencing with “Expectation” and concluding with a triumphant fugue in “Fulfillment.” The story is presented in a simple but moving text written by Rheinberger’s wife, poetess and painter Franziska “Fanny” von Hoffnaass. A soprano soloist appears in three of the sections; a baritone soloist takes center stage in the movement titled simply “Bethlehem,” in which the shepherds make their way to the manger. Near the end of this movement, that four-note theme introduced and developed so well in the work’s opening is heard again, played hauntingly this time by a solo French horn.

Der Stern von Bethlehem achieves much of its power by using large musical forces — a big choir, a full orchestra — but retaining (if the performers are watchful) a sense of tenderness without slipping into sentimentality, which the Nativity story always invites. As in the best works from the Romantic period, there is a nobility and solemnity that permeates this work. The opening words are “Die Erde schweigt,” “The earth is still,” a stillness established by the expectation of a world in need of redemption. “In longing desire the whole earth lying.”

The wonder experienced by the shepherds and the Wise Men evokes a new layer of silence, The eighth movement — called simply “Maria” — describes the Virgin’s experience after the departure of the Wise Men: “Silence fills the Holy Place. . . . How she all understandeth well, all locked in silent peace in her breast!”

The final movement, Erfüllung, “Fulfillment,” initially repeats the text and music from the opening movement, but now with a new horizon: “In love’s quiet watch the whole earth is lying.” But after that initial reprise comes a grand, triumphant finale, replete with an exuberant fugue. Expectation has received its reward; love and the promise of new life have dawned. “Rejoice O world, o’er Death victorious, Redeemed in Christ to Life all glorious. Hallelujah.” 

The embedded video below includes a playlist that will enable you to listen to a complete performance of all 9 movements of Der Stern von Bethlehem. The performers in this 1968 recording are the Bavarian Radio Chorus and the Graunke Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Heger. The soloists are Rita Streich, soprano, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone.