Märzen: The Oktoberfest Beer
Every year beer drinkers worldwide celebrate Oktoberfest with steins of Märzen beer. Next time you lift your favorite lager, take a moment to think of another classic from Munich, the music of Josef Gabriel Rheinberger.
In America, Oktoberfest, like Christmas, seems to arrive earlier every year. In Munich, the event begins in the latter half of September and typically runs through the first weekend in October. But across the ocean, Oktoberfest starts in summer. American breweries ship their Oktoberfest beers as early as late July, and by August, perennial favorites such as Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest, and Jack’s Abby Copper Legend dominate store shelves.
Historically Oktoberfest beer has been known as Märzen (pronounced “Mare-tsen”), which comes from März, the German word for March. Before refrigeration, brewing in the high temperatures of summer placed beer at risk of bacterial contamination. Consequently, Bavarian authorities banned brewing in the months between April and September. Brewers responded by making stronger beers with slow-fermenting yeast in the month of March and then storing them in cool cellars or caves over the summer. The extra alcohol helped preserve the beer until September, when thirsty Germans could take the Märzen from the cellar and enjoy it while waiting for the first batches of the new brewing season.
Alcohol helped Märzen survive Bavarian summers; Oktoberfest helped it travel the world. The first Oktoberfest was the celebration of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig I’s marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The people of Munich enjoyed the festivities so much that they decide to repeat them the next year and then every year after that. Märzen was the beer of choice at these festivals. Oktoberfest’s fame spread, and eventually cities outside Germany launched their own versions of the event. Today the largest Oktoberfests outside Munich include festivals in Kitchner-Waterloo, Canada; Blumenau, Brazil; and Cincinnati, Ohio. A pair of Reader’s Digest articles by Claire Nowak provide more information about Oktoberfest’s history and answer questions such as “Why Does Oktoberfest Start in September?”
Rheinberger: The Märzen of Composers
Josef Gabriel Rheinberger entered the world during, but not under, the reign of the man who was married at the first Oktoberfest. By 1839, Crown Prince Ludwig had become the king of Bavaria. That same year, Rheinberger was born in Varduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. Today, proud Liechtensteiners remember Rheinberger as their country’s greatest composer, but others don’t even associate him with Liechtenstein. When he was 12, Rheinberger moved to Munich, where he spent the rest of his life, and today sources such as Encyclopedia Britannica call him a German composer.
Rheinberger’s similarities to Märzen include more than the historical connection to Ludwig I. Like Oktoberfest’s lager, Rheinberger was born in March. He also became an important part of Bavaria’s cultural history. Rheinberger’s music and Märzen even share a few stylistic features. Reviewers use words like spice and sweet to discuss the characteristics of both the beer and Rheinberger’s music.
Rheinberger’s music differs from Märzen in one key regard: fame. Märzen is an annual highlight for millions of people worldwide. Rheinberger, on the other hand, remains unknown to almost everyone except the most dedicated fans of classical music and churchgoers who admire Rheinberger’s choral pieces or organ music.
Fortunately, more musicians seem to be exploring Rheinberger’s work. In 2016, nine of these musicians met at the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, which is a sort of Augustfest on Long Island. There they performed Rheinberger’s Nonet for Winds and Strings, an effervescent piece of chamber music that alternates between lyrical melodies and lively rhythms. Listeners today can enjoy the excellent performance for free on YouTube.
Märzen fans, take heart. Oktoberfest only runs through this Sunday, but if you like Romantic music, the festival doesn’t have to end. For over 150 years, Rheinberger has been bringing the flavor of Munich to the world, and the party’s just getting started.