TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.
18. Reger's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Satie
Max Reger idolised the music of Eric Satie, so much so that in the summer
of 1915 he made a special journey to Montmartre to meet him. From all accounts
the two men hit it off splendidly (see Eucken's Persönaliche Erinnerungen
an Max Reger, 1916: 823). Reger's infatuation with the French composer
caused a complete sea change in his musical thinking, and he immediately
began work on an orchestral piece that would both incorporate these new
ideas and at the same time be a tribute to his idol. Sadly for us all, the
Variations and Fugue on a theme by Satie were to be his last work,
for the day after completing it Reger died from a heart-attack (brought
on, it is rumoured, by a review of a recent work of his in the Leipzig
Gebushausschritte which reads: 'I am sitting in the smallest room of
my house. I have Herr Reger's organ pieces before me. In a moment they will
be behind me').
Reger chose for the theme of his variations 'd'Edriophthalma', the second
of Satie's Embryons Desséchés of 1913 and his personal
favourite. The work shows a complete volte-face from his previous
music. Gone are the convoluted contrapuntal textures, the thick harmonies,
the interminable formal structures. Instead we have an aerated, delicate
style, full of Parisian wit and (dare we say it?) charm. The old Reger still
makes the occasional appearance: the direction 'Mit humor!!' appears several
times and the composer cannot resist tucking in examples of his prodigious
contrapuntal ingenuity (the triple canon by cancrizans in Variation 40,
for example). Following Satie's own example, Reger has sprinkled the score
with ironic verbal comments. Beneath Variation 23 he quips: 'I have lost
my pince-nez', followed a few bars later by 'Oh, I've found them again!'
And just before the final variation, he asks, dryly, 'Where is my laudanum?'
These all add spice to the work. One fascinating touch is the inclusion
of a typewriter in Variation 61, which anticipates Satie's own use of it
in his ballet Parade (1917): a case, perhaps, of retrograde déjà-vu?
Reger certainly found Satie's theme highly stimulating, and the 67 variations
he squeezes out of it must constitute some kind of record. Each variation
has a title, and Reger manages to cover the complete gamut of character
pieces. There are, for example, a polka, a fughetta, a rondo, a rondino,
an impromptu, a mazurka, a barcarolle, two arabesques, a ragtime, three
polonaises, a tango and a rumba, not to mention a sequence of four nocturnes.
The work ends with a fully worked out fugue (but then, how many works by
Reger do not?)
After Reger's death, Satie considered dedicating one of his Avant-Dernières
Pensées to his memory, but en dernière pensée,
as it were, decided not to.
Copyright © 23 March 2000, Trevor
Hold, Peterborough, UK
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