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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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