Max Reger, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.A. Hiller

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Giant in the Shadows, performed on March 17, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 19, 1873, in Brand, Germany
Died May 11, 1916, in Leipzig
Composed in 1907
Premiered on October 15, 1907, in Cologne, Germany conducted by Reger
Performance Time: Approximately 41 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 5 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Like the fin-de-siècle itself, Max Reger was Janus-like; his music looked backward to Bach and Brahms as well as forward to successors such as Berg and Schoenberg. In the early 1920s, Reger’s scores were those that were most-often programmed on Schoenberg’s Verein für Privataufführungen in Wein und Prag. Schoenberg admired him for obvious reasons. Reger proudly espoused both innovation and tradition; like Schoenberg, he was convinced that Brahms was a “progressive.” Reger also rejected the reactionary aesthetics of his erstwhile teacher, the strict music theorist Hugo Reimann. Berg, too, defended Reger’s achievements: “Reger favors a rather free construction, which, as he says, is reminiscent of prose . . . This is the reason for his music’s relative lack of popularity . . . neither of the other attributes of his thematic writing (motivic development of multi-voiced phrases), nor his harmony, nor his contrapuntal writing, are likely to keep his musical language from being understood.”

However, one could argue that his early studies with Riemann were crucially important to his later technique. Reger’s contrapuntal mastery and exquisite voice leading, learned from Riemann, keep the iridescent harmonic vocabulary and rapid modulations flowing forward. The structural poise evinced by Reger’s orchestral works in variation form, such as the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.A. Hiller, Op. 100 refute the charges of “formlessness” that have been leveled against his music as well as Berg’s offhand remark concerning its “free construction.” In fact, the “Hiller Variations” are cunningly paced and contrasted with unerring skill, with the design of each variation contributing to the overall form. The ravishing second variation is an example of Reger’s lyricism at its most affecting, while the energetic variations look forward to Hindemith’s dynamism.

Reger’s skill as an orchestrator has never been sufficiently appreciated. In the Hiller Variations, the orchestral timbres move effortlessly from delicacy to grandiloquence. This score, along with other of Reger’s sets of variations, constitutes a bridge between the developmental techniques found in Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56 (1873) and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31(1928).

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.