Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Beethoven, Op. 86 (1915)

By Walter Frisch, Columbia University

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Max Reger composed his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 86, during the summer of 1904. The work was originally written for two pianos (four hands), and in that form it became one of Reger’s favorite concert pieces. (The Beethoven Variations were on the program of his final recital in April 1916, in what was his 132nd performance of the work since its premiere.) The orchestral version of Op. 86 that the audience is hearing tonight is Reger’s own, completed in 1915. It is one of a series of orchestral pieces that Reger wrote during this late period of his life, when he was working toward the composition of a symphony–a goal he never in fact achieved, despite his enormous productivity.

More than many of his modernist contemporaries, Reger was deeply attached to the variation form, which allowed him both to pay homage to distinguished predecessors and to show his mastery of the most advanced techniques of thematic transformation, harmonic expansion, and counterpoint. Beside Op. 86, the great variation sets of Reger, each of which also comprises a fugue, include the Bach Variations, Op. 81, and the Telemann Variations, Op. 135, both for solo piano; and the Hiller Variations, Op. 100, and Mozart Variations, Op. 132, both for full orchestra.

Reger’s models may be said to include three monuments of the nineteenth-century, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (1819-23) and Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Handel (1862) and Variations on a Theme of Haydn (1873). Each of these earlier works ends with a contrapuntal tour-de-force–fugues in the case of the Diabelli and Handel Variations, and a passacaglia in the Haydn Variations. The relationship of Reger’s Beethoven Variations to Brahms’s Haydn Variations was especially close. The themes are in the same key and share certain melodic characteristics. Brahms’s work also began life as a two-piano composition and was then arranged for orchestra.

The theme of Reger’s Beethoven Variations is taken from Beethoven’s Bagatelle for Piano, Op. 119, no. 11, in B-flat. The melody is quite regular in structure, comprised of two eight-measure segments, separated by a two-measure transition and followed four-measure coda. In his orchestration, Reger highlights this sectional structure by alternating the segments among different instrumental groups.

The orchestral version of Op. 86 is no mere transcription of the two-piano original. Reger reduces the number of variations from twelve to eight, thus bringing it into line with the Mozart Variations and reducing the total time to under thirty minutes (so that, he hoped, it might be programmed more readily). Reger also reverses the order of certain pairs of variations, such that the original III-IV become II-III, the original VI-VII become IV-V, and the original X-XI become VI-VII. With such revisions, Reger seeks to maximize contrast between successive variations.

The sequence of keys in the orchestral version is radical. After the theme, the tonic B-flat does not reappear until variation VI. The scheme is: B-flat (theme); G major (var. I); C minor (var. II); F major (var. III); D minor (var. IV); E-flat major (var. V); B-flat major (var. VI); D minor (var. VII); B-flat major (var. VIII and fugue). The contrast of meter and of tempo between variations is just as extreme. After the theme and variation I, both in 4/4, Reger shifts to 9/8 (var. II), then 4/8 (var. III), and so forth. Reger’s variation technique is equally advanced. The original tune–one of Beethoven’s most hummable melodies–becomes atomized or broken down into motivic particles such that it is often unrecognizable.

Reger’s Beethoven Variations, though rarely performed today (in either version), are true harbingers of an important feature of twentieth-century music, one that is being emphasized in this year’s ASO programs. The past, in this case represented by Beethoven’s sweetly innocent theme, becomes subtly but profoundly filtered through the musical techniques and ideologies of the present.