Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.A. Hiller

Max Reger

Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.A. Hiller

Op. 100

About this work

When Max Reger composed his Variations and Fugue on a theme of J.A. Hiller for orchestra, Op. 100, in 1907, he had just abandoned life in Munich to accept an appointment to the faculty of Leipzig University. Life in Leipzig was much more congenial to the young composer, and it was over the course of the next several years that his full musical powers revealed themselves and brought him a welcome degree of international fame. Reger scholars like to pinpoint the wonderfully intricate Hiller Variations and Fugue as a key step in the gradual revelation of those astounding but still generally underappreciated contrapuntal, textural, and coloristic skills; like the more famous Mozart Variations and Fugue, Op. 136, that would follow seven years later, this is very important music that demonstrates Reger's deep and abiding belief in the vitality of musical tradition -- a belief that didn't always endear him to his colleagues during the progressive and sometimes aggressive opening years of the new century.

After the initial presentation of Hiller's theme (Andante grazioso), there are 11 variations and then a lengthy fugue built on a subject cleverly drawn from the building-blocks of the theme. The first variation may be marked Più andante, but it is certainly a happy and energetic romp that cools its jets only at the end, to pave the way into the voluptuous, swell-filled variation No. 2 (Allegretto con grazia). No. 3 begins Vivace, but the memory of No. 2 is too sweet, and midway through, things slow down to recall its graceful velvet. Much of the incessant development heard in the following variation (Poco vivace) is driven by a motor rhythm in the horns. A not-so-light Minuet is played out as the sixth variation, and then the horns again start up a motor rhythm in No. 7 (Presto). A solo violin makes an appearance in No. 8 (Andante con moto), but soon evaporates into the orchestral fabric. No. 9 (Allegro con spirito) turns out to be really just a prefatory gesture to the vigorous and climactic Allegro appassionato of No. 10. The solo violin returns near the opening of the long and gentle final variation (Andante con moto), and then the solo clarinet takes a turn, completely unaccompanied, to bring about the sonorous, wonderfully drawn-out final cadence.

The fugue's subject is proclaimed at the start by the first violins, and then by the rest of the strings one section at a time as the woodwinds begin to add countersubject material; a grand contrapuntal web is woven, culminating in a huge climax over a sustained dominant pedal in the timpani and lower winds and strings. This climax whose resolution is as warm and rich as anything Reger ever put to paper, and very possibly anything written by anybody during that decade.