Reger wrote to the pianist August Stradal of Schönberg's Three Piano Pieces op. 11, works that had appeared during that same year: "l know the three piano pieces by Arnold Schonberg; I cannot follow him there. Whether one can still label such things 'music' I do not know; my brain is really to old for this! ... Oh, it makes one want to become a conservative! I believe that I may claim that the path I set out on in Opp. 113 [Piano Quartet], 114[Piano Concerto], and 116 [Violoncello Sonata] will lead to a goal more so than all the new ways."
The element of resignation very much characteristic of Reger's late work, this in the face of the newest developments of musical modernism, is heralded in these words. Reger's last cello sonata contrasts with his first such work in many respects. Instead of an initial outburst in ffz in both instruments, the cello begins alone with the mottolike theme, a chromatic line with an interval structure offering a model example for the forming of the manifold associations that are a hallmark of Reger's mature style. This style not only mirrors the whole course of compositional history from past centuries but also reflects on Reger's own early oeuvre. In doing so, it avoids obvious citation and thus shines all the more evocatively. The first sonata begins with upbeat (piano) and syncopated (cello) themes. These themes determine the forward drive and breakneck impetus of the work right from its very first measure. In contrast, the cello cantilena in the last sonata begins on the downbeat and in half notes. The choral-like peace expounded here is not a false lead: the first four tones (e-b flat-f-d sharp, mm. 1 -2) may be understood as a spreading out of Reger's favorite motif (b-a-c-h; English: b flat-a-c-b).During the course of the movement this motif is presented in subliminal insertion and once in literal form. The motivic variation technique here is extremely refined and flexible in every respect. It takes its point of departure from this solistic cello beginning, and the following observations serve to illustrate it. The ascending minor sixth followed by two descending half tones (e-c-b-b flat, m. 3) recalls the cello introduction in the Tristan Prelude (a-f-e-d sharp, mm. 1 -2) It is not a mere coincidence that the endless melody of the cello cantilena forms the general themeof the sonata; it lends it the character of a somewhat nostalgic retrospective. There are allusions to Beethoven's Violoncello Sonata in A majorop. 69, a work also assigning an initial solo to the stringed instrument.
Reger removes the veil in the antepenultimate measures of the first movement of the sonata. In the concluding resumption of the beginning Reger modifies the original e-b flat tritone to an e-a fifth, the inversion of the beginning of Beethoven's sonata (a-e). The movement ends in A major, the key of Beethoven's sonata. The allusion to Beethoven'sop. 69 continues in the rhythmical structure of the scherzo. As always, Reger adheres to the classical sonata scheme (Allegro moderate-Presto-Largo-Allegretto con grazia), but with a the fan of twelve-tone complexes and sound planes of indeterminate tonality. All four movements of the sonata develop from and end in a pianissimo.
The journey between the F minor sonata of the nineteen-year-old and the A minor sonata of the thirty-seven-year-old seems to have been both long and short. The last sonata, like the first, concludes by returning to the beginning, not in the form of a literal resumption but with what might be termed a variative sublimation. The descending cello cantilena in the last three measures the ascending line in the three measures introducing the theme: the minor sixth of the A minor (with its Wagernian yearning) has become the major sixth of the concluding A major.
Translated by Susan Mane Praeder