Reger's Bach and Historicist Modernism

Frisch, Walter M.

Max Reger forged a special path to musical modernism, one that may be considered historicist, through his assimilation of the music of J. S. Bach. Historicism acknowledges a debt to tradition and the past, but through the perspective and techniques of the present. Brahms proved a powerful model for Reger's historicist modernism. The article first briefly examines Bach reception in the Austro-German sphere in the years around 1900 and Reger's own activities as editor, arranger, and performer of Bach's music. It then focuses on two of Reger's own compositions. An early work, the Organ Suite, op. 16 (1895), has as its slow movement a chorale prelude based on three different melodies associated with Bach, which are combined in dense counterpoint. The E-minor finale of op. 16 is an extraordinary synthesis of Bach's C-Minor Passacaglia and the last movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. In a mature work, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Bach, op. 81 (1904), for piano, Reger self-consciously places himself in the tradition of two monumental variation sets from the nineteenth century, Beethoven's "Diabelli" and Brahms's Handel Variations. Reger creates a complex temporal-historical framework in which Bach's theme and the stricter variations that adhere to its structure seem to imply a more stable past while the freer, more fragmentary, and improvisatory-sounding variations capture an anxious present. This tension between past and present lies at the heart of Reger's historicist modernism.



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19th-Century Music

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University of California Press
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July 29, 2015