Little Writing on Reger’s Bach Variations

NOTE: This text was written right after teaching Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach in my Music Humanities course at Columbia in the summer of 2013.  I taught this piece alongside the texts of Michel Foucault (“What is Author?”) and Roland Barthes (“The Death of the Author”) in order to rethink the role of Authors and Readers.  However, it became apparent that I was pathetically incoherent in tying these materials together.  This is my attempt to tie the writings together.  Still, it is a sort of “fantasy piece.”  Pardon in advance to those who may feel bewildered to see Reger, Foucault and Barthes in the same room.  

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A Few Thoughts on Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach
(to Eric Sewell)

“The author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and re-composition of fiction. In fact, if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion. One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. (When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production.) The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” – Michel Foucault, What is Author?

Max Reger is writing Variations on the Theme of Bach and Fugue.  Reger places himself in front of Johann Sebastian Bach.   Of what does this signify?

He chooses an aria of the Bach’s Cantata BWV 128, used for services in Ascention.  The text of the aria reads:

His boundless might to fathom
No mortal will be able,
My mouth falls dumb and still.

I see, though, through the heavens
That he e’en at this distance
At God’s right hand appears.

Did Reger see Bach through God?  To him, did the passage “his boundless might” obliquely imply Bach?  Reger did not know Foucault, but the act of placing himself in front of Bach could mean the following: that Reger himself acknowledges that he does not precede Bach, Bach’s aria, or even his own Variations.  It is, in fact, the blunt acknowledgment of Reger being “nobody” in front of such a major figure as Bach, as he is left with his “mouth fall[ing] dumb and still.”

However, this act of humility in its extreme sense is only the beginning of the story.  After all, he did write variations on the theme of Bach.  What compelled Reger to choose Bach?  (…of course he wrote other variations as well, with themes of Corelli or Mozart.)  Precisely because, in front of Bach, he becomes humble; in fact, he can then finally become a composer.

In the beginning, the theme is presented in its most honest form.  A very simple harmonic accompaniment, with little to no invasion to the theme itself.  Here, in Reger’s composition, Bach is alive and sound.  However, as Reger writes out the theme of Bach, he is also reading it.  As a reader of the musical text that originates from Bach, here in this presentation of the theme does Reger become aware of the “space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” (Barthes).  In reading the theme, Reger becomes aware of this space provided by Bach, thus enabling Reger to work in it.  Perhaps it was not the idea of “tissues of citations” that compelled Reger to write variations on Bach, but precisely it is a kind of tissue, a very rich tissue abundant in layers of ideas, which Reger could peel like an onion to uncover the details..

This is perhaps the privilege that Reger enjoyed as being the reader of Bach.  Perhaps this is why Bach was chosen as his mighty subject.  (One must not forget also that Reger was a formidable organist, who undoubtedly knew a lot of pieces by Bach.)  Reger’s humility was so that he makes a dialectical turn to consume Bach.  But to do so, he had to first become a close reader of Bach.  At first, Reger, the reader of Bach, had not much to write his own trace.  He instead traced Bach.  After making this aural dessin, he increasingly becomes empowered by the compelling force to “say something,” something that becomes apparent after inhibiting in the space of Bach.  Thus, as the variations moves on, the Bach’s theme becomes increasingly concealed.  What was initially audible as the theme becomes increasingly obscured as the time goes by.  By the later variations, we can only hear the fragments, or even only the trace of the theme, i.e. that which supported the melody, harmonic accompaniment.  Reger increasingly regains his imagination as a composer.  His imaginations ornaments, even alters the appearance of the theme.  Finally the last variation, he presents the theme, but in the bass line over the swaying 16th-note harmonic swerves.  Now Bach supports Reger from below.

The vision of Bach’s theme becomes increasingly vague.  Reger departs from Bach, in order to extend his arms and hands, through which he would write his variations.   To extend his imagination in a space is also a form of suffering.  He is not a bird freely flying in the sky.  He is in a cage.  There seems to be a limited sense, or even a lack of freedom imposed on him (but of course, this helps Reger attain his own freedom.)  The fourth variation of the music begins with a sort of introduction, which is not immediately part of the Bach’s theme.  Bach’s theme is then presented, but it is quickly interrupted by the outcry of the “introduction” material.  Here we hear the struggle of a man attempting to overcome the pedestal.  In fact, going through each of the variations, albeit varying in its emotional content, does seem to display different aspect of a man who struggles, or who lives to struggle in order to gain his own voice.

Bach, in this sense, through Reger’s variations, becomes from physical to metaphysical.  While we may not hear the Bach’s melody, it lives in a “spiritual” form.  We may not see or hear it, but it is still there.  Of what remains, then, in Reger’s variations?  What do we hear instead of the recurrence of the Bach theme?

What was calmly presented homophonically at the onset of the Reger composition now enters the formidable maze of polyphony, fugue.  Here, Bach has disappeared.  He appears as a spirit, invisible, yet omnipresent.  This omnipresence presents Reger with the ultimate challenge to Reger, to compose fugue.  It is not a fugue as in the academic exercise.  It is a fugue that needs to follow after forsaking the master of fugue.

Did Reger triumph in the end?  Bach attaining the spiritual form through Reger, where does he go then?  Barthes writes:

Thus literature (it would be better, henceforth, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a “secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.

Reger, too, refuses to give his ultimate meaning in this Variations and fugue.  In fact, Reger himself leaves from the music with the last chord of the fugue.  The privilege of reading is thus given to us by Reger.  Perhaps the fact Reger offers us to read his text is an indicative that, despite distancing, even rebelling Bach, he remained humble by the perpetual absence of ultimate meaning.

This was my personal, rather phenomenological reading of Reger’s Bach Variations and Fugue.  Perhaps my attempt to see how Reger spray-painted his graffiti on Bach’s pedestal: “Max was here” may not be something that many musicologists would like to read.  Yet through Foucault who helped dissolve “author-genius” myth and Barthes who transfers from authors to the readers the role of uniting “multiple writings” or “multiple cultures,” my task was to see how far I could go with this musical text.  The “ethical” question of whether I was a responsible reader or not throughout my own imagining, should be reserved for another discussion.

One thought on “Little Writing on Reger’s Bach Variations

  1. Jemille

    Reger’s treatment of the Bach seems to unfold thusly: Obviously, Reger was deeply influenced by Bach’s work and rather than turn away from that or pretend it doesn’t exist, he flatly alludes to it in his work. He makes clear that he is interpreting the theme in his own way. Whether he adds something to the work is purely subjective, but it seems obvious that rather than plagiarism, he is using the work as inspiration. Bach’s music, once released from his brain and pen becomes part of the cultural and creative commons. The music no longer belongs to Bach. It belongs to all of us to use as we will. It is important to give him the credit he deserves, but Reger frees the music. For more on the idea of the Creative Commons, feel free to visit