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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Das Musikalische Opfer

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April has five Tuesdays, so we have a “bonus” PTB this month, and it will be our last Tuesday post in our month-long look at “single works” here and on my Friday Podcasts. When I originally planned out the work selection for April, I had lined up a “complete” performance of the Art of the Fugue, but since we touched the work on an earlier Podcast Vault selection and in the Chronique du Disque, I changed things up, without straying too far from Johann Sebastian Bach and the fugue compilations that we find later in the BWV catalog.

The Musical Offering (in German, Das Musikalische Opfer), BWV 1079, is a collection of canons and fugues and other pieces of music by Bach, all based on a single musical theme given to him by Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia), to whom they are dedicated.

In 1745, as part of the complex web of alliances involved in the Silesian Wars, Prussian forces attacked Leipzig, and although the City Fathers prudently saved their city by surrendering, Prussian forces briefly occupied the city garrison, departing on New Year's Day 1746.

Although Bach had received several Royal Requests to visit King Frederick the Great of Prussia in Potsdam, conveyed through his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel who was employed as Court Harpsichordist there, Bach would naturally feel that in view of recent hostilities such a visit would not be well received in Leipzig. After putting off the visit by pleading ill-health, in 1747 Bach finally made the long, 20-hour journey from Leipzig to attend at the Royal Palace in Potsdam on May 7.

The King's Summer Palace, called Sanssouci ('Without Care'), situated in the Royal Park nearby, had been completed and dedicated on May 1st, 1747, just prior to Bach's visit; it is still standing and open to visitors. The King and his Capelle normally played chamber music there between 7 and 9 pm.

The story, well documented in contemporary newspapers, recounts that on Bach's arrival, Frederick was about to begin his evening concert, in which he himself played the flute with the orchestra. He was given the list of people who had arrived at Court, and, laying down his flute, he said to his orchestra, 'Gentlemen, old Bach is here'. He then canceled his evening concert and invited Bach straight up to try his new fortepianos built by Bach's organ-builder colleague and friend Gottfried Silbermann. The King owned seven of these instruments, located in different rooms.

Bach was asked to improvise on the new instrument. For his anticipated visit, Bach had been provided in advance a long and complex musical theme on which to improvise a three-voice fugue. He did so, but Frederick then challenged him to improvise a six-voice fugue on the same theme. Bach answered that he would need to work the score and send it to the King afterwards.

Two months after the meeting, Bach published a set of pieces based on this theme which we now know as The Musical Offering. Bach inscribed the piece "Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta" (the theme given by the king, with additions, resolved in the canonic style), the first letters of which spell out the word ricercar, a well-known genre of the time.

In its finished form, The Musical Offering comprises two Ricercars (a Ricercar a 6 and a 3 – 6 and 3 voice fuguyes respectively), ten Canons, and a trio sonata featuring the flute, an instrument which Frederick played, consisting of four movements.

As the printed version gives the impression to be organised for (reduction of) page turning when sight-playing the score, the order of the pieces intended by Bach (if there was an intended order) remains uncertain, although it is customary to open the collection with the Ricercar a 3, and play the trio sonata toward the end. The Canones super Thema Regium are also usually played together.

Apart from the trio sonata, which is written for flute, violin and basso continuo, the pieces have few indications of which instruments are meant to play them, although there is now significant support for the idea that they are for solo keyboard, like most of Bach's other published works. In a past Chrinique, I pointed out an orchestral setting arranged by Igor Markevich.

The Ricercar a 6, the “challenge” six-voice fugue which is the highpoint of the entire work, was put forward by the musicologist Charles Rosen as the most significant piano composition in history (partly because it is one of the first). This ricercar is also occasionally called the Prussian Fugue, a name used by Bach himself.

More to read on the work -

The Musical Offering can be compared to The Art of Fugue for its thorough handling of a theme. The music is diverse, heavenly, and inexhaustible. It stands as one of the finest pieces of chamber music from the Baroque era, and is a favorite among musicians who enjoy a challenge.

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 -1750)
The Musical Offering , for keyboard and chamber instruments, BWV 1079

Robert Kohnen (harpsichord)
Barthold Kuijken (flute)
Sigiswald Kuijken (violin)
Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba)
Year of recording: 1994

April 25, 2014, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "A Faust Symphony" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel .Read more April 25 on our blogs in English and in French.