J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering

Saturday, February 5 • Emmanuel Church library, Boston
Sunday, February 6 • Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester

Ricercar a 3          Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Canon a 2 cancrizans
Canon a 2 Violini in unisono
Canon a 2 in Motum contrarium
Canon a 2 per Augmentationem, contrario Motu
Canon a 2 per Tonos

Sonata Sopr’ Il Soggetto Reale
    Largo • Allegro • Andante • Allegro

Canon perpetuus
Canon perpetuus super Thema Regium
Fuga canonica in Epidiapente
Canon a 2
Canon a 4

Ricercar a 6


Suzanne Stumpf, traverso; Julia McKenzie and Lisa Brooke, violins
 Daniel Ryan, cello; Michael Bahmann, harpsichord

Program Notes

The genesis of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Musical Offering came from a visit Bach made in May 1747 to the court of the music-loving monarch, Frederick the Great of Prussia. Having ascended to the throne in 1740 upon the death of his father Friedrich Wilhelm I, Frederick the Great was eager to openly cultivate and display his passion for music, a passion that had been frowned upon by his father. The younger ruler assembled a group of fine musicians with whom he performed almost every evening. These included his personal flute teacher Quantz, the Graun brothers, the Benda brothers, and J. S. Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel.

In sharp contrast to his love of music and other arts, Frederick also engaged in a policy of imperial expansion and used strong military force in two wars against the allied armies of Poland, Austria, and Saxony. During the second of these wars, Bach’s home city of Leipzig was occupied by Prussian troops for a year in 1746. This invasion (in Bach’s own description) must have been fresh in his mind when, six months after the withdrawal of Prussian troops, he received an official invitation to visit Frederick’s court in Berlin. After numerous earlier invitations relayed in letters from Bach’s son Philipp Emmanuel, one can’t help but wonder if there was an additional political motive for Frederick’s official invitation at that time.

While Bach is today chiefly known as a composer of sacred vocal music, keyboard music, and instrumental chamber music, his reputation during his lifetime was as a skilled keyboard performer and improviser, a master of the contrapuntal art, and as an expert on organ construction. It was in these specialties that Bach would likely have been most familiar to Frederick. The story of Bach’s visit to Frederick’s court was related by Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann to Bach’s first biographer Forkel:

The king used to have every evening a private concert, in which he himself generally performed some concertos on the flute. One evening, just as he was getting his flute ready and his musicians were assembled, an officer brought him the written list of the strangers who had arrived. With his flute in his hand, he ran over the list, but immediately turned to the assembled musicians and said, with a kind of agitation: “Gentlemen, old Bach is come.” The flute was now laid aside; and old Bach, who had alighted at his son’s lodgings, was immediately summoned to the Palace.
… the King gave up his concert for this evening and invited Bach … to try his fortepianos, made by Silbermann, which stood in several rooms of the Palace. The musicians went with him from room to room, and Bach was invited to try them and to play unpremeditated compositions. After he had gone on for some time, he asked the King to give him a subject for a fugue in order to execute it immediately without any preparation. The King admired the learned manner in which his subject was thus executed extempore; and, probably to see how far such art could be carried, expressed a wish to hear also a fugue with six obbligato parts. But as not every subject is fit for such full harmony, Bach chose one himself and immediately executed it to the astonishment of all present in the same magnificent and learned manner as he had done that of the King.

Bach’s visit to Potsdam was arguably the most well-publicized single event of his career. A detailed description of this visit was published in newspapers in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig and other cities. This account also gave the first hint of Bach’s intentions to compose a work based upon the fugue subject supplied by the King. “Mr. Bach found the theme propounded to him so exceedingly beautiful that he intends to set it down on paper as a regular fugue and have it engraved on copper.” When Bach returned to Leipzig, however, he decided to greatly expand the scope of the project to include not only a single fugue, but an additional six-part fugue (or ricercar), a trio sonata, and various canons, all of which are based on the Royal theme and many of which pay special tribute to the King.

Even though the events surrounding Bach’s visit with the King and the subsequent publishing of the Musical Offering are relatively well-documented, many questions about this work remain unanswered. Was it compiled and published all at once? Was there an overall plan for the order of its various parts? What were the intended instrumentations of the canons?
These questions have arisen in part because of the unusual form in which the work was published. The work was issued in three booklets or fascicles, each of which is in a different size and format, compounding the issues of composition and performance order. The first fascicle contains the 3-part ricercar, along with the title page and dedication; the second fascicle contains parts for the trio sonata and a canon perputuus; the third fascicle comprises the six-part ricercar (notated in open score) along with the remainder of the canons. The fact that Bach tended to be very exacting with regard to how he organized major works (such as the Clavierübung series and the Kunst der Fuge, for example), it seems almost inconceivable that he would be indifferent to the ordering of the parts of this work. Scholars continue to explore this intractable issue, one which Bach could have deliberately left as another musical puzzle to be solved.

© Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf