J. S. Bach: A Musical Offering

J. S. Bach: A Musical Offering

Towards the end of his life, in 1747, Johann Sebastian Bach left his home city of Leipzig and visited Berlin where the king, Frederick the Great, laid down a challenge. Could Bach improvise a complex fugue on an original theme written by the king—himself a talented flautist? This was a very tricky task, says Johannes Pramsohler, the leader of Baroque specialists Ensemble Diderot. “Bach was asked to improvise a fugue with six voices,” he tells Apple Music Classical, “but what he decided to do instead is improvise a fugue of three voices, but put the other one down on paper and send it to the king as a present.” The Musical Offering is one of Bach’s greatest chamber works, with its series of ingenious canons and fugues, including that astonishing six-part fugue or, as it’s called here, ricercar. “It’s a monumental work with a great story behind it,” adds Pramsohler. Read on, as Pramsohler delves into Ensemble Diderot’s 2023 recording of Bach’s answer to the royal test. Theme “Frederick the Great gave Bach a really long and complex theme that starts with some huge leaps and a lot of chromaticism, which made it quite hard for Bach to improvise on. We decided to have the theme played on the flute, which was the king’s instrument.” Ricercar a 3 “The ‘Ricercar a 3’ is the piece that Bach supposedly improvised before the king. It’s a fugue of three voices in which Bach gives a short glimpse of all the elements he’s going to use later. We like to think of the whole work as a well-planned speech, and this is the part where we try to get the listeners’ attention.” Canon Perpetuus Super Thema Regium “Bach opens his discourse with this canon. And, like a lawyer would do in a pleading, Bach simply lays out the facts. Here, the flute plays the theme in its purest form, while the other two instruments, cello and violin, play in a very strict canon around it.” Canon a 2 Cancrizans “This movement’s title literally means ‘crab’, and we all know how crabs walk. In this canon we only hear the two violins. When you see it on the page as Bach wrote it, it’s fascinating. Both violins start at the same time, but one reads the score backwards and the other one the right way. If you’re listening in Spatial Audio, the two violins start quite far left and right from the ears and get nearer and nearer. The moment of repeat occurs inside the head of the listener before each violinist walks out in the opposite direction.” Canon a 2 Violini in Unisono “Here, Bach tells us which instruments to use. It’s the only time in The Musical Offering where he specifies two violins. And if we come back to the idea of it being a speech, we can imagine the two violins being like two actors, hopping around the theme.” Canon a 2 per Motum contrarium “In this canon, the three upper voices are left floating above the ground. If you’re listening to the Spatial Audio mix, you can’t really locate the three instruments as they levitate around the room like ghosts.” Canon a 2 per Augmentationem, contrario Motu “The rhythm here is dotted—the so-called royal rhythm. It evokes magnificence, gold, glory, luxury. If you listen carefully, you can hear the second violin playing the exact same thing as the first, but twice as slowly. And, in fact, Bach gives a little hint in this canon: ‘May the fortunes of the king increase like the length of the notes.’” Canon a 2 per Tonos “For the Canon a 2 per Tonos, Bach again gives us a hint. He writes, ‘As the modulation rises, so may the king’s glory.’ This is one of his craziest canons and the most difficult to play. The image that comes to mind is a Roman triumphal column with a spiral relief that winds around it. As you listen to it, watch it go into heaven.” Fuga canonica in Epidiapente “With this fugue we come out of the first part of our speech. We’ve made the listener attentive, we’ve laid out the facts and we’ve praised the king. In this canon we praise ourselves as narrators and prove that we are up to the task to deal with the issues that follow.” Ricercar a 6 “The ‘Ricercar a 6’ is the piece that the king asked Bach to play, but Bach had to give up and tell him that he needed time to lay it out on paper at home. Combining six voices in a fugue throughout a whopping eight and a half minutes is completely crazy.” Canon a 2 & Canon a 4 “Bach follows with two ‘riddle’ canons where he gives no indication as to when the other parts have to start playing. You have to find out yourself through trial and error. The first one, the ‘Canon a 2’, is the easier one. If we think of a pleading in court, for example, this is the part where we accuse the culprit of the crime. With the following ‘Canon a 4’, comes the defence. It’s the longest canon of The Musical Offering, and the first one where all the instruments play.” Canon perpetuus “With the ‘Canon perpetuus’ we arrive at the so-called ‘peroration’, which is the part of a speech where we conclude. The conclusion has two parts, and this is the one where we remind the listener of the facts.” Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale “These next four tracks are the famous trio sonata of The Musical Offering where we conclude our speech based on emotions. Bach uses the form of the trio sonata, which was the standard form of chamber music in Baroque, and he uses the flute because it was the instrument of the king. It’s a delight to play, perhaps the greatest and certainly the grandest trio sonata ever written. For me, it’s the centrepiece of the work and also the glorious end of the whole Baroque.”

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