The Musical Offering

From Academic Kids

The Musical Offering (German title Musikalisches Opfer or Das Musikalische Opfer), BWV 1079, is a collection of canons and fugues and other pieces of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, based on a musical theme by Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) and dedicated to him.


The music

The theme from the king

The collection has its roots in a meeting between Bach and Frederick II on May 7, 1747. The meeting, taking place in the king's residence in Potsdam, resulted from Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel being employed there as court musician. Frederick wanted to show a novelty to Bach: the pianoforte had been invented a few years earlier, and the king owned such experimental instrument, allegedly the first Bach ever saw. Bach, who was well known for his skill at improvising, was given the following theme by Frederick to improvise a fugue upon:

Missing image
The Thema Regium ("theme from the king")

According to the press of the day, Bach succeeded pretty well in producing an instant fugue, allthough he must have confided afterwards he felt not very much at ease playing the new type of instrument.

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 letter of which spells out the word ricercar (an old name for a fugue).

Structure, instrumentation

In its finished form, The Musical Offering comprises:

  • Two ricercars, written down on as many staves as there are voices:
    • a ricercar a 6 (a six voice fugue)
    • a ricercar a 3 (a three voice fugue)
  • Ten canons
  • A four-movement trio sonata featuring the flute, an instrument which Frederick played.

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.

The ricercars and canons have been realised in various ways: The ricercars are frequently performed on keyboard instruments, an ensemble of chamber musicians with alternating instrument groups, comparable to the instrumentation of the trio sonata, often playing the canons. But also recordings on one or more keyboard instruments (piano, harpsichord) exist, as well as with a more ample orchestra-like instrumentation.

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.

Musical riddles

Some of the canons of the musical offering are represented in the original score by not more than a short monodic melody of a few measures, with a more or less enigmatic inscription in Latin above the melody. These compositions are called the riddle fugues (or sometimes, more appropriately, the riddle canons). The performer(s) is/are supposed to interpret the music as a multi-part piece (a piece with several intertwining melodies), while solving the "riddle". Some of these riddles have been explained to have more than one possible "solution", although nowadays most printed editions of the score give a single, more or less "standard" solution of the riddle, so that interpreters can just play, without having to worry about the Latin, or the riddle.

One of these riddle canons, "in augmentationem" (i.e. the length of the notes gets longer), is inscribed "Notulis crescentibus crescat Fortuna Regis" (may the fortunes of the king increase like the length of the notes), while a modulating canon which ends a tone higher than it starts is inscribed "Ascendenteque Modulationis ascendat Gloria Regis" (may the king's glory rise like the ascending modulation).


Little is known about how Frederick would have received the score dedicated to him, and whether he tried to solve any riddle or played the flute part of the trio sonata... Probably none of that: Frederick's musical taste supposedly did not very much cherish complicated music, and also: soon after Bach's visit he was on his next war campaign.

20th century adaptations and citations


The "Ricercar a 6" has been arranged on its own on a number of occasions, the most prominent arranger being Anton Webern, who in 1935 made a version for small orchestra, noted for its Klangfarbenmelodie style (i.e. melody lines are passed on from one instrument to another after every few notes, every note receiving the "tone color" of the instrument it is played on).

As reference

The Musical Offering is cited and deliberately interpreted by Douglas Hofstadter in his famous book Gdel, Escher, Bach.

See also

External links

hu:Musikalisches Opfer ja:音楽の捧げもの


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