The Musical Offering

The Musical Offering

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, all based on a single musical theme given to him by Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great), to whom they are dedicated. The Ricercar a 6, a 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).[1] This Ricercar is also occasionally called the Prussian Fugue, a name used by Bach himself.


The music

The King's theme

The collection has its roots in a meeting between Bach and Frederick II on May 7, 1747. The meeting, taking place at the King's residence in Potsdam, came about because Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel was employed there as court musician. Frederick wanted to show the elder Bach a novelty, the piano, which had been invented some years earlier. The King owned several of the experimental instruments being developed by Gottfried Silbermann.[2] During his anticipated visit to Frederick's palace in Potsdam, Bach, who was well known for his skill at improvising, received from Frederick 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. The public present thought that just a malicious caprice by the King, intent upon humiliating philosophers and artists. Bach answered that he would need to work the score and send it to the King afterwards. He then returned to Leipzig to write out the Thema Regium ("theme of the king"):[3]

The theme from The Musical Offering

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.

The "thema regium" appears as the theme for the first and last movements of the 7th Sonata in D Minor by Friedrich Wilhelm Rust, written in about 1788, and also as the theme for elaborate variations by Giovanni Paisiello in his "Les Adieux de la Grande Duchesse ds Russies," written in about 1784, upon his departure from the court of Catherine the Great.

Possible origin of the theme

Humphrey F. Sassoon has compared the theme issued by Frederick II to the theme of an A minor fugue (HWV 609) by George Frideric Handel, published in Six fugues or voluntarys for organ or harpsichord. Sassoon notes that "Handel's theme is much shorter than the King's, but its musical 'architecture' is uncannily similar: jumps followed by a descending chromatic scale." He also elaborates on their additional similarities, which lead Sassoon to suggest that Bach used Handel's A minor fugue as a structural model or guide for the Musical Offering's Ricercar a 6, and that its musical concepts may also have influenced Bach's development of the Ricercar a 3.[4] Nevertheless, the Ricercar a 6 is longer and incomparably more complex than Handel's fugue.

Structure and 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:
    • Canones diversi super Thema Regium:
      • 2 Canons a 2 (the first representing a notable example of a crab canon)
      • Canon a 2, per motum contrarium
      • Canon a 2, per augmentationem, contrario motu
      • Canon a 2, per tonos
    • Canon perpetuus
    • Fuga canonica
    • Canon a 2 "Quaerendo invenietis"
    • Canon a 4
    • Canon perpetuus, contrario motu
  • A Sonata sopr'il Soggetto Reale – a trio sonata featuring the flute, an instrument which Frederick played, consisting of four movements:

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.

The ricercars and canons have been realised in various ways. The ricercars are more frequently performed on keyboard than the canons, which are often played by an ensemble of chamber musicians, with instrumentation comparable to that of the trio sonata.

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.

Musical riddles

Some of the canons of the Musical Offering are represented in the original score by no 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. augmentation, 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" (as the modulation rises, so may the King's glory).

Theological character

Among the theories about external sources of influence, Michael Marissen’s[5] is the best-founded and the most plausible, drawing attention to the possibility of theological connotations. Marissen sees an incongruity between the official dedication to Frederick the Great and the affect of the music, which is often melancholy, even mournful. The trio sonata is a contrapuntal sonata da chiesa, whose style was at odds with Frederick’s secular tastes. The inscription Quaerendo invenietis, found over Canon No. 9, alludes to the Sermon on the Mount (“Seek and ye shall find”, Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9). The main title, Opfer (“offering”), makes it possible for the cycle to be viewed as an Offertory in the religious sense of the word.

In a recent study[6] Zoltán Göncz has pointed out, the authorial injunction to seek (Quaerendo invenietis) does not only relate to the riddle canons but to the six-part ricercar as well, whose archaic title also means to seek. There are several Biblical citations hidden in this movement, and their discovery is made especially difficult by various compositional maneuvers. The unique formal structure of the fugue provides a clue: certain anomalies and apparent inconsistencies point to external, nonmusical influences.


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. Frederick was reputedly not fond of complicated music, and soon after Bach's visit he was on his next war campaign, so it is possible it was not well received.[original research?]

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):

The opening of Webern's arrangement of "Ricercar a 6"

Bart Berman composed three new canons on the Royal Theme of the Musical Offering that were published in 1978 as a special holiday supplement to the Dutch music journal Mens & Melodie (publisher: Het Spectrum).

Sofia Gubaidulina used the Royal Theme of the Musical Offering in her violin concerto Offertorium (1980). Orchestrated in an arrangement similar to Webern's, the theme is deconstructed note by note through a series of variations and reconstructed as a Russian Orthodox hymn.

Leslie Howard produced a new realisation of the Musical Offering, which he orchestrated and conducted in Finland in 1990.

Notable recordings

See also


  1. ^ New York Times article by Charles Rosen
  2. ^ David, Hans T.; Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff (1999). The New Bach Reader. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 224. ISBN 0-393-31956-3. 
  3. ^ Gaines, James R. (2006). Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. Harper Perennial. pp. 9–11. ISBN 978-0007153923. 
  4. ^ Humphrey F. Sassoon (2003). JS Bach's Musical Offering and the Source of Its Theme: Royal Peculiar. The Musical Times, Vol. 144, No. 1885, pp. 38-39
  5. ^ Michael Marissen (1995). Daniel R. Melamed. ed. "The theological character of J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering." in Bach Studies 2. Cambridge University Press. pp. 85–106. ISBN 978-0-521-47067-4. 
  6. ^ “The Sacred Codes of the Six-Part Ricercar” Bach. The Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute Vol. 42/1 (2011), 46–69. – online version: Bach Studies 11 (Hungarian Bach Society)

Further reading

  • Reinhard Boess: Die Kunst des Raetselkanons im ’musikalischen Opfer’, 1991, 2 vols., ISBN 3-7959-0530-3

External links

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