Johann Sebastian Bach

The Musical Offering (Musikalisches Opfer), for keyboard and chamber instruments, BWV 1079

    Description by John Keillor

    Johann Sebastian Bach's The Musical Offering, BWV 1079, consists of 16 movements and is slightly longer than 50 minutes in duration, resulting from a challenge to develop a theme played for the composer by Frederick the Great. The meeting took place on May 7, 1747, and Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, who often accompanied Frederick in performances of chamber music, arranged for the two men to meet. By then, J.S. Bach, "the old Bach of Leipzig," was considered as a writer of old-fashioned music, but his improvising skills were still legendary. Frederick, the King of Prussia, did not approve of overly complicated music, clearly preferring the fashionable galant style to the complicated fugues of high Baroque music. In an apparent attempt to confound the old master, the monarch offered an awkward chromatic subject for the elderly composer to improvise upon, and was amazed by Bach's handling of this "Royal Theme." Afterward, the improviser insisted that he still had not done the theme justice, and that he would endeavor to do so. Later that year, The Musical Offering appeared in print, dedicated to Frederick the Great, and published at the composer's own expense. It demonstrates the full arsenal of the Baroque composer of fugues and does it with more fluency than any other composer of the time would have been able to provide. Of course, it takes into account the monarch's passion for flute playing and offers a prominent part for the instrument.

    Unfortunately, this gesture of respect and reverence more or less backfired. The flute part is fiendishly difficult, and there is no allowance for the monarch's clear preference for galant music; it is as Baroque as anything else Bach wrote, except where he takes galant ideas and makes them more Baroque. For example, instead of performing a simple "sigh" gesture in the flute sonata movement, a descending interval that sounds like a sigh, Bach sequences it in different pitches until it is as difficult and Baroque as anything as he had written before. Galant music is meant to be simple, a return to melody over harmony, and is the first step toward the Classical music of Haydn and Mozart. Furthering the conflict between Bach's offering and Frederick's goodwill was the theological inferences imbedded in the music. Much of it is in a holy code that was clearly derivative of church music and Frederick, a man of the enlightenment, had little use for anything liturgical. In the centuries that divide the composer's world-view and the current millennium, the many Lutheran inferences of the music have lost the impact they once had.

    The Musical Offering can be compared to The Art of Fugue for its thorough handling of the theme. The quality of 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.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Ricercare à 3
    2. Canon perpetuus super thema regimum
    3. Canons diversi. Canon à 2 "Canon Cancrizans" (Crab Canon)
    4. Canons diversi. Canon à 2 "Violini in unisono"
    5. Canons diversi. Canon à 2 "Canon per motum contrarium"
    6. Canons diversi. Canon à 2 "Canon per augmentationem, contrario motu"
    7. Canons diversi. Canon à 2 "Canon circularis per tonos"
    8. Fuga Canonica in Epidiapente
    9. Ricercare à 6
    10. Canon à 2 "Quaerando invenietis"
    11. Canon à 4
    12. Sonata sopr'il Soggetto Reale: Largo
    13. Sonata sopr'il Soggetto Reale: Allegro
    14. Sonata sopr'il Soggetto Reale: Andante
    15. Sonata sopr'il Soggetto Reale: Allegro
    16. Canon Perpetuo [per justi intervali]

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Eigenart EIGEN 10540
    2017 BIS BIS 2151
    2017 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 16010
    2016 Archiv Produktion 0002894795814
    2016 Archiv Produktion 4795384
    2016 Das Alte Werk 557836
    2016 Harmonia Mundi HMX 290855657
    2015 Harmonia Mundi HMX 290874244
    2015 Arcana A 384
    2015 Mirare MIR 237
    2015 Erato
    2015 Regent REGCD 454
    2014 Passacaille PAS 1000
    2014 Profil / Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 13053
    2013 Steinway & Sons 30024
    2013 Carus CV 83460
    2013 La Dolce Volta LDV 04
    2012 Acanta 233587
    2011 Decca 458 319-2LC5
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94050
    2009 SOMM 77
    2009 Brilliant Classics 93814
    2009 Challenge Classics 72309
    2008 SBC/Sony BMG Europe / Seon 737700
    2008 Warner Classics / Warner Classics & Jazz 69475
    2008 Brilliant Classics 93668
    2008 DHM Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697281822
    2007 Orfeo 676071
    2007 Harmonia Mundi 2908250
    2006 Brilliant Classics 99697
    2006 Brilliant Classics 93102
    2005 Brilliant Classics 92215
    2004 Brilliant Classics 92391
    2003 Parlophone
    2002 Sony Classical 5081122
    2001 Alia Vox 9819
    2001 Arion 68526
    2001 Arcana 306
    2001 Harmonia Mundi HMA195 1260
    2001 Teldec 81223
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 74439
    2001 Decca 467267
    2001 Alia Vox 9817
    2000 Claves 500198
    2000 Amadeus 7004
    2000 Tahra 185-189
    1999 Teldec 25705
    1999 Teldec 25704
    1999 Capriccio Records 492542
    1999 Teldec 3984-25716-2
    1999 Harmonia Mundi 2908084/90
    1999 Haenssler 92133
    1999 Harmonia Mundi 2951260
    1999 MDG 3090931
    1998 Naxos 8 553286
    1997 Centaur Records 2295
    1997 Sony Music Distribution 63189
    1997 Philips 456 377-2PB9
    1997 Fleurs de Lys FL2 3065
    1996 Virgin 45139
    1996 Philips 454648
    1996 EMI Music Distribution 569212-2
    1995 Capriccio Records 10032
    1995 DHM Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77307
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 65332
    1995 Supraphon 0087
    1994 Philips 442 556-2PM2
    1993 Edition RZ 60001
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 67350
    1988 Harmonia Mundi 901260
    Brilliant 93102-VOL1
    Brilliant 99701
    Capriccio Records 492627
    Supraphon 87
    Fonit-Cetra Italia 2048
    Panton Records 810750
    Erasmus 162
    Analekta 28052
    Virgin 61154
    Denon Records 75861
    Brilliant Classics 93668/24
    Brilliant 99701/19
    Teldec
    Brilliant 93102/19
    Brilliant 92391/24
    Denon Records 78915
    Archiv Produktion 413642
    Pavel Zarukin 50
    Denon Records 7953
    Arte Nova 30489