The impending Johann Sebastian Bach bicentennial year brought about this intellectually impressive, viscerally energetic ten-minute orchestral composition.
Composers the world over were preparing for 1950 (the 200th anniversary of Bach's death) by creating works in Baroque forms -- such as the ricercare -- and frequently using Bach's musical initials BACH (B flat, A, C, B). Bach himself used this motive, which is an inherently dynamic one because it is made of two pairs of half steps, giving it a powerful, minor key feeling. Although the title ricercare is not an infrequent designation in early Baroque music, Bach's use of the term for The Musical Offering for movements in imitative counterpoint is something of a revival. When much later composers such as Andriessen adopt it, they almost always are referring to Bach's ricercari. The term literally derives from the root of the word research and the mood of these works -- including the instant one -- retains a serious, exploratory quality. The point of such a work, it seems, is to give the impression of an exercise in taking a pair of contrasting ideas and seeing where their contrapuntal interplay can lead. Thus, it is a precursor of the symphonic (or sonata) form. Andriessen's Ricercare starts with exploratory plucking of the harp (supported by low strings), then announces a majestic string theme. An almost timid flute melody tinged with sadness answers it. This is all by way of introduction. A flourish on the harp initiates the main body of the movement, which is in a rapid tempo with pulsing chords. The mood of the two themes reverses at the outset: the flute theme is still light, but jolly, while the string theme achieves the uncertain mood of a seeker. The themes no longer necessarily remain in the same instruments, but fluidly move among the instruments. There is an energizing repeated-note figure (deriving from the repeated harp chords at the very beginning) that helps push the music along. At least two of these elements are usually being played at once as Andriessen retains the essentially contrapuntal nature of the classical ricercare. Just about halfway through the piece, the tempo suddenly slows to that of the introduction, returning the flute melody to close to its original form. Its string counterpart, however, takes on tragic, unsettled qualities. It is this mood that eventually restores the main rapid tempo. Again, it is the energetic form of the flute theme that starts out this quasi-recapitulation. After re-establishing pretty much the original fast-tempo ideas, the music breaks away to start a fugal episode, but the restless search of the music abandons this and pushes into a more symphonic sound. It's not out of place here to comment that the style is not far from that of the best action music of John Williams (though the themes are less commercial). After reaching its grand finale, the piece does not resolve just yet. Instead, the tempo slows back to that of the introduction for a full restatement of the original form of the impressive opening string theme.