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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - M
M is for 'Musical Offering'

James Gaines:
'I cannot listen to A Musical Offering without marvelling at the apparently limitless depth, range, and power of Bach's musical imagination. The theme of the work was given to him during a command performance for Frederick the Great in May of 1747, in front of an audience that included the best musicians in Germany as well as Bach's two eldest sons. Frederick had devised the theme - or instructed one of his composers to devise it - to be as resistant as possible to Bach's powers of improvisation, precisely because Frederick wanted to humiliate the man he called "Old Bach". Even more than he hated "counterpoint," Frederick loved to humiliate people, and he disliked Bach's music in particular. He said it "smells of the church".

To the shock especially of the composers in the audience that night, who knew when they heard it just how impossible Frederick's challenge was, Bach improvised a rigorous, very tight three-part fugue on Frederick's devilishly chromatic subject, which has ever since been called "The Royal Theme". Frederick, taken aback and no doubt rather annoyed, tried to get even by asking for a six -part fugue on the subject, which was too much even for Bach, who said he would have to pass and work that out on paper. So Frederick rescued some satisfaction from the evening, at least. But two months later, Bach threw the Royal Theme back in his Royal Face, with a sixteen-movement masterpiece that uses Frederick's fugue subject in every conceivable way and in ways inconceivable as well, in the most beautiful and affecting trio sonata he ever wrote, in ten strict and free canons - the most potent volley of canons in the history of music - and in a delicious wedding-cake of counterpoint that finishes off the work, the six-part fugue that Frederick had asked for.

Most music is better when you close your eyes, but this work positively requires it. No more impeccably consise, structurally graceful, and intensely contrapuntal work was ever written, even by the man himself.
No wonder it is so often forgotten that he wrote it on a theme that was meant to be too difficult for him.'

James Gaines is the author of 'Evening in the Palace of Reason'.


The following is an extract from an interview with the choreographer Siobhan Davies, which will be broadcast as part of 'A Bach Christmas'.
' I have been re-listening to the musical offering recently having read the book 'The Evening of the Palace of Reason ' by James Gaines. The book has alternate chapters about Bach and Frederick the Great. The last chapter focuses on the king giving the composer a theme and asking for an immediate 3 part fugue. Bach sits down, and in my imagination displays the virtuosity of a fabulous contemporary jazz musician. This fugue eventually becomes the beginning of another immense story of invention. I begin to listen to the Musical Offering, intending to unravel its structural complexities, but every time my thinking brain and my imagining brain plait together. I am no longer in an isolated thought place or an isolated emotional one, I am combined and while I listen I am in a space of articulate beauty. My ears and a truly developed musical understanding are not polished enough to keep concentration throughout, but my creative energy is fired up. I enjoy Webern's orchestral transposition of the 6 part fugue that closes the Musical Offering. Here each entry is made clear by the instruments of the orchestra, the original space is not only filled by fugal structure but now by the colour, textures and character of individual instruments. My sense of architectural space is made large, vividly alive, 3 dimensional music to walk about in.'

Siobhan Davies

    Read what others have said..

    Jens Richter, Cornwall
    Quotation: Frederick, taken aback and no doubt rather annoyed, tried to get even by asking for a six -part fugue on the subject, which was too much even for Bach,[...] That's not 100% correct. The king wasn't "annoyed", but rather uninterested in J.S.Bach's "old fashion" style ("Gelehrter Stil"). The reason, Bach claimed to do it better at home was, that the "Royal Theme" wasn't totaly suitable to work out a proper fugue (Bach titled such amateurish tries "Leeres Stroh"). So Bach had to modify the theme slightly. Of course he couldn't do that under the King's eyes. It had to be "homework". Best regards Jens Richter

    Caroline Agarwala, Hatfield, Hertfordshire.
    A Musical Offering/Sacrifice makes my hair stand on end, my nerves hurt, and fills me with wonder and sadness.

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