A Musical Offering: an Overdue Reappreaisal

Bach’s “Musikalische Opfer”, often translated as A Musical Offering, is probably one of the least appreciated gems in classical music. Although well known among serious music lovers and professional musicians, it is not very popular among the casual listeners or the general public.

Yet, The Art of Fugue, which is arguably less accessible and more pedantic than the Musical offering, is relatively better known although  this was most likely  written as a paradigm for theoretical study or research by the posterity. The fact that Bach did not finish the Art of Fugue, leaving the notation “B-A-C-H” on the last page of the incomplete score (according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel) somehow added a more sympathetic and  poignant touch  to the story.

But  the incomplete score refers only to the revised version published after his death.  Bach in fact finished an earlier version of The Art of Fugue circa 1745.  Bach  also finished and, about   1741, published The Goldberg Variations, which is also quite didactic and less accessible like the Art of Fugue, and yet proved much more popular and better acclaimed than the “Offering”.

Origin of the Musical Offering

The idea of A Musical Offering crystallized from an extended meeting, in May 1747, between Bach and the Prussian King Frederick II (“ Frederick the Great”) at the famous Sans Souci palace, the King’s favorite residence in Potsdam. An iconoclastic renaissance man of rather secular tastes and capricious leanings, Frederick was a proficient flautist as well as an accomplished musician. He was also interested in the science and technology of keyboard instruments, and was a proud collector of several prototypes of the newest innovation: the “fortepiano”, which he was eager to show off to “old Bach” (his nickname for Bach whom the king considered old fashioned with rather fossilized musical style!). Thus Bach had an open invitation from the king, which he soon accepted.

Frederick was about to begin the evening concert in which he himself was to have been the flute soloist with his orchestra, when Bach arrived. On learning about Bach’s arrival, the king promptly laid down his flute and with the short address to the orchestra ‘Gentlemen, old Bach is here’, cancelled the concert, and excitedly invited Bach to try his new fortepiano collection, one in each music room.

Although not very impressed with the new instruments, Bach played each fortepiano in each room with ease and aplomb, and when the King gave him a long and complex musical theme on which to improvise a three voice fugue, Bach rose to the occasion with his brilliant musicality and amazing improvising skills. Not to be outdone, the king then challenged Bach, almost maliciously, to improvise a six part fugue on the same theme, to which Bach answered that in order to do justice to the theme he should work on the score carefully in further details, so he would have to take the score with him back to Leipzig and send the completed work back to the king afterwards.

Unraveling A Musical Offering

Bach eventually developed the king’s theme into a varied sequence of complex contrapuntal movements including several canons, fugues, and of course the two Ricercars ( the original 3-part fugue plus the challenger six-part fugue on the king’s theme), added a trio sonata for violins, basso continuo and transverse flute ( Frederick’s favorite instrument), titled the whole oeuvre ‘A Musical Offering’, and sent it to the court at sans souci with a letter of dedication to the king.

The Ricercars are not only the most important and famous sections of this work but also are the most elaborately rigorous and complex contrapuntal writing. The 3-part Ricercar is simpler of the two and usually played at the beginning, with the richer stricter 6-part section serving as a triumphant finale and a fitting answer to the king’s musical challenge.

Bach did not indicate any specific instruments except for the trio sonata; the Ricercars are most often played on solo keyboard, with the other canons and fugues on a combination of strings with continuo.

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There have been much speculations about the hidden mysteries and anomalies surrounding this work, especially about the origin of the king’s theme, or Bach’s counter-challenge to the king with hidden riddles hinted on in the score. Also, Bach’s deeply religious approach to music must have been antithetical to the king’s secular, almost anti-religious zeal. Could this have been the grain of sand in the oyster shell of their relationship producing the pearl that is A Musical Offering?

Appreciation & Popularity

In spite of its seemingly dry nature, this music is quite accessible even to the untrained or casual listener, provides a highly enjoyable listening experience, and deserves to be more popular. All it needs is an open mind, with open ears tuned to the melodiously appealing music.

Of course there are different tiers of popularity even for classical music, and it would be wrong to compare this to, say, ‘Air on a G-string’ , ‘Toccata & Fugue in D-minor’ or similar classical blockbusters. The valid comparison here would be with Bach’s other abstract and didactic instrumental compositions like The Goldberg Variations or The Art of Fugue.

In fact, ‘old Bach’ seems to have done pretty well with popular media like the movies. For instance, in an old Deanna Durbin movie, Leopold Stokowski, playing himself, is shown practicing the famous Toccata & Fugue on a console.This was followed a few years later by the more famous Walt Disney “Fantasia”, with a sound track of all classical music including Bach’s. Several Ingemar Bergman movies also feature Bach’s abstract music especially the Goldberg variations. And some later art house movies have improvised sections based on the E flat-minor Prelude & Fugue, among others, from The Well-tempered Clavier.

Could this happen to A Musical Offering too?