JS BACH – Musical Offering

In the final years of his life, Bach slowly withdrew from the world. He put some order into his works and, as a solitary figure, pushed to its extreme limits the art of counterpoint that had accompanied for five centuries the development of Western music. He also kept a strict eye on his sons and students as they ventured into new forms, those of the burgeoning classical style, which, according to him, were far from having proved themselves.

At about the same time, 1740 to be precise, Frederick II became King of Prussia. A passionate music-lover, the new king was a talented flautist, a student of Joachim Quantz, and a composer of some renown. Upon accession to the throne, he appointed Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach as court harpsichordist. Through the latter, and through Count Keyserling, the Russian envoy for whom it is believed Bach wrote the “Goldberg” Variations some time earlier, the reputation of the senior Bach as a virtuoso and master of improvisation had reached Frederick’s ears. The king therefore invited the “old” Bach to visit him in Berlin. For political and personal reasons, however, the composer, now in his 60s, hesitated for some time before undertaking the trip, but eventually accepted the honor which allowed him to see his latest grandson, who was 2. He left for Berlin in the company of Wilhelm Friedemann. It was to be his last trip, and his last public success, in a career that had seen few such successes. From this encounter was born the Musical Offering.

In the last century, the painter Adolph von Menzel strived to represent scenes from the life of Frederick II. Among these is a concert where we see musicians Emanuel Bach at the harpsichord and violinist Frantisek Benda, waiting for the booted king, who is standing in the middle of the room, to finish the cadence of his concerto. It was perhaps such a scene which Bach interrupted upon his arrival at the palace of Sans-Souci on the evening of May 7, 1747. He had barely set foot in the door, when the king, without even giving him time to change his clothes, had him try out the various keyboard instruments in the palace, including the seven piano-fortes recently made by Gottfried Silbermann of which he was very proud. In her apocryphal journal, Anna Magdalena Bach is supposed to have written “And so Sebastian sat down, began to play, and perhaps several listeners realized that for at least one evening there were two kings in the palace.”

Some time later Frederick gave Bach a theme, and asked him to improvise a three-part fugue. Bach complied, and the ricercare that opens the Musical Offering is very likely the transcription from memory of that improvisation. Then His Majesty, who no doubt wanted to hold court over the musical genius under his roof (or at least to show him who was boss), asked him to improvise a six-part fugue on the same theme. Bach declined the request, declaring that the theme did not lend itself to such a treatment. Instead, he took one of his own themes to improvise the requested fugue.

Upon his return to Leipzig, the composer prepared a quiet revenge, and two months later sent the king, in two carefully prepared volumes, the Musical Offering. (It is not possible to come to any conclusion as to the order of the movements based on this first edition.) Its preface, dripping with feigned grovelling, says that the work was born in order to “treat the royal theme with total perfection and to make it known to the world”! He does, in fact, use the fugue theme provided by the king, exhausting all contrapuntal possibilities. This theme, which is so far from Frederick’s usual style that it is doubtful that he wrote it (it may have been discreetly provided by Emanuel Bach), is a solid fugue subject (soggetto), like many found in the repertoire of organists at the time. It is in C minor and contains a chromatic descent. Bach could only find himself at home with such expressive and yet reserved material. Furthermore, it is significant that he should use for one of his last works, situated at the crossroads of two eras, this “migratory theme which,” according to Carl de Nys, “could sum up all of Western music.”

Bach had belonged to a musical learned society directed by Lorenz Mizler since June 1747. To join, candidates had to furnish a portrait and so, in 1746, Bach had commissioned Elias Gottlob Hausmann to paint a picture with the composer holding the score of a canon. Each year, members were to send a theoretical document or a work showing their talent in matters contrapuntal. Bach’s first contribution had been his Canonic Variations for organ. It is therefore very probable that the Musical Offering was not only written to honour or impress Frederick II. The care with which it was copied out leads us to believe that Bach intended to present it as his contribution to the activities of Mizler’s learned society for the year 1748.

The Musical Offering includes the three-part and the six-part ricercare (according to Luc-André Marcel, the six-part fugue is “one of the most scholarly and sumptuous fugues ever”), 10 canons of all styles and a trio sonata for flute, violin and continuo. The canons are presented in the form of enigmas. Two of Bach’s former students, Johann Friedrich Agricola and Johann Philipp Kirnberger, musicians in the court orchestra, are credited for solving them. The Offering’s sonata is one of those rare trio sonatas in which Bach stuck to the traditional form. It is very contrapuntal and harmonically finely detailed but, in an effort both to please and to instruct, the sonata is also characterized by the melodic, gallant style that Frederick II appreciated above all.

Except for the sonata and two of the canons, the instrumentation is not specified, and the only unifying element is the use in all sections of the theme provided by the king. Ingenious, skilful, a summit of polyphony only to be surpassed by The Art of the Fugue written two years later, the work’s formalism never overshadows the sensitivity, the emotion and the light it contains. All of this was well beyond the musicianship of the King of Prussia. No doubt that Philipp Emanuel, not without malice, must have reported to his father the way in which the work was received and perhaps performed at Sans-Souci.

© François Filiatrault Translation: Patricia Abbott

to His Royal Majesty in Prussia and
most humbly dedicated by
Johann Sebastian Bach

Most gracious King,
To your Majesty is dedicated herewith in deepest humility a Musical Offering, whose most excellent part itself proceeds from your own lofty hand. With a respectful delight I remember still the quite singular royal grace when, some time ago, during my last stay in Potsdam, Your Majesty condescended to play for me on the clavier a theme for a fugue, and at the same time most graciously obliged me to enlarge on the same forthwith in your own highest presence. To obey Your Majesty’s command was my most humble duty. However, I noticed quite soon that, because of the lack of necessary preparation, the performance did not succeed as well as such a superb theme required. I consequently resolved and undertook immediately to work out completely this truly royal theme and then publish it to the world. This project has now been completed to the best of my ability, and it has no other purpose than this sole irreproachable one: to exalt, although only in one small aspect, the glory of a monarch whose greatness and might, just as in all the sciences of peace and war so also especially in music, everyone must admire and venerate. I make bold to add this most humble request: that Your Majesty deign to honor the present small work with a gracious reception, and that you further extend the highest royal favor to
Your Majesty’s,

most humble servant, the composer.


“On the order of the Musical Offering’s 13 sections, all different in form and length, opinions are everything but unanimous. […] Writing of this type, rather than obeying rules of symmetry, seems to be the result of the application of a traditional principle of the ars rhetorica. With this thought in mind, Ursula Kirkendale recently came to form a hypothesis that is as suggestive as it is convincing. She proposes that the Musical Offering reproduces the oratory outline established in Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. Bach certainly knew Quintilian’s work, as did his friend, Matthias Gesner, the ex-rector of the Thomasschule, who had made favourable comments on it in 1738. Ursula Kirkendale has observed a perfect correspondence between the disposition of the work’s sections and the structure established by Quintilian, and has noted the step-by-step concordance between the principles of rhetoric set by the Latin author and the characteristic elements of Bach’s musical rhetoric. In eliminating the elements of lesser importance, the general outline of the Musical Offering coincides with the essential points of the Oratio as established by Quintilian, disciple of Cicero.”

Alberto Basso, Johann Sebastian Bach, 1985

This recording features the order of movements proposed by Kirkendale (the same as in the Bach Gesellschaft edition).


“A canon is a composition in which at least two parts are identical in certain basic aspects such as melodic line and rhythmic structure. The leading part of most canons is followed by the derived part after a certain time-interval in the same direction and tempo; the following part may be kept at the same pitch as the preceding (canon in unisono, “canon at the unison”), or it may perform the original line at a certain interval above or below it (e.g., canon in epidiapente, “canon at the higher fifth”). In certain canons all intervals of the original line are inverted by the following part (canon per motum contrarium, or contrario motu, “canon in contrary motion”). In others we find one part moving backward while the other moves forward (canon cancrizans, “crab canon”). Then again, there are canons in which the canonic voices proceed at different speed; thus one voice may double the note-values of the original line while the other performs as written (canon per augmentationem, “canon in augmentation”). All these patterns, together with a number of other, more usual devices, are represented in the Musical Offering, which thus constitutes a generous demonstration of the possibilities inherent in this form. The implication of the canon is that all corresponding canonic parts can be reduced to, and then performed from, a single written line. When actually presented in its most concise notation, the canon is called a canon clausus (“close canon”). When, however, the parts are written out in full, it is called a canon apertus (“open canon”). In the original edition of the Musical Offering, all canons except one are given in abbreviated notation. Canons in abbreviated notation generally employ two or more clefs in order to specify the interval distance between the parts, and mark the entrance of the following parts by special signs; the specific character of the canon is also often indicated in the title. However, in reducing a canon to its most concise form, a composer might deliberately omit explaining titles and the indications of the place or pitch at which the successive voices are to enter. A canon thus presented is called a canon enigmaticus (“puzzle canon”).”

Hans Theodore David, J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering, 1945.