Notes and Editorial Reviews
A Musical Offering
Jörg Ewald Dähler (hpd, cond); Peter-Lukas Graf (fl); Hansheinz Schneeberger (vn); Ilse Mathieu (vn); Walter Kägi (va); Rolf Looser (vc); Christine Daxelhofer (hpd); Ernst Gerber (hpd)
CLAVES 500198 (53:21)
This reissued Claves recording, made in 1968, may be even older than my first recording of Bach’s
A Musical Offering
on a Bach Guild label LP. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the conductor or the ensemble, but I
do recall that the work’s numbers were sequenced in a much more symmetrically balanced arrangement than they are here.
A Musical Offering
, as surely everyone knows, grew out of a challenge posed to Bach by King Frederick the Great in 1747. The ageing composer was invited to the royal court in Potsdam on the pretext of being shown a newfangled keyboard instrument (a piano) built by Gottfried Silbermann. During Bach’s visit, the cagey King presented the composer with a prankish theme that included every note of the chromatic scale except for a B?, and bid his guest to improvise on it a three-voice fugue-like composition called a ricercar. After Bach had successfully complied, the King upped the ante, asking the composer to improvise a six-voice ricercar on the chromatic subject. This was a bridge too far for Bach, who begged the King’s leave to return home and work out the problem on paper. Two months later, Bach sent Frederick the promised six-voice ricercar, plus 10 canons and a four-movement trio sonata, all based on the theme or having the theme embedded within them, with a dedication inscribed
Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta
(the theme given by the King, with additions, resolved in the canonic style), an acrostic for “Ricercar.”
The Art of Fugue
, Bach’s tribute to King Frederick is another example of the composer’s fascination with mathematics expressed as music. Another similarity is that, except for the trio sonata, which Bach scored for flute, violin, and continuo, he provided few, if any, clues as to instrumentation for the rest of the numbers. Moreover, the intended presentation order of the pieces is anyone’s guess.
This much is certain: The 10 canons, which subject the theme to all manner of inversion, augmentation, and other contrapuntal cleverness, divide neatly into two groups of five. One group is based directly on the King’s theme, while the other group is based on subjects derived from various fragments of the King’s theme. But the real conundrum of the 10 canons is that Bach made puzzles or riddles of them, challenging the King to come up with solutions, just as the King had challenged Bach in Potsdam. In most instances, Bach provides clues as to how to solve the puzzle by indicating how many voices are involved, whether the answering voices are to play the line forwards, backwards, right-side up, or upside down, and at what point and at what interval they are to enter. Upside down clef signs and descriptive instructions, like, “As the modulation ascends, so may the glory of the King also ascend,” offer clues as well. But for the final canon, No. 10, Bach poses the ultimate challenge, simply inscribing the words, “Seek and ye shall find” at the beginning.
Since the solutions were long ago worked out and notated, there’s no need for today’s players to reinvent the wheel. If you’re so inclined, I’d direct your attention to “The Musical Geometry of Bach’s Puzzle Canons” at schillerinstitut.dk/moweb/musical_offering.htm by Michelle Rasmussen, which presents a fascinating discussion of the topic, along with musical examples and the methods used for solving Bach’s riddles.
As I said at the beginning, my main recollection of that old Bach Guild recording is its arrangement of the numbers. Like most versions, it began with the original three-part ricercar. That was followed by the five canons based directly on the King’s theme. The centerpiece of the performance was the trio sonata. Flanking it on the other side were the remaining five canons, and the recording concluded with the six-part ricercar, which, by the way, is the same arrangement settled on by Neville Marriner for his 1979 Philips recording with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. That strikes me as an eminently sensible order, but probably only because I like things that are symmetrically balanced.
The sequence of pieces on the current Claves recording makes no sense to me, though in deference to Jörg Ewal Dähler, it may be that this was the order in which Bach sent the pieces to the King in three installments. Dähler’s order looks like this: (1) the three-part ricercar; (2) seven of the 10 canons; (3) the six-part ricercar; (4) two more of the canons; (5) the trio sonata; and (6) the last of the canons. To round off the work with a satisfying grand finale-type conclusion, I should think you’d want to end with either the six-part ricercar or the trio sonata, but pick almost any order of the numbers you like and you’re almost sure to find a recording to satisfy your preference, and not just in the sequence of numbers but in instrumentation as well.
On period instruments, I would have to come down in favor of Virgin’s CD with Monica Huggett leading the Ensemble Sonnerie, not for the ordering she has chosen but for the playing. Her order of the numbers is actually the same as Dähler’s, except that she repeats the six-part ricercar at the end in a version for harpsichord alone. Sonnerie’s instrumentation is also heterogeneous and more interesting, a mix of strings and winds, whereas Dähler limits his ensemble to strings and harpsichords, except of course in the trio sonata, which calls for a flute.
As performances on modern instruments go, I actually prefer Dähler’s to the aforementioned Marriner. The latter makes some curious choices, such as using an organ for the opening three-part ricercar and then a cello unsupported by keyboard for the trio sonata. Dähler is more “normal,” and certainly closer to Bach’s original improvisation is use of harpsichord for the three-part ricercar. Also, Dähler supports his cello in the trio sonata with a harpsichord, which would have been standard practice at the time.
So I would have to say that this 45-year-old Claves recording is recommendable to those who prefer to hear
A Musical Offering
on modern instruments, who prefer a strings and keyboard only version of the work to one with a more colorful mix of instruments, and who aren’t fussy about the order in which the pieces are presented. One very poor decision by Claves, in my opinion, was to band the entire four movements of the trio sonata as a single track.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Walter Kagi (Viola),
Ilse Mathieu (Violin),
Christine Daxelhofer (Harpsichord),
Jörg Ewald Dähler (Harpsichord),
Rolf Looser (Cello),
Ernst Gerber (Harpsichord),
Hansheinz Schneeberger (Violin),
Peter-Lukas Graf (Flute)
Written: 1747; Leipzig, Germany
Date of Recording: 12/1968
Venue: Kirche Aarau
Length: 6 Minutes 39 Secs.
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