During his visit to the castle of Sans-Souci, summer residence of Frederick II in Potsdam, Bach improvised a fugue on a remarkable subject proposed by the king. He was then invited to improvise a fugue with 6 voices on the royal theme, a challenge that he modestly renounced to hold. But, as soon as he returned to Leipzig, a week later, Bach composed this prodigious set of fugues and canons on the royal theme, as a “musical offering” to Frederick.
Of all Bach’s late works, which stand as a synthesis of the composer’s art and technique, the Musical Offering is by far the best known. Its popularity among music-lovers has surpassed that of the Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue.
There are several reasons for the work’s popularity, not least the charms of the admirable trio sonata which makes up a large part of it. The more or less legendary story surrounding its genesis may also have drawn the curiosity of audiences to a work which is still partially cloaked in mystery.
As a heading to the work, Bach wrote: Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (“piece executed by command of the King, together with other pieces executed according to the art of the canon“). This inscription contains the acrostic Ricercar, simultaneously evoking the spirit of inquiry from which the work sprang, the genre of fugue and the three and six-part ricercare which are the cornerstones of the work.
The order chosen here is not intended as the statement of a musicological stance, but is rather one musician’s interpretation of an extraordinarily rich and complex score, concerning which there are no exact indications today as to how it should be approached. The fine arch-shaped structure would appear to be the most satisfactory: the opening Three-part Ricercar is answered by the closing Six-part Ricercar, representing the culmination of the whole exercise in counterpoint; the central position is occupied by the Trio sonata, surrounded by the gradual unfolding of the canons.
Gabrielle Rubio, flute
Evgeny Sviridov, violin
Jean-Christophe Dijoux, harpsichord
Valentin Tournet, viola da gamba
Festival de Lanvellec
Lannion, chapelle Sainte-Anne
European Day of Early Music
Maison de Radio-France, Paris