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Musical Offering BWV 1079
Kuijken Brothers
Review: Musical Offering DVD

A-3

J.S. Bach: Musical Offering - Musikalisches Opfer

Musical Offering BWV 1079 [52:00]

-

The Kuijken Ensemble

Barthold Kuijken (Transverse Flute); Sigiswald Kuijken (Violin); Wieland Kuijken (Viola da gamba); Robert Kohnen (Harpsichord)

EuroArts / Alia Vox

Jul 28, 2000

DVD / TT: 62:00

Recorded live at the Old Town Hall, Leipzig, Germany.
3rd recording of Musical Offering BWV 1079 by Kuijken Brothers.
Includes Documentary: A New Organ for St. Thomas Church.
Review: Musical Offering DVD
Buy this album at:
DVD: Amazon.com | Amazon.com

Kirk McElhearn wrote (May 26, 2002):
The Musical Offering is the name of a set of pieces that Bach wrote for king Frederick II of Prussia. Bach's son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, was harpsichordist for the young king, who was an avid music lover. He begged the younger Bach to have his father come and play for him. One evening, Johann Sebastian showed up, and the king immediately ushered him to a pianoforte, where he played a theme for a fugue. "Old" Bach improvised a fugue to this theme, but was so impressed by it that he wrote a much larger set of pieces around this theme, and dedicated it to the king, hence, this Musical Offering.

Like Bach's Art of Fugue, this work shows the many possible ways that a single theme can be elaborated on to make a large, varied work composed of fugues and canons. The two works do indeed have many similarities. The themes are related, and the manner of treating them is similar.

This DVD, recorded for the Bach 24 Hours television festival in 2000 (and shown live at the time), presents a fine group of musicians, who has already recorded this work together (twice - once in the same group, a second time with Gustav and Marie Leonhardt). Needless to say, these musicians are very familiar with the work, and play it with a great deal of experience behind them.

However, this is perhaps not the ideal type of work for a DVD. There is little to see - though I guess there is more than when watching a solo pianist. As Robert Kohnen plays the opening section on harpsichord, we see the three other musicians sitting with their heads down, as if waiting for a punishment. The Kuijkens are certainly not the most impressive or even expressive musicians around. I have seen both Sigiswald Kuijken and Wieland Kuijken perform solo recitals, and neither of them show much emotion while playing.

Nevertheless, the music is admirably performed. These are all top-rate musicians, and their performance shows this. Personally, the only reason I see for purchasing this kind of work on DVD is for the enhanced sound – this disc has sound in stereo, Dolby 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The disc also contains a short documentary - a mere ten minutes - while leaving a great deal of room for more. In fact, at just 62 minutes, this is one of the shortest classical music DVDs I have yet to see. This is a shame, since there were many other interesting performances and documentaries that were broadcast as part of the Bach 24 Hours event on television. TDK has released several DVDs so far from this broadcast, and each time has parsimoniously doled out the “extras”.

A fine performance, though the DVD adds little to the music. If all you want is a stereo recording of the work, the same musicians¹ recording on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi is very similar. The lack of extras on this DVD limits its interest, though people who want to own what little Bach is available on DVD will probably be interested.

 

Feedback to the Review

François Haidon wrote (October 26, 2002):
I seem to have heard a different version of the story. According to an introduction book by one Luc-André Marcel ("Bach" (1961) in the famed "Solfèges" series at the Editions du Seuil), Frederick II asked him for a three-voice fugue, to which Bach complied. Then he asked for a six-voice fugue. Bach said he was unable to improvise it on the spot but that he would deinitely look into it back in Leipzig (the author adds "Ah! (Frederick II) would've gone up to twelve voices just to beat him!"). Apparently Bach thought the "royal theme" wasn't much cop, and he took great fun, with Carl Philip's help and information, in trying to write a work that would face the king as much as possible with his own technical limitations. The author considers the work's inscription to the king ("Sire, with utmost submission, I take the liberty of presenting you with this Musical Offering whose noblest part is of Your Majesty's very hand..." etc) as "with a lot of perfumed oil, one of Bach's most mocking inscription ("To you, Sire, this demonstration of the perfection I condescend to draw from an akward theme of your own making, and that will bring you a fame you'd be hard-pressed to reach by yourself" is the author's own translation).

Somehow I like to think this version is closer to reality, as I can hardly see Bach being "impressed by the king's theme. I think that's what makes the MO and die Kunst der Fuge great: drawing great things out of so-so material.

 

BWV 1079 Facts vs. Fiction

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 28, 2002):
Kirk McElhearn commented:
< The Musical Offering is the name of a set of pieces that Bach wrote for king Frederick II of Prussia. Bach's son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, was harpsichordist for the young king, who was an avid music lover. He begged the younger Bach to have his father come and play for him. One evening, Johann Sebastian showed up, and the king immediately ushered him to a pianoforte, where he played a theme for a fugue. "Old" Bach improvised a fugue to this theme, but was so impressed by it that he wrote a much larger set of pieces around this theme, and dedicated it to the king, hence, this Musical Offering. >

François Haidon commented:
< I seem to have heard a different version of the story. According to an introduction book by one Luc-André Marcel ("Bach" (1961) in the famed "Solfèges" series at the Editions du Seuil), Frederick II asked him for a three-voice fugue, to which Bach complied. Then he asked for a six-voice fugue. Bach said he was unable to improvise it on the spot but that he would definitely look into it back in Leipzig (the author adds "Ah! (Frederick II) would've gone up to twelve voices just to beat him!"). Apparently Bach thought the "royal theme" wasn't much cop, and he took great fun, with Carl Philip's help and information, in trying to write a work that would face the king as much as possible with his own technical limitations. The author considers the work's inscription to the king ("Sire, with utmost submission, I take the liberty of presenting you with this Musical Offering whose noblest part is of Your Majesty's very hand..." etc) as "with a lot of perfumed oil, one of Bach's most mocking inscription ("To you, Sire, this demonstration of the perfection I condescend to draw from an awkward theme of your own making, and that will bring you a fame you'd be hard-pressed to reach by yourself" is the author's own translation).

Somehow I like to think this version is closer to reality, as I can hardly see Bach being "impressed by the king's theme. I think that's what makes the MO and die Kunst der Fuge great: drawing great things out of so-so material. >

I thought it might help to share the text of a few documents that try to shed light on this major event in Bach’s life. The major questions are:

1) How was the invitation to visit the Prussian Court extended to Bach?

2) Did Bach play his first off-the-cuff version of the regal fugal subject on a harpsichord, organ, or a pianoforte?

3) Did king get together with his musicians (most of whom were composers) and contrive a fiendishly difficult fugal subject in advance to see if they could stump Bach?
(implying perhaps that the king, on his own, was not really able to come up with a subject such as this one.)

4) Did the king command that Bach should be immediately brought to the palace as soon as the carriage arrived?

5) Did Bach, in his dedication printed on the 1st installment of the Musical Offering, use the word, ‘awkward’ in describing the King’s theme (fugal subject)?

Major Documents

1. Newspaper report (Berlinische Nachrichten) published Thursday, May 11, 1747. This report with only slight, insignificant changes also appeared in Hamburg, Magdeburg, and Leipzig a few days later. [Spellings and word forms are original and have been double checked.]

Berlin, vom 11. Mai

Gestern erhoben sich Se. Majestät, der König, von Potsdamm nach Charlottenburg, und nahmen allda die auserlesenen jungen Pferde in höchsten Augenschein, welche der Herr Stallmeister von Schwerin neulich aus den Königl. Stutereyen in Preußen anhero gebracht hat. Se. Excellentz, der Herr General=Lieutenant von Bonin, sind aus Landsberg an der Warthe, und der Herr General=Major von Kalsow aus Jauer, alhier eingetroffen. Aus Potsdamm vernimt man, daß daselbst verwichenen Sontag der berühmte Capellmeister aus Leipzig, Herr Bach, eingetroffen ist, in der Absicht, das Vergnügen zu genießen, die dasige vortrefliche Königl. Music zu hören. Des Abends, gegen die Zeit, da die gewöhnliche Cammer=Music in den Königl. Apartements anzugehen pflegt, ward Sr. Majest. berichtet, daß der Capellmeister Bach in Potsdamm angelanget sey, und daß er sich jetzo in Dero Vor Commer [sic] aufhalte, allwo er Dero allergnädigste Erlaubniß erwarte, der Music zu hören zu dürfen. Höchstdieselben ertheilten sogleich Befehl, ihn herein kommen zu lassen, und giengen bey dessen Eintritt an das sogenante Forte und Piano, geruheten auch, ohne einige Vorbereitung in eigner höchster Person dem Capellmeister Bach ein Thema vorzuspielen, welches er in einer Fuga ausführen solte. Es geschahe dieses von gemeldetem Capellmeister so glücklich, daß nicht nur Se. Majest. Dero allergnädigstes Wohlgefallen darüber zu bezeigen beliebten, sondern auch die sämtlichen Anwesenden in Verwunderung gesetzt wurden. Herr Bach fand das ihm aufgegebene Thema so ausbündig schön, daß er es in einer ordentlichen Fuga- zu Papiere bringen, und hernach in Kupfer stechen lassen will. Am Montage ließ sich dieser berühmte Mann in der Heil. Geist=Kirche zu Potsdamm auf der Orgel hören, und erwarb sich bey den in Menge vor|handenen Zuhörern allgemeinen Beyfall. Abends trugen Se. Majest. Ihm nochmahls die Ausführung einer Fuga von 6 Stimmen auf, welches er zu Höchstderoselben Vergnügen, und mit allgemeiner Bewunderung, eben so geschickt, wie das vorige Mahl, bewerckstelligte.

[This document appears translated into English in „The Bach Reader“ (Terry?) p. 176 and in Hans Theodore David, “J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering. History, Interpretation, and Analysis, New York, 1945.]

Removing all the formalities, here is a free translation of the content:

Yesterday the King (Frederick II.) left Potsdam (the famous palace, Sanssouci, had just been completed the same year, but was not yet being used for the king’s musical entertainment. On the wall behind my harpsichord, I have a large framed copy of the famous painting by Menzel, “Das Flötenkonzert” which I thought depicted the place where Bach played for the king. It is more likely that this famous meeting took place in another royal building and residence, "Das Potsdamer Stadtschloß" (“the Royal City Residence/Chateau in Potsdam”) which was completely destroyed in 1945) to travel to Charlottenburg, where he inspected very closely selected young horses that had been brought from the stud farms in Schwerin by the equerry. Two other military dignitaries had also arrived here from various places in the kingdom. The news from Potsdam is that last Sunday the famous composer/conductor from Leipzig, Mr. Bach, has arrived. In the evening, around the time when the chamber music concerts usually take place [7 to 9 pm] at the royal residence (in the apartments), the king was told that Bach had arrived and that he was waiting in the antechamber where he requested permission to come in and listen to the music. The king immediately gave the order to invite him in. As soon as Bach had come in, the king went to a pianoforte and without prior preparation played for Bach a theme which Bach was to develop as a fugue. Bach accomplished this so well that the king expressed his delight and all the others present were utterly amazed. Mr. Bach thought that this fugal subject was so downright beautiful, that he wanted to write it out on paper and have it published. Last Monday Bach played the organ in the Holy Spirit Church in Potsdam and, as a result, received general praise from the audience that had assembled there. (It is evident that the king was not at this organ recital.) That evening the king requested Bach to extemporize once again, this time a 6-pt. fugue (This is not the ‘royal’ theme that the king had played for him on Sunday evening.), which Bach accomplished much to the pleasure of the king while causing astonishment generally among the listeners at how this was done just as cleverly as on the previous occasion.

The newspaper report was published on Thursday, May 11, 1747. Bach had arrived on Sunday, May 7th. On Wednesday, May 10th, the king probably spent all day in Charlottenburg inspecting horses. “In the evening” Does this mean the evening of May 10th with which this report begins? Or does this mean “the evening of last Sunday,” the day on which Bach arrived? Then Bach literally had almost no time to prepare himself for meeting the king on the evening of the same day (5/7/1747) that he arrived. Then Bach played the organ on Monday, May 8, and once again on the evening of the 8th extemporized a fugue, this time a 6-part fugue with a theme of his own choosing. This final sequence of events is confirmed by the editors of the Bach-Dokumente as being the most likely.

Gilles Cantagrel, who wrote this section of the notes for the Savall recording translates: “M. Bach trouva si dense et si beau le theme….“ [“Bach was so impressed by the beauty and complexity of the theme….”] “ausbündig” is an intensifier for “schön” Where does he get the idea of 'complexity?' I do not see it in the newspaper article.

2. Title Page of Original Publication (incomplete as it was) with Dedication Leipzig, July 7th, 1747 (or 7. 7. 1747 – I like the way all these 7’s appear, cf. the likely date of meeting with the king: 5. 7. 1747. Isn’t 7 the number signifying completion?)

Musicalisches
Opfer
Sr. Königlichen Majestät in Preußen etc.
Allerunterthänigst gewidmet
Von
Johann Sebastian Bach.

Allergnädigster König,

Ew. Majestät weyhe hiermit in tiefster Unterthänigkeit ein Musicalisches Opfer, dessen edelster Theil von Dersoselben hoher Hand selbst herrühret. Mit einem ehrfurchtsvollen Vergnügen erinnere ich mich annoch der ganz besondern Königlichen Gnade, da vor einiger Zeit, bey meiner Anwesenheit in Potsdam, Ew. Majestät selbst, ein Thema zu einer Fuge auf dem Clavier mir vorzuspielen geruheten, und zugleich allergnädigst auferlegten, solches alsobald in Deroselben höchsten Gegenwart auszuführen. Ew. Majestät Befehl zu gehorsamen, war meine unterthänigste Schuldigkeit. Ich bemerkte aber gar bald, daß wegen Mangels nöthiger Vorbereituing, die Ausführung nicht also gerathen wollte, als es ein so treffliches Thema erforderte. Ich fassete demnach den Entschluß, und machte mich sogleich anheischig, dieses recht Königliche Thema vollkommener auszuarbeiten, und sodann der Welt bekannt zu machen. Dieser Vorsatz ist nunmehro nach Vermögen | bewerkstelliget worden, und er hat keine andere als nur diese untadelhafte Absicht, den Ruhm eines Monarchen, ob gleich nur in einem kleinen Puncte, zu verherrlichen, dessen Größe und Stärke, gleich wie in allen Kriegs- und Friedens- Wissenschaften, also auch besonders in der Musik. Jedermann bewundern und verehren muß. Ich erkühmich diese unterthänigste Bitten hinzuzufügen: Ew. Majestät geruhen gegenwärtige wenige Arbeit mit einer gnädigen Aufnahme zu würdigen, und Deroselben allerhöchste Königliche Gnade noch fernerweit zu gönnen
Ew. Majestät

Leipzig den 7. Julii
1747

allerunterthänigst gehorsamsten Knechte,
dem Verfasser.

[Here is my free rendition in English skipping all the overblown politeness with attitudes of condescension and humility.]
A musical offering dedicated to King Frederick II of Prussia by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Dear King [Don’t laugh! I know this sounds funny, but bear with me, there is even more of this sort of thing to follow,]
Out of the kindness of my heart, I want to dedicate to you a musical offering, the most important part of which you provided. I think back with pleasure to the time when I was at your place in Potsdam and you were kind enough to play for me a fugal subject on the piano and asked me to develop a full fugue from this on the spot without having anytime to prepare anything in advance. Because of this lack of preparation, I noticed very soon that my development of this theme simply did not do it any justice. So I decided accordingly to take it upon myself to develop this royal fugal subject in a more appropriate and complete fashion before presenting it to the world. I have now carried out this plan to the best of my abilities and there is no other intention behind these efforts than to glorify the fame of a monarch in musical matters just as he is justifiably famous for his great war- and peacemaking abilities. Just one additional request on my part: I hope you will graciously accept this gift and continue to regard me kindly in the future.

With best regards,

The author

3. Gottfried van Swieten, the Austrian ambassador to the Prussian Court, in a letter to his superior, Count Kaunitz dated Berlin, July 26, 1774 (7. 26. 1774 or 26. 7. 1774) in which he recounts a conversation that he had with Frederick II of Prussia regarding the meeting with Bach 27 years earlier:

entre autres il me parla [de] musique, et d’un grand organiste nommé Bach, qui vient de faire quelque séjour à Berlin, cet artiste est doué d’un talent supérieur à tout ce que j’ai entendu ou pu imaginer en profondeur de connoissances harmoniques et en force d’exécution ; cependant ceux qui ont connu son Père ne trouvent pas encore qu’il l’egale, le Roi est de cette opinion et pour me le prouver il chanta à haute voix un sujet de Fugue chromatique, qu’il avoit donné à ce vieux Bach, qui sur le champ en fit une Fugue à 4 puis à 5, puis enfin à huit voix obligés.

[Spellings given as in the source book, Bach-Dokumente] Is there anyone who like to translate these recorded comments by Frederick the Great of Prussia?

4. Short mention of this event in Bach’s life in a necrology prepared by C.P.E. Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola for Lorenz Mizler’s “Musical Library” Leipzig, 1754.

5. An oral report by W.F. Bach given to Johann Nicolaus Forkel and published in Forkel’s biography of J. S. Bach. Leipzig, 1802.

Christoph Wolff in the NBA KB VIII/1, 1976 finds the newspaper article to be the most reliable. Then C.P.E. Bach’s eyewitness account, although given 7 years later is important, although it does not add much in the way of new details. The description is academically dry. The king’s impressions, although related many years later, is at least remarkable in that the king remembered a salient detail about the fugal subject, and still had a clear image of Bach in mind. The Forkel’s report on a conversation with W. F. Bach is the least trustworthy, probably just because it contains colorful descriptions such as J.S. Bach being commanded to appear before the king just as Bach stepped out of the carriage. Then W. F. reports the precise words that the king spoke when he was informed that Bach had arrived: “Meine Herren, der alte Bach ist gekommen!” [“Gentlemen, the old man Bach has arrived!” W. F. was not even present at this reception.

Wolff also could not determine if Bach appeared as the result of being officially invited. It seems unlikely that the king would extend an invitation to Bach conveyed through his son, C.P.E. Bach, who was the court’s official harpsichordist. It would more likely have been extended through someone like Count Keyserlingk (think “Goldberg Variations” here) who was in residence at the Prussian Court from 1746 to 1748 as a diplomat. His close connection to J.S.Bach can be substantiated as existing from 1736 on.

According to the C.P.E. Bach version of events on May 7, 1747, Bach first tried out several pianofortes built by Silbermann and improvised fantasias on them, before he asked the audience for a fugal subject which he would develop into a fugue. Wolff thinks that it is hard to imagine that the king would immediately give Bach this subject as soon he appeared. In any case, Bach improvised the fugue on one of the pianofortes. Present at this occasion were other composers and performing artists: C.P.E Bach, of course, but also Franz and Georg Benda, Johann Gottlieb and Carl Heinrich Graun, Christoph Nichelmann, as well as Johann Joachim Quantz. (Don’t forget that the king belonged to this group of composers and performers!)

There is reason to doubt that the form of this regal fugal subject as performed by Bach on this occasion would be in exactly the same form in which Bach had received it from the king. There is, however, no reason to think that the king worked out this difficult fugal subject with the help of some of his court musicians. The second time that Bach appeared at the court (Monday evening), the king asked Bach to perform a 6-part fugue, and since Bach had already promised the King on the preceding evening that he would work out a solution for the King’s theme after he had returned to Leipzig, Bach now proceeded to take a fugal subject of his own choosing for improvising this 6-part fugue.

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 30, 2002):
< I thought it might help to share the text of a few documents that try to shed light on this major event in Bacha’s life. The major questions are: >
Thanks for the detailed information!

However, what happened afterwards? Did the king play the MO himself in his court (he was a flutist AFAIK)? Did he reply to Bach? Did Bach get any reward for the MO or was he already too ill to think about anything down-to-earth?

I also didn't understand fully if the MO was quickly printed by some local publisher (the work was to be presented to the king after all!) or sent to the king in a form of hand-written manuscript.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 30, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] There is no record of any financial reward the Bach received for the MO. On the contrary, the whole process of publishing cost Bach 'a pretty penny.' We have receipts for the printing of the title page (200 copies) (2 Taler 12 Groschen - cf. with the value of items in Bach's estate after his death.) But he chose Schübler (remember the chorales arranged from famous arias from Bach's cantatas?) for a cheaper method of printing the music (not the usual copper-engraving procedure which would have been prohibitive, but the same technique used in printing the AOF.) Bach advertised the publication of this work at his own expense, hoping that the sale of a subscription to this work would help to defray the costs he incurred. In his advertisement Bach referred to the royal fugal subject as "the Prussian Fugue" or "das Königliche Preußischer Fugen-Thema" (the royal Prussian fugue subject/theme.) In this newspaper ad Bach also indicated a general sequencing of the items, some of which he may not yet have composed. This is the general order that the NBA uses, but the editors allow for the fact that other ordering systems are possible. For the printed copy (not manuscript) which Bach sent to the king, Bach paid for a special leather binding which included the first fascicles that had just come off the press. This binding was made in such a way that the later fascicles could be included and eventbound later, if so desired.

We have no record of what, if anything occurred with this music, once it was in the king's hands, and whether the king ever tried to play the sonata that was written with him in mind (it is not easy to play on the flutes that were available them.) There is no record of a special reward for Bach's efforts. Who paid for Bach's round trip to and stay in Berlin? Probably Bach himself. Bach was still active performing and conducting in Leipzig even in the last year of his life. It seems that he went to great trouble and expense to get the MO and AOF published during the years 1747 to 1750, so he must have been quite aware of what he was doing. Michael Marissen, who wrote an interesting article for the "Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach" [Boyd] ,1999, pp. 308 ff. comes to the remarkable conclusion, based on his sociology investigation of the circumstances and evidence available regarding the MO, that "Ultimately the MO is offered not to glorify Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, but to instruct Bach's neighbours and glorify God." Marissen is famous for his sociological interpretation of the Brandenburg Concertos, a book that I am reading just now. Here he applies a similar method on the MO. Some of this is interesting and worth pondering, but I personally feel that he occasionally pushes his arguments beyond the limit of credibility when he compares the opening text of the SJP with the text of Bach's dedication for the MO. He also presses the point that King Frederick II would have felt snubbed by Bach because Bach did not use French in his MO dedication and that Frederick II abhorred Bach's baroque style. The king would have preferred the 'galant' style of music. The question that comes to my mind is, "What did the king expect from Bach, if he gave Bach a fugue subject? Did he expect from Bach a fugue in the 'galant' style?" The king must have recognized that fact that Bach would gain exposure for his music and a more widely recognized name as a result of his visit to the court in Potsdam. Perhaps Bach was even hoping (wildly in his dreams) that he might also receive at least another one of those honorary titles (for which he would receive some compensation if he simply composed a work or two every year without really needing to be present at the court.) Why else would Bach have written to the king in his dedication for the MO: "Just one additional request on my part: I hope you will graciously accept this gift and continue to regard me kindly in the future. With best regards, etc." As far as we know, Bach's hopes were never fulfilled. There is not even a reply from the king noting his acceptance of this gift. Were gifts of this sort a dime-a-dozen for the king, or was the king showing his displeasure by not responding (as Marissen speculates?)

 

Musical Offering BWV 1079: Details
Recordings:
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Part 1

Sigiswald Kuijken: Short Biography | La Petite Bande
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Robert Kohnen: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: Musical Offering DVD

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Last update: ýAugust 22, 2007 ý09:32:11