Ricercar a 3 from Musikalisches Opfer

Ricercar a 3 from Musikalisches Opfer

BWV 1079/1 performed by Leo van Doeselaar
Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Musical summit in Potsdam

Old meets new around the Silbermann fortepiano

 It reads like the beginning of a screenplay – the much-discussed meeting between the enlightened and ultra-modern King Frederick (who thought polyphony reeked of the church) and the last great polyphonist Johann Sebastian Bach. The king proudly gave his elderly guest a tour of the Potsdam Stadtschloss. In the instrument collection, Bach went from Silbermann to Silbermann. The organ and fortepiano builder Gottfried Silbermann had done good business at Frederick’s court. At the end of his tour, Bach asked his host for a fugue theme, and we thus become acquainted with Frederick’s ingenious idea in the opening bars of the Ricercar a 3. And although questions remain as to the instrumentation and order of the Musikalisches Opfer, we do at least know nearly everything about this Ricercar, including the type of instrument on which Bach played. (Incidentally, the improvisation is not stated note for note in the edition, as the fairly long piece is constructed too carefully for that).

So what should we make of this legendary royal theme? It is certainly a challenge, particularly as the basis for a six-part fugue, as Bach was to make of it back home in peace and quiet. Firstly, the theme is very long, so difficult to play with, and the ‘response’ with its stepped descent will always dominate and cannot be missed – fun for listeners with no score in front of them. Improvising within these parameters is exciting, but not impossible. It was certainly a help that Bach, with all his years of experience of chorale arrangements, had also just completed The Art of Fugue.

The title Ricercar can be interpreted in two ways: either simply as a notated improvisation or as a response to the question of what is permitted by a fugue. Because the two ricercars in the Opfer could hardly be more different to one another: one in galant style with almost un-Bachian interludes (a 3) versus the other one in accordance with the very strictest counterpoint (a 6). Yet essentially, they are simple fugues, where Bach composes mainly ‘around’ the curious theme, rather than ‘with’ it.

Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079
The Musikalisches Opfer is a special collection of chamber music within the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, written for Frederick the Great of Prussia. Musikalisches Opfer means ‘a musical offering’, and that is precisely how the collection originated.
It all started in May 1747, when Bach went to Potsdam to visit his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was working at the court of Frederick the Great. Bach was introduced to Frederick, who had heard that Bach was a great improviser and asked him on the spot to improvise a fugue on a given theme (undoubtedly a first shot at the Ricercar a 3). According to the sources, Bach made a brilliant job of it and showed such enthusiasm about the ‘royal theme’ that he promised to have the fugue engraved ‘on copper’ and printed.

No sooner said than done. Two months later, Bach published a series of compositions: a trio sonata, a three-part and a six-part ricercar and ten canons, all inspired by the king’s theme. Frederick was sent a splendid luxury print and Bach distributed his masterpiece among his friends, despite the high costs of printing. Incidentally, Bach himself did not call the collection Musikalisches Opfer, but rather Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (the theme given by the king, with additions, resolved in canonic style). The initials of this long title form the term ricercar, a name used at the time for an instrumental piece in which various themes are introduced and imitated.

Bach on the piano
For Frederick the Great, Bach played on a Silbermann fortepiano, which was a brand-new instrument at the time. Bach was enthusiastic about it and later acted as representative for Silbermann in Leipzig. So for the recording, we have also used a Silbermann fortepiano. Alongside this modern instrument, Shunske Sato has chosen to have the continuo played by a gamba; an instrument that also played a big role at the court of Frederick. ‘Modern’ instruments for the time thus play alongside ‘old-fashioned’ instruments, just as in the Musikalisches Opfer Bach combines the modern galant style with the counterpoint that was then considered old-fashioned.

Ricercar a 3
chamber music
written for Frederick the Great
First performance
May 1747

Supported by

Extra videos

Siebe Henstra and Leo van Doeselaar

“'Clavier' in Bach's time can refer to various keyboard instruments: a harpsichord, clavichord, virginal or a fortepiano. Henstra and Van Doeselaar discuss the characteristics of these instruments and how they differ from each other.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    15 April 2021
  • Recording date
    6 July 2020
  • Location
    Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
  • Pianist
    Leo van Doeselaar
  • Fortepiano
  • Director and editor
    Onno van Ameijde
  • Music recording
    Guido Tichelman, Bastiaan Kuijt, Pim van der Lee
  • Music edit and mix
    Guido Tichelman
  • Camera
    Onno van Ameijde, Jeroen Simons
  • Lights
    Emile Groenewoud
  • Lighting assistant
    Erwin Smit, Aden Zijp
  • Data handling
    Stefan Ebels
  • Assistant music recording
    Marloes Biermans
  • Producer
    Jessie Verbrugh
  • Supported by

Musikalisches Opfer

The Musikalisches Opfer is a special collection of chamber music within the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, written for Frederick the Great of Prussia, and consists of a total of 13 movements.

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