Ricercar a 3 from Musikalisches Opfer
BWV 1079/1 performed by Leo van Doeselaar
Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Behind the music
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
- Release date
- 15 April 2021
- Recording date
- 6 July 2020
- Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
- Leo van Doeselaar
- Director and editor
- Onno van Ameijde
- Music recording
- Guido Tichelman, Bastiaan Kuijt, Pim van der Lee
- Music edit and mix
- Guido Tichelman
- Onno van Ameijde, Jeroen Simons
- Emile Groenewoud
- Lighting assistant
- Erwin Smit, Aden Zijp
- Data handling
- Stefan Ebels
- Assistant music recording
- Marloes Biermans
- Jessie Verbrugh
- Supported by
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.
Ricercar a 3 from Musikalisches Opfer
chamber music, BWV 1079/1
Canon a 2 violini in unisono from Musikalisches Opfer
chamber music, BWV 1079/5
Canon perpetuus super Thema Regium from Musikalisches Opfer
chamber music, BWV 1079/10
Canon a 4 Quaerendo invenietis from Musikalisches Opfer
chamber music, BWV 1079/13
Fuga canonica in epidiapente from Musikalisches Opfer
chamber music, BWV 1079/9
Canon a 2 Cancrizans from Musikalisches Opfer
chamber music, BWV 1079/4
Ricercar a 6 from Musikalisches Opfer
chamber music, BWV 1079/2
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