Ricercar a 6 from Musikalisches Opfer

Ricercar a 6 from Musikalisches Opfer

BWV 1079/2 performed by Leo van Doeselaar
Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

A marvellous souvenir

Bach constructs a 6-part fugue on the ‘royal theme’

The two ricercars in the Musikalisches Opfer are each other’s opposites in many respects. It is as if Bach wanted, after visiting Frederick the Great, to reaffirm exactly what he was capable of, at his age and with his reputation. Just compare the ‘galant’ three-part fugue on the ‘thema regium’ (improvised spontaneously in Potsdam and later worked out properly) with its counterpart: this far from spontaneous six-part musical edifice. Although the number of parts is not so unusual, it is remarkable how long it takes before each part has presented the lengthy theme. This ‘exposition’ takes up more than a third of the work, on its way to a climax in the bass.

In the rest of the Ricercar a 6, the theme recurs another 6 times; further apart and more surprising. As in its three-part counterpart, Bach actually keeps things simple. The theme recurs without contrapuntal tricks, unlike examples by the grand masters of the genre, Gabrieli and Frescobaldi, whose ricercars open up all the registers of counterpoint. True creativity is found in the ‘episodes’, the passages containing no theme material. Here, Bach often writes variations on motifs from the countertheme, up to three at a time and all nicely proportioned, whereas the Ricercar a 3 is more inclined to let the musical ideas do their own thing.

In the printed version, each part has its own staff, which could point towards chamber music, but Bach definitely composed the work on a keyboard, so that is the way Leo van Doeselaar performs it. We can no longer determine which keyboard Bach had in mind, and harpsichord, fortepiano and organ are all candidates. We know for a fact that Bach was well acquainted with Gottfried Silbermann, particularly as an organ builder. An initial encounter with Silbermann’s fortepiano elicited complaints from Bach, but after some adjustments to the instrument Bach was persuaded otherwise.

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 6
chamber music
written for Frederick the Great

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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
    2 September 2021
  • Recording date
    8 July 2020
  • Location
    Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
  • Pianist
    Leo van Doeselaar
  • Fortepiano
    Thomas and Barbara Wolf, 1997/1998 after Gottfried Silbermann, 1746
  • 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
  • With support from

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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