Canon a 2 violini in unisono from Musikalisches Opfer

Canon a 2 violini in unisono from Musikalisches Opfer

BWV 1079/5 performed by Shunske Sato,
Mieneke van der Velden and Leo van Doeselaar
Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

Behind the music

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Canon a 2 violin(i) in unisono

Two identical violinists play the same part

Canons – pieces of music whereby one part is notated from which several voices can then be derived – come in all shapes and sizes. They may be very simple, like the song Frère Jacques, but also extremely complex. The ten canons in Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer range from those that are solved fairly simply to ingenious puzzles.

The Canon a 2 violin(i) in unisono is notated on two staves. The lower part, a bass line, is the theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great of Prussia. Above that, he wrote a countermelody for a higher instrument, with the instruction ‘a 2 violin: in unisono’. You might expect to read ‘violini’ here instead of ‘violin’, but this may actually be a joke by Bach. So it literally concerns two violins playing the same, and Bach carefully indicates where the second violinist should enter. You therefore hear two identical parts above the bass line, which is played here by viola da gamba and fortepiano. But one violinist begins a bit later than the other. So in our performance, you also see two identical violinists.

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.

The canons in the Musikalisches Opfer are a sort of visual music. Bach wrote them like puzzles, which the player must first solve in order to play them correctly. In these recordings, we wanted to give a literal picture of this ‘visual music’. So for example, wherever a part is doubled, the player will be in view twice. And where a part is mirrored, then the player appears in a mirror too.

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.

Canon a 2 violini in unisono
viola da gamba, violin, fortepiano
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
    11 May 2021
  • Recording date
    6 July 2020
  • Location
    Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
  • Violin
    Shunske Sato
  • Instrument
    Cornelius Kleynman, ca. 1684
  • Viola da gamba
    Mieneke van der Velden
  • Instrument
    Antoine Despont, 1617
  • Fortepiano
    Leo van Doeselaar
  • Instrument
    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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