Canon a 2 per tonos from Musikalisches Opfer

Canon a 2 per tonos from Musikalisches Opfer

BWV 1079/8 performed by Shunske Sato and Leo van Doeselaar
Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Droste effect

As the modulation rises, so may the King’s glory

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.

All sorts of things are happening in this canon. At first sight, you may not immediately see and hear the basic theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great. Yet it is there, in the upper part, ornamented by Bach. The actual canon is in the lower part. Bach notated it in two clefs, indicating where the second part should enter. As the same part appears here twice, albeit in a different way, we have performed it with two identical players. That all seems reasonably simple up to now, but there’s something else as well. Bach adapted the original theme and the counterpart in such a way that the piece goes up a step (tone) with each repetition. In the specially printed copy of the Musikalisches Opfer that Bach presented to Frederick the Great, this piece bears the inscription: ‘Ascendenteque Modulatione Ascendat Gloria Regis’ (literally translated as ‘as the modulation rises, so may the King’s glory’). So Bach was expressing the wish that Frederick’s fame would grow with every rising tone of the music. This ascent is represented here by the Droste effect.

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.

Canon a 2 per tonos
violin, fortepiano
chamber music
written for Frederick the Great

With support from

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
    23 November 2021
  • Recording date
    8 July 2020
  • Location
    Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
  • Violin
    Shunske Sato
  • Fortepiano
    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
  • 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 film
    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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