Johann Sebastian Bach: Regis Iusfu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Refolula (The Musical Offering) (1747)
Various audio/video is linked below in text.
The Musical Offering by J.S. Bach is a complex composition finished after only two months in 1747. The story of its creation and legacy has been the source of intrigue for historians, music scholars, and mathematicians. To appreciate The Musical Offering, an understanding of its creation is necessary. Bach had been a visiting guest of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, himself a lover of music and avid flutist. The King had long admired Bach and beckoned his arrival to try his skills on the King’s collection of pianos, which had just been invented. Bach’s reputation as a masterful improviser led the King to provide a theme of his own creation for Bach to work with. He asked Bach to create a three-voiced fugue based upon his own theme. Bach failed to work out, to his satisfaction, a decent fugue containing such a complex theme on the spot. In Leipzig, over the course of two months, Bach not only finished the piece but included ten canons, a three-part sonata, the three-part fugue, as well as a six-part fugue. This was based on the King’s Theme which he titled The Royal Theme and became the key part of The Musical Offering.
This was a masterful accomplishment for even the most skilled musician. Douglas Hofstadter, in his inspiring book Godel, Esher, Bach, compared the idea of improvising a six-voice fugue to that of “playing sixty simultaneous blindfold games of chess, and winning them all.” While a six-voice fugue is nothing to ignore, perhaps the most stunning contribution to The Musical Offering is a canon called the Endlessly Rising Canon. Based again on the King’s Theme, the second voice plays the same theme backwards as the first plays it forward. The genius of Bach allowed for this to continue where the listener might imagine quite a departure from the beginning, actually arrives again to start all over. A way to imagine this, would be to fashion a Mobius strip out of the actual musical notation. As much as Frederick the Great may have been a patron to the arts and a musician himself, The Musical Offering was a gift to the King. The included Endlessly Rising Canon, based on Frederick’s own theme, was intellectual progress and an homage to the King. In presentation with an accompanying letter , Bach wrote of The Musical Offering that: “this irreproachable intent, to glorify, if only in a small point, the fame of a monarch whose greatness and power, as in all the sciences of war and peace, so especially in music, everyone must admire and revere.” However modest, Bach’s work left an impressive composition in a Royal theme designed to never end.
My interest inThe Musical Offering is somewhat aside from the actual sound. I am honestly not a fan of classical instrumentation. The improvised complexity is what fascinates me and the use of the idea of infinity. On a side note, the music itself is not explicitly written to be played by only classical instruments. The 1968 recording and platinum selling Swtich-on Bach showed that electronic instruments could just as easily perform similarly complex works. Incidently, Switched-on Bach was so popular that it legitimized synthesisers and helped popularize their use in musical composition. With The Musical Offering, complex riddles and insights are abound. From the beginning, Bach’s Latin title: Regis Iusfu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Refolula has two riddles within it. The first being that the first letters spell out the archaic Italian name for a fugue: ricercar. The second is the play on words with ‘canonic’ which also means “the best possible.” Bach has left many puzzles within including the infamous Endlessly Rising Cannon. I admire the effort to create something so grand and as a gift.