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Musical Offering BWV 1079
General Discussions - Part 1

Intriguing New Release

Donald Satz wrote (March 25, 2001):
I just finished listening to some sound samples from a recent recording on Arion of Bach's Musical Offering performed by Arte Resoluta. What I heard sounded very interesting; the strings had that "scrappy" period instrument sound of past times which I always liked. As it happens, I've seen this recording in one of the local stores and will buy it very soon. The Arion catalog number is 68526.

 

Bach's Musical Offering

Zeev Schor wrote (March 30, 2001):
I have acquired a CD, called "A Musical Offering" by J.S.Bach (performed by members of the Florilegium) which claims to be a complete set of instrumental trio sonatas. I am not a performing musician, only an avid listener of classical music. The term "Musical Offering" has created for me quite a lot of confusion. I would appreciate if a member of the list would explain to me if there are more than one "Musical Offering" by J.S.Bach, and how they are catalogued?

Donald Satz wrote (April 2, 2001):
Zeev Schor asks:
< The term "Musical Offering" has created for me quite a lot of confusion. I would appreciate if a member of the list would explain to me if there are more than one "Musical Offering" by J.S.Bach, and how they ar catalogued? >
There's only one Musical Offering and it's BWV 1079. I think Zeev is getting a little confused because of the 'trio sonata' designation.

The Musical Offering has two Ricercari, many Canons, and one four-movement trio sonata. It is specificially the trio sonata from the Musical Offering. Bach wrote many other trio sonatas including for organ, and some trio sonatas attributed to Bach are likely not composed by him. Regardless, each of these trio sonatas, except for the one from the Musical Offering, has a BWV number different than 1079.

The Florilegium disc from Channel Classics can only add to the confusion. The bigger lettering on the cover states - "A Musical Offering". The smaller letters state - "The complete instrumental trio sonatas". But this disc only has the Ricercar A 6 and the Trio Sonata from the Musical Offering; there are no Canons nor Ricercar A 3. It's definitely either deceptive or dumb presentation on the part of Channel Classics. As for the 'complete instrumental trio sonata' statement, that's pure bull. The six Trio Sonatas for organ alone take up an entire disc, and the last time I investigated the matter, the organ was still considered an instrument to be reckoned with.

As an aside, some of these cd covers defy worthy explanation. On the Channel Classics release, the cover art is a war-horse used picture of a bunch of angels praying to an elevated lamb representing you-know-who. It's the same cover as on Gardiner's Mass in B minor, although in darker shades. Actually, it looks like they just might cut off the lamb's head after praying to it; give it a look. Unless I'm mistaken, there's a guy behind a set of trees on a grassy knoll who appears mighty hungry.

 

BWV 1079 - Musical Offering - What are the parts?

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 3, 2001):
Hello. I'd be extremely grateful for the FULL list of all parts of the Musical Offering. I thought there were 16 parts before (I have a CD with 16 tracks) but now it seems there are more in fact??

Have you heard CANON A 7 or CANON DUPLEX, for example?

 

2 questions on the Musical Offering

Juozas Rimas wrote (January 5, 2004):
Are the instruments specified in the canons?

Eg, in the Canon perpetuus super Thema Regium, Marriner uses a flute, Savall does not but he uses more and more strings with each repetition in the canon.

Is the number of repetitions in the canons specified? Is performed explicitly allowed by the score to choose the number of repetitions?

Eg Marriner repeats the Canon perpetuus super Thema Regium 3 times and Savall 6 or 7, with different beginning and ending. Is the score so "loose"?

Tomek wrote (January 5, 2004):
Juozas Rimas wrote:
< Are the instruments specified in the canons?
Is the number of repetitions in the canons specified? Is performed explicitly allowed by the score to choose the number of repetitions? >
No, the instruments aren't specified in Bach's Musikaliches Opfer, except the trio sonata & one fuge which are for transverse flute, violin and continuo. Number of repetitions is also unspecified.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (January 5, 2004):
[To Juozas Rimas]
1.) In the score I have (Dover Edition reprint of the BGA Edition) many of the Kanonen do have specified instruments (see the solutions part), which for the most part include Keyboards.

2.) The number of repetitions are not specified, but I favor the "3-time rule"-repeat three times. The only exception I feel is the Kanon a2 (Per tonos), which actually traverses through all keys.

 

Musical Offering excerpts in the Casals festival, 1950

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 23, 2001):
In the set of Brandenburgs released recently as Pearl 200: http://www.pavilionrecords.com/html/pearl/pearl_frma.html
Casals conducted the Prades Festival Orchestra, 1950. I've written about these several times before; anyone else heard this set yet, with other reactions?

& There's a review by Jonathan Woolf at: http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2003/Aug03/Bach_Festival_casals.htm

Anyway, the second disc has the filler of excerpts from the Musical Offering, from that same festival. Casals doesn't play in them but probably had some role in coaching the performers; after all, they all came to Prades expressly to work with him. And the booklet has some notes about a Pleyel piano they brought in for the festival, and a gift of a refrigerator from the orchestra to Casals.

Leopold Mannes (director and later president of the Mannes College of Music in New York) plays the three-voiced ricercar; he is joined by Alexander Schneider, John Wummer, and Leopold Teraspulsky for the trio sonata; and then a string sextet (plus bass, so seven players) plays the six-voiced ricercar--really a keyboard piece but working OK this way also. Beautifully shaped phrasing, with admirable flexibility both of dynamics and tempo, from everybody here in these MO excerpts.

Anyone else here know these performances yet, either from the ancient Columbia LPs or this Pearl reissue? How about the other volumes by Pearl from these 1950s festivals, which I haven't picked up yet?

And anyone know of other recordings by Leopold Mannes?

Charlie Ervin McCarn wrote (January 23, 2001):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Anyone else here know these performances yet, either from the ancient Columbia LPs or this Pearl reissue? How about the other volumes by Pearl from these 1950s festivals, which I haven't picked up yet?
And anyone know of other recordings by
Leopold Mannes? >
Leopold Mannes made at least one chamber music LP for American Decca. I think that it has a piano trio by Clara Schumann on it.

The liner notes for the Pearl sets are full of inaccuracies. For instance, in one of them, the annotator says that, by process of elimination, Eugene Istomin was the continuo pianist in the Szigeti recording. There is a session photo on the cover of the American LP release, which I have in my collection, and you can see the pianist. It's Mannes. The annotator also writes that Valenti played the harpsichord for the Fritz Reiner recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos. That's wrong. Sylvia Marlowe did.

It's sad that Pearl did not get Terri Towe to write the annotations and produce the series. I have heard more than once that he is VERY difficult to deal with, but I also have been told that he knew Casals, Horszowski, Schneider, Istomin, Valenti, Wummer, and a number of the other participants, and that he has unpublished interviews with some of them. One of my friends went to college with him and tome that he did radio shows with Horszowski as his guest. If his liner notes to the reissue of the Casals recordings of the Bach Cello Suites are any indication, he really would have provided us with liner notes that no one else could match.

The other transfers in the Pearl set are of the same calibre as the set that you have - serviceable but not extraordinary. (I am sure that Seth Winner could have done a significantly better job than Roger Beardsley, had he been chosen as the transfer engineer. His transfers of the Cello Suites for the set that Terri Towe produced and wrote the notes for are better than all of the other ones.) And the Pearl series of 6 CDs is complete, unlike the competing Cascavelle 5 CD box which does not include the Sonatas for Cello and Piano and the B Minor Flute Sonata with Wummer and Mannes and one or two other pieces.

When I was playing some of these recordings the other day, I realized that now that Eugene Istomin has died , the only remaining soloist from these recordings is the flutist Bernard Goldberg.

 

Musical Offering (was: 4-hpsi)

John Pike wrote (February 7, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< What do you think of the published theory that the Musical Offering's theme for improvisation was composed not by the king, but by one (or several) of Bach's former students there at court, namely CPE or Nichelmann or Agricola? And that some or all of the keyboard parts in MO are piano parts instead of harpsichord parts? >
Recordings of the MO were reviewed on BBC Radio3 on Staurday. I missed much of it I'm afraid, but the top recommendation was for the Hänssler Bachakademie recording. Also recommended were Jordi Savall and Davitt Moroney on Harpsichord.

Peter Bright wrote (February 7, 2005):
[To John Pike] I'm really pleased that recording came out on top (I presume its the disc with Michael Behringer on fortepiano...) - this is one of my favourite CDs - and I LOVE their treatment of those 14 canons based on the fundamental bass notes of the Goldbergs aria at the end of the CD. This disc isn't talked about very much, but I do favour it slightly over the Savall (my next favourite...).

Thomas Shepherd wrote (February 7, 2005):
[To John Pike] It is still possible to hear the programme on Radio 3 streamed via the internet for the next few days. There is half an hour of other stuff (Brahms 3rd mvt.4 LSO/Haitink: Cavalieri etc.) before the MO is reviewed. Be sure to listen BEFORE next Saturday's broadcast of "CD Review". http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/index.shtml?logo > "Listen Again" > "CD Review".

John Pike wrote (February 7, 2005):
[To Peter Bright] That's exactly right. There was another version reviewed with Michael Behringer doing the MO by himself on keyboard, but Moroney came out better. I have the Haenssler recording as well and will have another listen to it very soon.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 8, 2005):
[To Thomas Shepherd] Thanks, gentlemen, for the notice about this programme. I listened on the web today and enjoyed it. (Brahms 4th, by the way, not 3rd.)

But I do have to take exception with the host's remark that "The harpsichord is an austere kind of instrument"... in his setup of one of the recordings. My own musicianship is predicated on the observation and practice that it's not an austere instrument, but rather a sensual one and capable of profound beauty.

Yes, in the 6-part Ricercar too. That piece takes strong advantage of harpsichord sonority. It's supremely difficult, like a huge puzzle of fingering to be solved, but Bach kept all of it playable by two hands and in a way that does not sound particularly difficult...and that's part of the difficulty, to bring off the piece with suave control!

Neil Halliday wrote (February 8, 2005):
Bradley Lehmanwrote:
<"Yes, in the 6-part Ricercar too. That piece takes strong advantage of harpsichord sonority".>
Certainly, in Moroney's rendition, near the end of the program. This is one of the more powerful harpsichord sonorities I have heard, very impressive, reminding me of the sound of the forte-piano that opened the M.O. program (indeed, this forte-piano sounded more like a harpsichord than a piano - the awesome power of the modern instrument being impressively and fully realised in that Rossini transcription in the "Tribute to Horowitz" example we heard earlier in the program).

But did you notice what happened to the sound of the harpsichord in Savall's immediately following ensemble version of the Ricercar? It turned into the pitchless little rattling sound that we so often hear with harpsichord in ensemble. I would have enjoyed that Savall more without that 'noise' going on in the background. (I realize it's obviously a problem of capturing the sound of many instruments onto a CD). It's interesting that the final Haenssler example gave us just such an example of an ensemble version without this 'rattling' noise; if the harpsichord was there, it was inaudible, and in no way missed.

Richard Bradbury wrote (February 8, 2005):
On the BBC website this week it is possible to hear the sublime Bill Patterson reading James Gaines's "Evening in the palace of reason", a review of which Brad posted a few weeks ago: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/book_of_the_week.shtml
elsewhere on the BBC website, to go completely OT, it's also possible at the moment to listen to a dramatisation of "a la recherche de la temps perdu"!

 

Canons of the MO. (was: Spiritual Illumination)

Neil Halliday wrote (March 19, 2006):
Raymond Joly wrote:
>"The canons in the MUSICAL OFFERING are a feat indeed, but I confess I do not care to listen to them; as music, I feel they are quite uninteresting".<
Might I suggest a performance recommended by Eric Bergerud some time ago: Karl Muenchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (knowing Eric is partial to HIP, I decided to investigate this version for modern orchestra).

The arrangement of these canons for strings and woodwinds indeed raises them to the status of sometimes quite beautiful abstract music. Only two (of the ten) canon movements with only two parts (lines) sound a bit dry in this recording (tracks 9 and 10; these are also the shortest, allowing for the virtual repeat that occurs in track 10), but all the other movements with three or more parts are at least quite attractive as music.

The 4-voice canon (track 13) is a stupendous piece of music (over 5 mins.) in which the entire canon melody (in this case based on the royal theme) is heard at least twice in all four of the SATB lines, with the full orchestra coming in at the end.

The apparent atonality of the `canon through the tones' is especially remarkable and effective as music (track 11); the royal theme on the oboe eerily drifts higher and higher, while a 2-part canon is heard on independent material in the strings.

Several other canons are also very attractive as music in this recording (this is not the place to elaborate).

Here is an excellent site for study, while listening to these canons: http://www2.nau.edu/~tas3/musoffcanons.html

Listeners will need to identify which canon on their own recording corresponds to those listed as 1 to 10 on this site. The full score, with pointers to the canon leader, canon follower, voice with free counterpoint, etc. ie, the fascinating, if not to say mind-blowing, structure of these canons, can be obtained by clicking on the score
diagram under the title of each canon.

Juozas Rimas wrote (March 19, 2006):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Several other canons are also very attractive as music in this recording (this is not the place to elaborate). >
I find it surprising that the musicality of the MO canons is questioned at all. EVERY single canon of the MO is not only perfectly listenable but provides, at least to me, inexaustible source of beautiful, moving music.

For instance, the "Violini in unisono" canon. I dug it right away which happens sto me with Bach's music. The canon is really easy-listening, so sorrowful, reminiscent of the best moments in Bach's solo violin works. I can't imagine someone seriously calling it non-musical -it's simply heart-gripping.

The canon "a 2 per augmentationem, contrario motu". Fantastic sad music.

"A 2 circularis per tonos" - imagine flying higher and higher with every wave (luckily,the ensemble is helping to create this impression).

"Perpetuus, contrario motu" - flute stuff as strong as the 2nd Orchestral Suite. Not calling this canon musical? With its almost catchy melody and dreamy ending?

Neil has given a great idea for those sceptical about the MO: try listening to the non-HIP versions. I enjoy Marriner's take a lot, not caring much about its authenticity - the lush music is inviting to be listened to. If, after accustomation to the MO, one desires some more tension and conflicts among sounds, HIP ensemble versions are available, Savall's, for instance.

Julian Mincham wrote (March 19, 2006):
Juozas Rimas wrote:
< I find it surprising that the musicality of the MO canons is questioned at all. EVERY single canon of the MO is not only perfectly listenable but provides, at least to me, inexaustible source of beautiful, moving music. >
Well put. I support this view strongly. The one canon which at first hearing may seem stilted and lacking in natural flow is the fourth of the canones diversi. It is is three parts, a version of the king's theme in the middles and the lower part is a canon with a version of itself inverted and augmented in the upper part. Technically this means that the upper part is the lower part turned upside down in notes twice as long-----something which it is difficult to follow by ear after the first couple of bars.

But, as with much great music it requires repeated listening and familiarity. It then becomes apparent that this is the most profound of the canons, deeply moving and personal like a couple of the minor key variations from the Goldberg variations BWV 988 (which have similar technical constraints which, inhibiting as they might be for some composers, always seemed to act as a stimulus for JSB)

Can't recall the actual reference at the moment but I remember reading Donald Tovey some years ago where he was highly critical of the musical value of a couple of the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080) canons. (he was similarly critical of JSB's habit of making a fugue subject invert when it didn't always flow convincingly, giving as examples WTC Book one (BWV 846)the G major and A minor fugues) For myself I have always enjoyed the MO canons more than those from the AOF. The retrogade canon is delicious (and barely a minute long) and the one described above, profoundly moving. Expressively, the others lie in between these extremes.

And, for me the trio sonata is simply the greatest example of its genre.

Those interested in the MO should read James Gaine's fascinating book 'Evening in the Palace of Reason' (Harper Perennial 2005) which I should think must have been recommended here by subscribers already.

Yang Jingfeng wrote (March 19, 2006):
[To Juozas Rimas] I wonder whether it is inevitable to cost some musicality for structure perfection.

I really think the cantatas sound much more musical than the strict perfect cannons in MO.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (March 19, 2006):
Juozas Rimas wrote
< I find it surprising that the musicality of the MO canons is questioned at all. EVERY single canon of the MO is not only perfectly listenable but provides, at least to me, inexaustible source of beautiful, moving music.
For instance, the "Violini in unisono" canon. I dug it right away which happens seldom to me with Bach's music. The canon is really easy-listening, so sorrowful, reminiscent of the best moments in Bach's solo violin works. I can't imagine someone seriously calling it non-musical - it's simply heart-gripping.
The canon "a 2 per augmentationem, contrario motu". Fantastic sad music.
"A 2 circularis per tonos" - imagine flying higher and higher with every wave (luckily,the ensemble is helping to create this impression).
"Perpetuus, contrario motu" - flute stuff as strong as the 2nd Orchestral Suite. Not calling this canon musical? With its almost catchy melody and dreamy ending? >
I am one of the culprits. I mentioned explicitly the canon 'cancrizans' as a piece I find musically hard to appreciate (and it is the only piece I mentioned). I notice that you talk about other canons, which I find musically very satisfactory, but you omit 'cancrizans'. Is this omission intentional? Would you be as lyrical about cancrizans as you are about other canons?

Juozas Rimas wrote (March 19, 2006):
[To Alain Bruguieres] I regard the canrizans as the introduction to the canons, simple but musical enough to listen to (1st of prelude of WTC1 and BWV 924 are also very simple but they are very musical nonetheless). I strongly prefer the two-violins version, as Marriner does, over the harpsichord version. In a less than one minute we are given with an outline of what awaits in the rest of the canons. Marriner presents the canrizans in very clearly audible two voices: one violin is scuttling swiftly (it's reminiscent to me a bit of the prelude in the 1 mvt of the BWV 1023 sonata) and another one is presenting the royal theme in the background in a quite jarred fashion which still seems constrained compared to the first voice.

I'm not sure about authenticity of this approach, but Marriner clearly did his best to present the cancrizans not as a tedious exercise but as a sort of an energetic warm-up.

Have you listened to this or another ensemble version of the cancrizans?

Juozas Rimas wrote (March 19, 2006):
[To Yang Jingfeng] I have passed the line where ALL cannons of the MO appear very listenable to me, without any exceptions. I still have problems with parts of AoF, but I firmly believe that every bar of it is listenable and will sound rewarding to me, when I find enough time to listen to it through several times. I'm sure, though, that BWV 1072 canon (and some other canons from the same lot) is a pure trick and no one will ever convince me that it is listenable.

Speaking of cantatas, I'm afraid I'm not able to appreciate the chorus of the BWV 14 cantata musically. It's so complex that my ear cannot catch any tune or any other "foothold" to start appreciating it somehow.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (March 19, 2006):
[To Juozas Rimas] We're all different. I thouroughly enjoy the whole of The Art of the Fuge. In fact I found it very pleasant to listen to from the start. In particular I like the canons of The Art of the Fuge, even if somehow I find them a bit abstract, remote, of a mineral beauty so to speak...

I greatly enjoyed the opening chorus of BWV from the start, too. However I still find cancrizans lacking in musicality. My problem is not that it sounds simple, as you suggest. Quite the contrary. It sounds rather 'alien' to me. Perhaps it is too short a piece for me to begin to grasp its inner beauty before it is over; I don't think I will come to appreciate it better with time (an impression I often have when listening to a Bach piece for the 1st time). The fact that it is an introductory piece is no excuse to me, since Bach has accustomed us to highly musical and endearing introducing pieces, notably the opening prelude of the WTC which you cared to mention. Perhaps my difficulty comes from the fact that, while I can relatively easily grasp the link between a melody and its accelerated or even inverted forms, and grasping this link is a pleasure in itself, I don't sense any relation between a melody and its retrograde form; and in particular the retrograde form of Thema Regium sounds downright queer not to say unpleasant to me.

Julian Mincham wrote (March 19, 2006):
Yang Jingfeng wrote:
< I really think the cantatas sound much more musical than the strict perfect cannons in MO. >
Fair enough as an expression of personal taste. But they cannot really be compared. Leaving aside the fact that Bach uses some very strict' fugal acanonic devices in some cantata movements, comparing the cantatas with the MO canons is a bit like comparing the first Beethoven sonata with the late quartets. i.e. diffent genres, different purposes and coming from very different periods of the composers' creative life. The MO canons are very late works; most of the cantatas which most people enjoy are early or 'middle' (i.e. written when Bach was around 40) works.

It is interesting, as an aside, how many great composers developed stylistically in their later years in ways that produced extreme contrasts of their composing styles. The JSB of the early keyboard toccatas is not the JSB of the MO, AOF or Canonic variations (BWV 769) One needs to listen to them differently and from different perspectives.

I find it rather interesting that it is not too difficult to differentiate early and late Bach, Beethoven, Mozart--or even, despite his early death, Schubert. But with Mendelssohn (a composer I like very much) I find it very difficult to differentiate between the last works and the early masterpieces (e.g. the octet).

Julian Mincham wrote (March 19, 2006):
Juozas Rimas wrote:
< Speaking of cantatas, I'm afraid I'm not able to appreciate the chorus of the BWV 14 cantata musically >
I'm not surprised. This is a very dense chromatic chorus, dourly minor and generally un-lightened by major keys. It employs a dense texture of counterpoint and the kind of intense chromatic harmony which was becoming part of JSB's harmonic language pervading those late works already being discussed by members of the group. Hopefully the denseness of this movement is alleviated somewhat by the much more accessable arias which follow (for sop and bass).

It might (or might not) help to be aware that the opening rising theme, announced immediately by the tenors, is accompanied by the same theme one bar later by the basses--but turned upside down so it becomes a falling melody. tenors rise--basses fall.

The same process is immediately followed by the altos (same rising theme) and the sops a bar later (with the falling theme of the basses). What might be helpful is to play through the first dozen or so bars a few times trying to follow this process aurally--it might then click and the rest of the movement may begin to make more sense.

Alternatively just try to follow through one line at a time starting, perhaps with the basses and afterwards, the sopranos, concentrating on that line and that alone, following the twists and turn of the single melody before trying to make sense of the complicated texture and inter-relatedness of the various lines.

Anyhow, good luck--or as Aryeh would say---enjoy! I hope you do.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (March 19, 2006):
Alain Bruguieres wrotet :
< I greatly enjoyed the opening chorus of BWV from the start, too. >
Oops! I meant the opening chorus of BWV 14, of course.

It is true that such a chorus is very complex. But the first time I heard it, I was conquered. I felt immediately that there were tons of things there which I would discover in time, and probably megatons I would never even suspect... but the thrill was there the first instant. Not so with 'cancrizans'! Although I may be greatly mistaken of course.

The point is not whether I like cancrizans or not, really. The point I was trying to make is that in many of Bach's works (most of them?) there is a 'mathematical' streak. That is, not mathematics in a literal sense, but rejoicing in formal combinations, the challenge of arranging a limited number of elements in the presence of strong constraints and produce complex and unexpected patterns in a dramatic progression which arouses a sense of beauty. Often, the music depicts affects such as sadness, joy, expectation, and what not, which touch me in a vivid way so that the 'mathematical streak' remains in the background. This is often the case with the cantatas! Sometimes, it is the 'mathematical streak' which dominates. I would then be very much at pains to describe the affects depicted by the music, and yet I am very deeply affected! Most important perhaps, the same work, - in the same recording - will sometimes touch me on the affective level, and on other occasions on the 'mathematical level'. And sometimes on both at once! So that, paradoxically, the same work may seem very sad (taken on a sentimental level so to speak) and jubilant (the perfect workmanship being a source of jubilation).
What's wonderful is that we are free to choose!

The aim of this long speech was to explain that, to me, it makes absolutely no sense to say that Bach's music is too mathematical, or to claim that it is not mathematical at all.

Stephen Benson wrote (March 20, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Alternatively just try to follow through one line at a time starting, perhaps with the basses and afterwards, the sopranos, concentrating on that line and that alone, following the twists and turn of the single melody before trying to make sense of the complicated texture and inter-relatedness of the various lines. >
Trying to take in at once a multiplicity of contrapuntal lines can be extremely challenging. I find the technique suggested here to be extremely useful whenever I'm having trouble sorting out polyphonic lines. While focusing on one line, I incidentally, and perhaps not surprisingly, hear the other lines more clearly. The very term "counterpoint" suggests such a relativity. Having command of one line enables the other lines to acquire clarity and individual character as contrasting voices.

Raymond Joly wrote (March 20, 2006):
Alain Bruguieres wrote:
«The point is not whether I like cancrizans or not, really. The point I was trying to make is that in many of Bach's works (most of them?) there is a 'mathematical' streak. That is, not mathematics in a literal sense, but rejoicing in formal combinations, the challenge of arranging a limited number of elements in the presence of strong constraints and produce complex and unexpected patterns in a dramatic progression which arouses a sense of beauty. Often, the music depicts affects such as sadness, joy, expectation, and what not, which touch me in a vivid way so that the 'mathematical streak' remains in the background. This is often the case with the cantatas! Sometimes, it is the 'mathematical streak' which dominates. I would then be very much at pains to describe the affects depicted by the music, and yet I am very deeply affected! Most important perhaps, the same work, - in the same recording - will sometimes touch me on the affective level, and on other occasions on the 'mathematical level'. And sometimes on both at once! So that, paradoxically, the same work may seem very sad (taken on a sentimental level so to speak) and jubilant (the perfect workmanship being a source of jubilation). What's wonderful is that we are free to choose!
«The aim of this long speech was to explain that, to me, it makes absolutely no sense to say that Bach's music is too mathematical, or to claim that it is not mathematical at all.»
This is a very valuable contribution indeed. In the 18th century, some writers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau among them, upheld the theory that music was an imitative art as well as the others, but reinterpreted it to an essential extent. True, music is rather limited in its ability to imitate occurrences in the outside world, when one is done with running streams, rising and falling objets, sighing and so on. On the other hand it can powerfully imitate the movements of the human soul. One of them I think is what Alain Bruguičres describes: the joy at working towards a solution and affirming the freedom and triumph of the mind, which it so seldom achieves in real life. That is where «mathematics»-paradoxically for donkeys like myself-can become a source of elation. The rest of Bruguičres' observations on the two kinds of elements causing emotion when hearing music (is this the same as musical emotion?) would be sufficient stuff for a week-end seminar on aesthetics.

Tom Hens wrote (March 23, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
<snip>
< The MO canons are very late works; most of thecantatas which most people enjoy are early or 'middle' (i.e. written when Bach was around 40) works. >
<snip>
< I find it rather interesting that it is not too difficult to differentiate early and late Bach, Beethoven, Mozart--or even, despite his early death, Schubert. But with Mendelssohn (a composer I like very much) I find it very difficult to differentiate between the last works and the early masterpieces (e.g. the octet). >
If Bach had died at the age Mozart or Mendelssohn did, late Bach would have been what he wrote in Köthen. Perhaps people these days would then be discussing why the early Bach wrote church cantatas, but the late Bach concentrated on purely instrumental music. Had he lost his faith, perhaps? If Bach had died at the age Schubert did, he'd never even have made it to Köthen, and late Bach would be Weimar works.

Of course there are cases of people who reach a certain age, or a certain state of health, who are aware they're producing their last work(s). But on the whole, I find this pervasive habit of trying to impose retroactive periodisation in this way slightly amusing, whether applied to the output of an individual or to whole periods. In another place, I recently saw a discussion about whether Monteverdi was a "late renaissance" or "early baroque" composer. Yes, I'm sure that's a dilemma the poor man spent sleepless nights worrying about.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 23, 2006):
Tom Hens wrote:
< Of course there are cases of people who reach a certain age, or a certain state of health, who are aware they're producing their last work(s). But on the whole, I find this pervasive habit of trying to impose retroactive periodisation in this way slightly amusing, whether applied to the output of an individual or to whole periods. In another place, I recently saw a discussion about whether Monteverdi was a "late renaissance" or "early baroque" composer. Yes, I'm sure that's a dilemma the poor man spent sleepless nights worrying about. >
Having already spearheaded the "second practice" he probably wracked his brain trying to decide what to do third or fourth: to stay ahead of all his would-be imitators. Like maybe having something else trump both the music and the words (e.g., inventing the genre of commercial jingles for the local vintners, or taking even greater care to specify his orchestrations, or writing out all his costuming/staging instructions in full, or larding his compositions with arbitrary feats of numerology, or laying down guidelines for the style of Ornette Coleman).

Of course, that would have screwed up the plot of Richard Strauss's "Capriccio" (or at least added more suitors to the cast), but that needn't have concerned Monteverdi.

Julian Mincham wrote (March 23, 2006):
Tom Hens wrote:
< Of course there are cases of people who reach a certain age, or a certain state of health, who are aware they're producing their last work(s). But on the whole, I find this pervasive habit of trying to impose retroactive periodisation in this way slightly amusing, whether applied to the output of an individual or to whole periods. >
This was not quite my point. Whilst I agree about the dangers of retroactive periodisation, I was musing on (amusing myself with??) the thought, which I think is largely self evident, that some composer's styles changed much more throughout their lifetimes than others. One amusing aside to this relates to a lady, now dead, who, some years ago gained considerable publicity in GB by claiming that she was getting messages from dead composers who were dictating their posthumus pieces to her to copy down. The pieces claimed to be dictated by Beethoven all shared clear stylistic similarities to his early works e.g. the Pathetique piano sonata.

It seems somewhat absurd that, from his grave and after the 9th symphony and the late quartets and piano sonatas he would have returned to a style of writing associated with his earliest works.

The point is that these differences in style are clearly apparent and discernable without any retrospective imposition of 'periodisation'.

Regarding when composers died Mozart, Schubert and Mendelsohn all died in their 30s, but (to my ear at least) their stylistic development was quite different in each case.

 

Musical Offering for the New Year

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 25, 2006):
Discography

Following previous discographies of Bach's non-vocal works, I have added now a comprehensive discography of the Musical Offering BWV 1079 (MO), which, AFAIK, is the first ever web-discography of this work.

I have used every possible source I could find, including web-catalogues as J.S. Bach Home Page and All Music Guide, web-stores as Amazon, JPC, CD Universe and eBay, web-magazines as Gramophone and MusicWeb, and other websites I have been able to find with Google search engine, as well as various printed catalogues and my private collection.

As with previous discographies at the BCW, the complete recordings of the MO are split into several pages, a page for a decade. Since there are many individual recordings of the Trio Sonata from the MO, as well as the 2 Ricercars, which are not part of complete recordings of this work, I have also created pages for them. In 1935 Anton Webern orchestrated the 2nd Ricercar [Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci], the recordings of which were put into a separate page. Previous discussions of the MO have also been compiled into Discussions page. You can find them all through the main page of the MO at the BCW:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/NVD/BWV1079.htm

This initial version of the discography includes 57 complete (or near complete) recordings of the MO, 16 of the Trio Sonata, 36 of the Ricercars and 10 of the Webern's Ricercar. As in previous discographies in the BCW, each recording is listed only once. All the issues of each recording are presented together. If a performer has recorded the MO more than once, the info includes also the recording number. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that there are somewhere recordings I have missed, and for many recordings, especially from the 1960's and 1970's, the info presented is only partial. Please help me making this discography more comprehensive and more accurate. If you are aware of a recording of the MO not listed in these pages, or if you find an error or missing information, please inform me, either through the BRML or to my personal e-mail address.

Background

Taka Kidokoro wrote a good short description of the MO and the background to its composition in the liner notes of DVD, which contains a live recording of the chamber music concert given in July 2000 as part of the Leipzig Bach Festival. It was performed by the Kuijken Brothers exactly on the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death.

Bach's late masterpiece The Musical Offering (1747) is music of homage written on the occasion of Bach's visit to King Frederick the Great of Prussia. By that time, the choirmaster and organist at St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig was already enjoying considerable recognition in Saxony and Thuringia, and his circle of admirers and, in some cases, patrons was beginning to grow. One of these admirers was the Russian ambassador to Prussia, Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk. The Count, who is regarded as having commissioned the Goldberg Variations, referred the king to the Leipzig musician. As a result of this referral, Bach received an official invitation from the Prussian court.

Bach gladly accepted the offer, and the reason for this decision must have been the honour and fame accorded him by the audience. But a personal motive certainly played a part in it too: his second son Carl Philipp Emanuel had been active as royal harpsichordist at the Prussian court since 1740, and in 1745 a son was born to him, Bach's first grandchild. The grandfather probably used the audience as an opportunity for a family reunion as well. Thus it was on May 7, 1747, accompanied by his first son Wilhelm Friedemann, that he arrived in Potsdam. It is conjectured that the meettook place not in the newly built Sanssouci, but the city castle. On learning of Bach's arrival, the king is said to have announced to those present "with a kind of disquiet": "Gentlemen, old Bach has arrived!"

The king immediately led him to one of the Silbermann fortepianos spread out among various rooms of the castle and asked for an improvisation on a theme set by him. Bach performed this with an artistic fugue à 3, eliciting all-round admiration in the process. The next day, the king again demanded a six-part prelude on the same theme. Bach felt less than sure about the task and played a six-part fugue on a different (more suitable) theme. Although the playing was of an "equally magnificent and learned nature" (Forkel/Wilhelm Friedemann Bach), the composer felt that he had offered a less than satisfactory service. There and then he resolved "to elaborate this right regal theme more perfectly, and thereafter to make it known to the world". That was the basis of his Musical Offering.

Straight after the trip Bach began work on the composition. Work went really swiftly, the oeuvre being completed by 7 July and then sent to Potsdam in the form of a special volume destined for the king. Following that, in September of the same year, Bach had the music printed. The first edition consisted of 100 copies. The entire labour, from composition to printing, took only a matter of months, which testifies to Bach's special ambition to do justice to the self-appointed task. The Musical Offering is a rare blend of different chamber music pieces with two ricercares (three or six-part fugues), a trio sonata and ten elaborate canons. The "thema regium" forms the basis for all these numbers, and the first ricercare à 3 is a transcription of the extemporisation performed in Potsdam. The renowned Bach researcher Christoph Wolff claims that the score dedicated to the king originally contained only this piece and seven additional canons. However, this would mean that Bach decided relatively late on to write the fugue not performed in Potsdam.

Yet it is hard to imagine that he refrained from sending the desired six-part fugue and only penned it after the event to coincide with the printing of the score.

At any rate, the score of The Musical Offering presents us with various problems of performance technique. The printed music - possibly owing to lack of time - is singly bound, and the exact sequence intended by the composer is therefore not known. Uncertainty also surrounds the orchestration. Of the entire composition, only a handful of parts are provided with directions for orchestration: trio sonata and canon perpetuus with transverse flute, violin and basso continuo, canon à 2 violini in unisono with two violins and bass (played in the present recording on violin and harpsichord, however). Above all, the sequence fuelled discussion, and even today there is still no clear-cut insight into the order.

Bach's intentions can be recognised at every turn of the orchestration, however. 1n this work he is trying to accommodate the practical facilities available to the musical king. The four-movement trio sonata is chamber music with flute, as mentioned; the king himself played this instrument and frequently made music at the court. With a contemplative andante Bach takes on the then fashionable "sentimental style" of Carl Philipp Emanuel or Graun and thereby does justice to the rococo-like taste of the king. 1n the present recording, the ricercare a 6 is also played in the orchestration of the trio sonata, lucidly conjuring up the picture of the musical soiree at the Prussian court.

 

BCW: Musical Offering BWV 1079 - Revised & Updated Discographies

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 8, 2011):
The discography of the Musical Offering BWV 1079 on the BCW has been revised & updated:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/NVD/BWV1079.htm
The discography is arranged chronologically by recording date and includes 73 complete recordings in 9 pages + a page each for recordings of Trio Sonata (19), Ricercars (49), Ricercar arranged by Webern (16) and Canons (3).
If you have any correction, addition, etc., please inform me.

 

Continue on Part 2

Musical Offering BWV 1079: Details
Recordings:
1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | 2010-2019 | Trio Sonata | Ricercars | Ricercar - Webern | Canons
Reviews:
MO - Comparative Review | MO - Academy Ensemble | MO - Ensemble Aurora | MO - Kuijken Brothers | MO - J. Savall
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2

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Last update: żDecember 28, 2011 ż10:12:06