musical theme

The Musical Offering

The Musical Offering (German title Musikalisches Opfer or Das Musikalische Opfer), BWV 1079, is a collection of canons and fugues and other pieces of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, based on a musical theme by Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) and dedicated to him.

The music

The King's theme

The collection has its roots in a meeting between Bach and Frederick II on May 7, 1747. The meeting, taking place in the king's residence in Potsdam, resulted from Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel being employed there as court musician. Frederick wanted to show the elder Bach a novelty: the piano had been invented some years earlier, and the king now owned several of the experimental instruments being developed by Gottfried Silbermann During his anticipated visit to Frederick's palace in Potsdam, Bach, who was well known for his skill at improvising, received from Frederick a long and complex musical figure to improvise a three-voice fugue. Frederick, then, challenged Bach to make that into a six-voice fugue. The public present thought that just a malicious caprice by the king, intent upon humiliating philosophers and artists. Bach answered he would need to work the score and send it to the king afterwards. He then returned to Leipzig to write out the Thema Regium ("theme of the king"):

Two months after the meeting, Bach published a set of pieces based on this theme which we now know as The Musical Offering. Bach inscribed the piece "Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta" (the theme given by the king, with additions, resolved in the canonic style), the first letters of which spell out the word ricercar (an older name for fugue).

Structure, instrumentation

In its finished form, The Musical Offering comprises:

  • Two ricercars, written down on as many staves as there are voices:
    • a ricercar a 6 (a six voice fugue)
    • a ricercar a 3 (a three voice fugue)
  • Ten canons:
    • Canones diversi super Thema Regium:
      • 2 Canons a 2 (the first representing a notable example of a crab canon)
      • Canon a 2, per motum contrarium
      • Canon a 2, per augmentationem, contrario motu
      • Canon a 2, per tonos
    • Canon perpetuus
    • Fuga canonica
    • Canon a 2 "Quaerendo invenietis"
    • Canon a 4
    • Canon perpetuus, contrario motu
  • Sonata sopr'il Soggetto Reale – a trio sonata featuring the flute, an instrument which Frederick played, consisting of four movements:
    • Largo
    • Allegro
    • Andante
    • Allegro

Apart from the trio sonata, which is written for flute, violin and basso continuo, the pieces have few indications of which instruments are meant to play them.

The ricercars and canons have been realised in various ways: The ricercars are frequently performed on keyboard instruments, an ensemble of chamber musicians with alternating instrument groups, comparable to the instrumentation of the trio sonata, often playing the canons. But also recordings on one or more keyboard instruments (piano, harpsichord) exist, as well as with a more ample orchestra-like instrumentation.

As the printed version gives the impression to be organised for (reduction of) page turning when sight-playing the score, the order of the pieces intended by Bach (if there was an intended order), remains uncertain, although it is customary to open the collection with the Ricercar a 3, and play the trio sonata toward the end. The Canones super Thema Regium are also usually played together.

Musical riddles

Some of the canons of the Musical Offering are represented in the original score by not more than a short monodic melody of a few measures, with a more or less enigmatic inscription in Latin above the melody. These compositions are called the riddle fugues (or sometimes, more appropriately, the riddle canons). The performer(s) is/are supposed to interpret the music as a multi-part piece (a piece with several intertwining melodies), while solving the "riddle". Some of these riddles have been explained to have more than one possible "solution", although nowadays most printed editions of the score give a single, more or less "standard" solution of the riddle, so that interpreters can just play, without having to worry about the Latin, or the riddle.

One of these riddle canons, "in augmentationem" (i.e. augmentation, the length of the notes gets longer), is inscribed "Notulis crescentibus crescat Fortuna Regis" (may the fortunes of the king increase like the length of the notes), while a modulating canon which ends a tone higher than it starts is inscribed "Ascendenteque Modulationis ascendat Gloria Regis" (as the modulation rises, so may the King's glory).


Little is known about how Frederick would have received the score dedicated to him, and whether he tried to solve any riddle or played the flute part of the trio sonata. Frederick was reputedly not fond of complicated music, and soon after Bach's visit he was on his next war campaign, so it is possible it was not well received.

20th century adaptations and citations


The "Ricercar a 6" has been arranged on its own on a number of occasions, the most prominent arranger being Anton Webern, who in 1935 made a version for small orchestra, noted for its Klangfarbenmelodie style (i.e. melody lines are passed on from one instrument to another after every few notes, every note receiving the "tone color" of the instrument it is played on):

Sofia Gubaidulina later used the Royal Theme of the Musical Offering in her violin concerto Offertorium. Orchestrated in an arrangement similar to Webern's, the theme is deconstructed note by note through a series of variations and reconstructed as a Russian Orthodox hymn.

Bart Berman composed three new canons on the Royal Theme of the Musical Offering, that were published in 1978 as a special holiday supplement to the Dutch music journal Mens & Melodie (publisher: Het Spectrum).

See also


Further reading

  • Reinhard Boess: Die Kunst des Raetselkanons im ’musikalischen Opfer’, 1991, 2 vols., ISBN 3-7959-0530-3

External links

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