Al­most a month in, and we haven’t had a vis­it with J.S. Bach yet. Long past time, and we’ll be back a lot too, if this se­ries stretch­es out much. We’re go­ing to start out with min­i­mal Bach; we’ll get around to thun­der­ous Bach, pas­sion­ate Bach, and show-off Bach in lat­er in­stall­ments. To­day we’ll sam­ple from a small se­ries en­ti­tled Canones di­ver­si su­per The­ma Regium, part of a larg­er work called Musikalis­ches Opfer, or in English The Mu­si­cal Of­fer­ing, com­posed in 1747, BWV 1079. To­day we’ll take on the Canon a 2, per aug­men­ta­tionem, con­trario mo­tu and the Fu­ga canon­i­ca in Epidi­a­pente. They’re not the two deep­est frag­ments, but they’re a good place to start. This is se­ri­ous­ly beau­ti­ful thought­ful, pa­tient mu­sic

I could write a whole lot of words about the Of­fer­ing but I don’t need to, be­cause at least two oth­er peo­ple have writ­ten whole books on it: James Gaines’ Even­ing in the Palace of Rea­son and of course Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. Gaines spends more time on the com­pli­cat­ed re­la­tion­ships be­tween Bach and his son, and on the nasty, strange King Fred­er­ick (“the Great”) of Prus­si­a, and Hof­s­tadter of course launch­es in­to an Ex­tend­ed Es­say on Every­thing, which I en­joyed like crazy when I read it about forty years ago.

Musical Offering manuscript

A page from Bach’s manuscript of the Of­fer­ing.

I’m not go­ing to re-tell any of the sto­ries, ex­cept to note, sad­ly, that Bach didn’t get the royal-court job he was an­gling for with the mu­sic, and in fact there’s no ev­i­dence of it ev­er hav­ing been played in his life­time.

Bach and me · Yes, rock mu­sic is clos­est to my heart, but in ag­gre­gate I’ve prob­a­bly cared the most about Bach’s mu­sic than that of any sin­gle oth­er. I stud­ied the cel­lo for years and of course the Bach suites are com­pul­so­ry for ev­ery cel­list. I’ve read lots of books and been to a lot of per­for­mances. You might not think you like clas­si­cal mu­sic but Bach is… dif­fer­en­t. It’s at an­oth­er lev­el.

The Canones · The Of­fer­ing is built around a frag­ment of melody that Fred­er­ick (a flautist as well as king) played for Bach. A full per­for­mance usu­al­ly lasts a lit­tle over an hour. There are six­teen pieces of mu­sic, and Bach didn’t both­er to say which in­stru­ments should play which lines, or what or­der the pieces go in. Ten of them are Canon­s, which is what you call a “round” when you do it around the camp­fire  —   think of suc­ces­sive voic­es com­ing in on Row, Row, Row, your Boat. Canons and Fugues are sim­i­lar in con­struc­tion. The mu­sic is con­tra­pun­tal, which is to say that at any mo­ment there are mul­ti­ple melodies in flight, danc­ing/in­ter­lock­ing to­geth­er.

The Of­fer­ing is about as sim­ple as Bach get­s: a small num­ber of in­stru­ments, the mu­sic usu­al­ly not very fast or very loud or very flashy. Each piece start­s, makes its case, and shuts up. No cheap trick­s. Which sounds aus­tere, un­til you get in a room where peo­ple are play­ing it, and it’s not at al­l, it’s rich and sweet and end­less­ly deep.

I en­tire­ly lack the words to de­scribe what hap­pens in these two short pieces; I guess I’d sug­gest that in the Epi­di­ente, you lis­ten to the eight-notes-twice pat­tern that punc­tu­ates it, and how Bach changes it around each time, es­pe­cial­ly the last.

Record­ings · Prob­a­bly my fa­vorite ver­sion is by the Acade­my of St Martin in the Fields, pack­aged with The Art of the Fugue, record­ed in 1977 on mod­ern in­stru­ments with ba­si­cal­ly no con­ces­sions to early-music prac­tices. If any of you buy mu­sic on al­bums any more, that is two hours plus of pos­si­bly the most beau­ti­ful mu­sic ev­er writ­ten; a re­al bar­gain. The sound is fab­u­lous and the play­ers I think en­tire­ly live in­side Bach’s heart­beat.

Twenty-five years lat­er, Jor­di Savall and Le Con­cert des Na­tions record­ed an original-instruments ver­sion with on­ly sev­en play­er­s. It’s rougher and qui­eter and has more space be­tween the notes; I don’t think the per­for­mance plunges quite as deep in­to the mu­sic, but the old vi­o­ls and wood­en flutes have a lot of charm and the flautist and Jor­di Savall both bring the mag­ic The harp­si­chordist is maybe a lit­tle flat.

This is part of the Song of the Day se­ries (back­ground).

Links · First, Savall and Con­cert des Na­tion­s: The Canon a 2, per aug­men­ta­tionem, con­trario mo­tu: Ama­zon, iTunes, Spo­ti­fy. The Fu­ga canon­i­ca in Epidi­a­pente: Ama­zon, iTunes, Spo­ti­fy.

Mar­riner and the ASMF, Canon a 2: Spo­ti­fy, iTunes, Ama­zon. Epidi­a­pente: Ama­zon, iTunes, Spo­ti­fy.

As for live video, a Con­cert des Na­tions per­for­mance of the whole Of­fer­ing is on YouTube. The Canon a 2 is at 22:00 and the Epidi­a­pente is at 48:02.


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January 29, 2018
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