By Andrea Moore

J.S. Bach, Musical Offering, BWV 1079

In 1747, three years before his death. J. S. Bach visited the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, where his son Carl Philipp Emanuel was employed as a keyboardist. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff describes the encounter of Bach and Friedrich, and the resulting piece, as follows:

“Bach’s encounter with Frederick began on 7 May at the palace of Potsdam during the chamber music which was a feature of every evening of court life there. Bach’s execution on the piano of a remarkable improvisation on a theme supplied by the king met with general applause… On his return to Leipzig, probably in the middle of May, he worked industriously on an elaboration of the King of Prussia’s fugue theme’, beginning with writing down the fugue he had improvised… But he now decided on a larger project and under the title Musikalisches Opfer (‘Musical Offering’) he prepared a work in several movements dedicated to Frederick the Great. The royal theme serves as the basis for all the movements.”

Among Bach’s last instrumental works were the Goldberg Variations and Art of Fugue; Bach seems to have been engrossed in exploring the limits of his capacities in writing canons and fugues. Musical Offering explores those limits, including Bach’s affinity for musical puzzles and tricks of various kinds, which he applies to the “royal theme” supplied by Friedrich. This theme, which will quickly become familiar, is not necessarily an easy basis for Bach’s contrapuntal explorations: it is fairly extended, rhythmically opaque, and above all, extremely chromatic. Among his tricks are the so-called “crab” canon (“cancrizans”), in which the two voices start at opposite ends of the music, and other puzzles, which Bach didn’t necessarily solve for performers. One of the canons is titled “Quaerendo Invenietis,” you will find by seeking—what performers will find, that is, how they will solve and play the canon is up to them. In almost every movement, the royal theme is the core.

Bach dos not give much information about the instrumentation for Musical Offering, nor does he provide the order of the movements, though some conventions have developed around that question. The order of movements performed here is fairly customary, and represents an arc shape: a ricercar for three voices (or ricercare, a somewhat antiquated form even by Bach’s time; from the word “to seek,” usually an elaborate instrumental prelude, but also a type of fugue) is followed by five different canons (using various numbers of voices), while the center of the piece is taken by a relatively straightforward trio sonata. These four movements are typical of the sonata da chiesa, the church sonata, alternating slow-fast-slow-fast, with the royal theme in a variety of guises throughout. Here Bach did specify the instruments: flute, violin, and basso continuo. This sonata is followed by another five canons, and the whole piece concludes with an immensely complex and intricate ricercar, this time for six voices.        

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131

Each of Beethoven’s late quartets pushes the formal and technical boundaries of the form. Having completed the three quartets for Prince Galitsin (although only partly compensated for it), Beethoven went to work on a fourth quartet, perhaps inspired by ideas he had developed in writing the others; his friend Karl Holz recalled that Beethoven used to jokingly say that he had just had yet another string quartet idea, adding, “But that belongs to the quartet after the next one, since the next one already has too many movements.” This could have been a reference to Op. 130 or 132, or it might have been a reference to this seven-movement quartet. (Note that the opus numbers of the late quartets do not correspond with the order in which they were written.)

Two of the hallmarks of Beethoven’s late works are essential to this quartet: fugue and variations. The key signature, C-sharp Minor, is shared with only one other Beethoven piece, the Moonlight Sonata, and is a difficult key for string quartet: there is no available open string for anchoring, and given the structure of the piece, the group cannot retune in between movements. Only the first and last movements are actually in C-sharp Minor, but the first movement establishes it as much as a mood, or an emotional orientation, as a key, and this colors the entire piece.

The first movement is a fugue, marked Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo. The fugue subject is chromatic and ascends in pitch and dynamic to a climactic fourth note, before falling again. The movement’s slow tempo makes the counterpoint seem almost conceptual: one can hear the first entrances contrapuntally, but the texture is more chorale-like, without the fast passagework of a Bach violin fugue, for example. The fugue passes through multiple keys, each of which will be mirrored by the following movements. The second movement, in D Major, has the feel of a scherzo, in triple meter. The third movement is like a recitative, only 11 measures long, in B Minor—at its center is a short cadenza for violin.

This is followed by the fourth movement’s Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile, the literal center of the piece and its most expansive movement. The theme is simple and is passed between the two violins, underscored by simple chords and pizzicato in the lower strings. The first variation introduces a dotted rhythm, which becomes a driving force as it gains in intensity, and then recedes from it. The second is characterized by a march-like accompaniment underneath lyrical flights from individual instruments—parts of this variation evoke aria writing. The third variation has the indication “flattering.” The central dialogue is between viola and cello, and the whole variation is marked by intense, recurring trills. The fourth variation, Adagio, contrasts long runs and scales with sudden pizzicatos. The fifth variation picks up the tempo, while the sixth is built on a kind of tireless pulsing, disrupted by a sixteenth note gesture that evokes, but exceeds, the trills of variation 3. Each instrument is given a short cadenza in this variation. The extended coda eventually returns to the theme in its original key (after a detour through C Major), this time surrounded by trills in the first violin.

The fifth movement, marked Presto, is distinguished by stops and starts, rapid changes in articulation, a recurring theme, and—at least on the solemn terms of the piece—a comedic air. Movement six is, like movement two, very short, a transition before the Finale, which is the only one of the movements in sonata form.