J.S. Bach was famous in his own time. Unlike those undiscovered geniuses whose work was only recognized posthumously, Johann was well-known as one of the greatest living composers of his day. So much so, that King Frederick II of Prussia (“the Great”) reportedly issued an open invitation in 1740 to the senior Mr. Bach to visit his royal court. When the King of Prussia, a renowned flautist and accomplished musician himself, says to someone, “Drop by anytime!” that person is a pretty big deal.
As the story goes, on an ordinary evening in the spring of 1747, C.P.E. (Emanuel) Bach, Johann’s second son, was busily playing the harpsichord to accompany the King’s flute recital. Emanuel was the King’s resident musician, so no surprises here. The shocker came when J.S. Bach and his older son, Wilhelm, unexpectedly arrived at the door, mid-recital. The King, absolutely thrilled after years of waiting to see his musical idol, stopped the recital and asked the road-weary and disheveled Johann to perform on his collection of piano-fortes, new-fangled instruments (we know these as the modern piano) that were all the rage in musical circles. A bit bleary-eyed, Johann obliged. David Shavin, in a fascinating article entitled “Thinking Through Singing”: The Strategic Significance of J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering, tells the story as follows:
The King halted his music-making, where he played the flute, and Bach’s second son, Emanuel, accompanied him at the harpsichord. Frederick had Bach try out, for all to hear, his collection of Silbermann piano-fortes. The King then gave Bach a C-minor theme, in order to test his reputed genius for expanding on a theme upon first hearing, uncovering the manifold connectedness of the thematic idea [See Figure 1]. On the spot, Bach created a three-voice fugue with a wealth of ideas interwoven. Evidently, the King also requested a six-voice fugue; and Bach chose a different theme to honor this request.
Shortly afterwards, probably between that Sunday, May 7, and the following Thursday, Bach announced that he would develop the King’s theme into a six-voice fugue, and publish it. Bach explained about his three-voice version: “I noticed very soon … that, for lack of necessary preparation, the execution of the task did not fare as well as such an excellent theme demanded. I resolved therefore and promptly pledged myself to work out this right Royal theme more fully, and then make it known to the world.”
Within two months, Bach produced an engraved copper masterpiece, comprising A Musical Offering: the original extemporized three-voice version; a fully realized six-voice masterpiece; and in-between, ten different canons.
In short, embarrassed by his first response to the King’s request, the master composer wanted a do-over. One can almost imagine what the composer’s expression might have been after his first stab at the theme, an expression akin to that captured in the portrait above. Although painted in the year prior to the infamous 1747 road trip, the portrait almost cries out for a do-over meme on par with the grumpy cat. “Was that good enough?” the composer seems to be thinking. “Methinks not.”
As part of our summer-time exploration of the fugue, we have thusfar heard two movements of Bach’s musical mulligan, A Musical Offering, an excerpt of the final canon and the two-voice riddle canons. This week, at the Offertory, we shall hear a internal movement from the work composed for harpsichord and melody instrument.
In related news, this week’s Gospel Hymn is of particular note. But that, my friends, is a story for another day. Look for more information on that by week’s end.
~Krista Mays, Director of Music and Liturgical Arts