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The Musical Offering

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The Musical Offering (Musikalische Opfer) is a piece of music by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The piece has its roots in a meeting between Bach and Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) on May 7, 1747. Bach, who was well known for his skill at improvising, was given the following theme by Frederick to improvise a fugue upon:

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 letter of which spells out the word ricercar (an old name for a fugue).

In its finished form, The Musical Offering comprises a Ricercar a 6 (a six voice fugue), a Ricercar a 3 (a three voice fugue), ten canons and a trio sonata featuring the flute, an instrument which Frederick played.

Two of the canons have punning inscriptions. One of them, in 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" (may the king's glory rise like the ascending modulation).

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. They have been realised in various ways. Sometimes a chamber group plays them, sometimes they are played on a single harpsichord (or two where one is impractical).

The "Ricercar a 6" has been arranged on its own on a number of occasions, the most prominent arranger being Anton Webern, who made a version of it for orchestra.



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