During the latter years of his life Bach gradually withdrew inwards, producing some of the most profound statements of baroque musical form.
In 1747, on his way to visit his daughter-in-law in Berlin who was expecting her second child to his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel, Bach stopped at Potsdam after two weary days of traveling. Here he had been invited to attend at the Royal Palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, where his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel was employed as Court Harpsichordist.
On Bach's arrival, Frederick was about to begin his evening concert, in which he himself played the flute with the orchestra, when he was given the list of people who had arrived at Court. Laying down his flute, he said to his orchestra, 'Gentlemen, old Bach is here'. He canceled his evening concert and invited Bach straight up to try his new fortepianos built by Bach's organ-builder colleague and friend Gottfried Silbermann. The King owned seven of these instruments, located in different rooms. After Bach had played on all the different instruments, moving with the King and musicians from room to room, Bach invited the King to give him a theme on which to improvise; Bach of course rose to the occasion, improvising at length and with amazing skill. On his return to Leipzig, to show his gratitude for the excellent reception he had received at Potsdam, Bach developed the King's theme into a sequence of complex contrapuntal movements, added a sonata for violin and flute (Frederick being a flute-player), entitled the whole 'A Musical Offering' and sent it to the Court with a letter of dedication.
On the day following the musical evening, a royal procession made its way around Potsdam, as Bach was invited to play on all the city's organs.
Bach then became a member (after some persuasion) of the Mitzler society, a learned society devoted to the promotion of musical science, whose members were expected on joining to display some token of their learning. Bach's opening contribution was a set of canonic variations on the Christmas hymn, 'Vom Himmel hoch'.
In these last years of his life, Bach's creative energy was conserved for the highest flights of musical expression: the Mass in b minor, the Canonic Variations, the Goldberg Variations, and of course the Musical Offering displaying the art of canon. His last great work is the complete summary of all his skill in counterpoint and fugue; methods which he perfected, and beyond which no composer has ever been able to pass. This work is known to us as 'Die Kunst der Fuge' ('The Art of the Fugue', BWV 1080).
Bach had overworked in poor light throughout his life, and his eyesight now began to fail him. He spent the last months of his life in a darkened room, revising his great chorale fantasias (BWV 651-668) with the aid of Altnikol, his son-in-law. It was in these circumstances that he composed his last chorale fantasia, based fittingly on the chorale "Before Thy Throne O Lord I Stand". He was also working on a fugue featuring the subject B-A-C-H (B in German notation is B flat, while H in German notation = B natural). He had often been asked why he had not exploited this theme before, and had indicated that, despite its thematic possibilities, he would consider it arrogant to do so. Appropriately, perhaps intentionally, it was left unfinished at his death. (This incomplete fugue, frequently appended to the Art of the Fugue in performances, has no discernible connection with the Art of the Fugue, though the Art of Fugue theme can be made to fit with a little judicious syncopation, as Gustav Nottebohm pointed out in 1880.) The last great Triple Fugue of the Art (Contrapunctus XI) may also have been written during his final days.
Baroque Music Club BACH 729
The Musical Offering, BWV 1079
The Thuringian Bach Ensemble
Canonic Variations on the Christmas Hymn
Vom Himmel hoch BWV 769
Christoph Albrecht, Silbermann organ (1714) Freiberg
There is no clear historical indication as to the order in which the elements of the Musical Offering should be played. Bach sent the work, engraved at his own expense, to the King in three installments, with no performance or instrumentation instructions, no program order, and the canons were simply one-liners which the players would need to interpret. So it is up to the producer and performers to settle on a program order, and instrumentation.
In our view, the Trio Sonata should really open the work as a kind of Overture, though it is frequently placed in the middle of the program. Generally, the Canons are played singly, often with long pauses between them, giving a very fragmentary rendition which is unsatisfying. The Baroque Music Club's careful attention to programming gets around these problems with exemplary solutions.
The disc opens with a performance of the Three-part Ricercare which could not, at least in its instrumentation, be more authentic! This piece is performed on a 1746 Gottfried Silbermann fortepiano, one of those delivered to the King on which Bach was required to improvise, and thus one which may well have been played by Bach himself. It was recorded in the King's nearby Summer Palace of Sans Souci, its home since 1947.
The main body of the work begins with the Trio Sonata, as a "warm-up" piece or Overture, in which the Royal Theme gradually makes cautious appearances.
The main canonic material consists of two groups of five canons, the first, canons on the Royal Theme, the second canons on derivatives or variations of the Royal Theme. These two groups are played as two Suites, the movements following almost immediately on one another, allowing the listener to follow the developing complexity of the structure - and it makes for more enjoyable listening too.
At the beginning and the end of the two groups of canons come the two Ricercari, first the Three-part, lastly the Six-part.
The Baroque Music Club's recording presents this work as performed by chamber orchestra, sometimes in full, or in many of the canons, as solos. This rendition satisfies our own requirements of clarity and "enjoyability"; however there is also considerable historical justification for our choice. The King had at his command what was in effect a substantial chamber orchestra consisting of twenty-plus musicians who were among the very best to be found anywhere and included many eminent names well known to Bach. They would thus have been more than capable of arranging their own programming and instrumentation. The lighter canons might well have been performed by single instruments, while those of more substance, including the two Ricercari, could well have drawn in the entire Capelle. No doubt His Majesty himself enjoyed taking a leading part – we may confidently listen to the flute parts and imagine the king performing them.
As a complement to the Musical Offering, one could hardly find better than the set of five Canonic Variations on the Christmas hymn Vom Himmel hoch, BWV 769, composed as they were at around the same time as the Musical Offering, and exploring once again the Art of the Canon. In the Baroque Music Club's offering, the chorale, arranged by Bach as part of the Magnificat, is first given by the Choir, followed by the five canon-groups performed on the historic organ in Freiberg Cathedral built in 1714 by Bach's old friend Gottfried Silbermann.