Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079

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            In May of 1747, only three years before his death, Bach made a visit to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, the renowned “philosopher king,” at his sumptuous summer palace in Potsdam, Sanssouci.  Bach’s son, C.P.E. Bach, an eminent musician in his own right, of a more modern style, was a court musician there.  It was more than just a family visit, though, for Bach’s reputation was familiar to the Prussian King.  Frederick was an extraordinary ruler:  not only was he a formidable general, whose battlefield exploits with his magnificent army literally reshaped the map of Europe for generations, but he was equally talented as musician, multi-linguist, supporter of the arts and sciences, pal of Voltaire, early environmentalist, and founder of the first veterinary school in Germany.  A gifted flutist, Frederick hosted chamber music as the focus of every evening at the palace, where he often performed his own compositions, which included four symphonies and over a hundred flute sonatas.  In a visit of several days duration, Bach was literally given the royal tour of the court, and one of the events included a concert wherein Bach improvised a three-part fugue on a rather complicated theme given to him by the King.  This little event is also of great significance, in that he performed on the piano, one of several at the court (two are still there, today) by Gottfried Silbermann, an important developer of the instrument.  Bach was magnificent, of course, in his improvisation, and the King upped the ante by challenging him to do so again in a six-voice fugue.  Well, Bach demurred, saying that he would need a little time to do a good job.  So, a couple of months later, Bach published one of his most significant works, the Musical Offering, and dedicated it to Frederick. It consisted of two “ricercars” (an old term for what essentially is a fugue) for keyboard, a trio sonata for flute, violin, and basso continuo, and almost a dozen canons.  Suffice it to say, the ricercars and canons collectively illustrate some of the most complex, imaginative, and challenging examples of counterpoint ever composed.  Bach’s transcendent genius in the contrapuntal art is on display in every note, and the second ricercar, in six voices, is the crowning jewel of the collection.

            Fast forward now almost two hundred years to 1935, when the important Austrian composer, Anton Webern, took Bach’s six-part keyboard fugue and transcribed it for chamber orchestra.  Doing something like this was not the usual thing for one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, and one who really didn’t compose that many works in the first place.  Webern devoted himself almost exclusively to the intensely concentrated, brief, and focused works of his own mind.   He, his friend, Alban Berg, and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg were known collectively as the “Second Viennese School” and were the progenitors of an entirely new direction in twentieth-century music.  Their modern style broke away from tonality and into atonality, twelve-tone, and eventually total serialism.  Their music is perceived as difficult, dissonant, and challenging, even today, and held with much contempt by many as “ugly” and unmusical, or at least cold and impersonal—even though their approach was championed by the intellectual darlings of post-WW II European and academic composers.  Their personal styles, differed somewhat, however, and Webern is known for his brief, lightly orchestrated, almost pointillist textures.  Like pinpoints of sound, that “ping” from disparate points, his works are aphoristic almost to an extreme.  And what is almost indiscernible to most listeners is the frequent infusion of counterpoint in all its glory:  invertible, canonic, retrograde, every technique from the golden age of counterpoint, the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.  And why not? For despite his avant-garde compositions, he was a trained musicologist, whose doctoral dissertation was on one of the great collections of early sixteenth-century polyphonic sacred vocal music.  He simply took his interests and training way into the future.

            So how did all of this inform his orchestration of Bach’s eighteenth-century keyboard fugue?  Well, Webern took advantage of the various unique colors of the instruments of the orchestra, and “broke up” the musical lines with constant changes of timbre to highlight what he heard in the weft of Bach’s texture.  For “pinpoints” of isolated pitches in his own style (Stravinsky called them “dazzling diamonds"), Webern substituted “pings” of color to refract what we hear in Bach’s lines.  His arrangement gives us a bit of an insight into the thinking of this unique musical mind, as he reinterprets an earlier masterpiece.  Sadly, he only lived ten more years after this experiment, being shot to death by an American GI, apparently mistaken for a black marketer, as he smoked a cigar on the back stoop of his daughter’s house in the confused days right after the end of WW II.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan