Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Musical Offering, BWV 1079, consists of 16 movements and is slightly longer than 50 minutes in duration, resulting from a challenge to develop a theme played for the composer by Frederick the Great. The meeting took place on May 7, 1747, and Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, who often accompanied Frederick in performances of chamber music, arranged for the two men to meet. By then, J.S. Bach, “the old Bach of Leipzig,” was considered as a writer of old-fashioned music, but his improvising skills were still legendary. Frederick, the King of Prussia, did not approve of overly complicated music, clearly preferring the fashionable galant style to the complicated fugues of high Baroque music. In an apparent attempt to confound the old master, the monarch offered an awkward chromatic subject for the elderly composer to improvise upon, and was amazed by Bach’s handling of this “Royal Theme.” Afterward, the improviser insisted that he still had not done the theme justice, and that he would endeavor to do so. Later that year, The Musical Offering appeared in print, dedicated to Frederick the Great, and published at the composer’s own expense. It demonstrates the full arsenal of the Baroque composer of fugues and does it with more fluency than any other composer of the time would have been able to provide. Of course, it takes into account the monarch’s passion for flute playing and offers a prominent part for the instrument.
Unfortunately, this gesture of respect and reverence more or less backfired. The flute part is fiendishly difficult, and there is no allowance for the monarch’s clear preference for galant music; it is as Baroque as anything else Bach wrote, except where he takes galant ideas and makes them more Baroque. For example, instead of performing a simple “sigh” gesture in the flute sonata movement, a descending interval that sounds like a sigh, Bach sequences it in different pitches until it is as difficult and Baroque as anything as he had written before. Galant music is meant to be simple, a return to melody over harmony, and is the first step toward the Classical music of Haydn and Mozart. Furthering the conflict between Bach’s offering and Frederick’s goodwill was the theological inferences imbedded in the music. Much of it is in a holy code that was clearly derivative of church music and Frederick, a man of the enlightenment, had little use for anything liturgical. In the centuries that divide the composer’s world-view and the current millennium, the many Lutheran inferences of the music have lost the impact they once had.
The Musical Offering can be compared to The Art of Fugue for its thorough handling of the theme. The quality of the music is diverse, heavenly, and inexhaustible. It stands as one of the finest pieces of chamber music from the Baroque era, and is a favorite among musicians who enjoy a challenge.