Bach’s Musical Offering, presented by Serenata of Santa Fe
Serenata of Santa Fe First Presbyterian Church, Jan. 10
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Musical Offering is the most arcane brainteaser that issued from the pen of music’s supreme puzzle master. Here we find the composer, three years from the end of his life, poking and prodding a captivating theme that had been proposed to him by King Frederick the Great, discovering in its contours the makings of two extended fugues (ricercars, Bach called them, using an antiquated term), 10 canons (each exploring a different procedure of strict counterpoint), and a full four-movement trio sonata of surpassing sonic luxury.
Unanswerable questions haunt the work. Who, for instance, wrote the theme? Tradition suggests that it was written by music-loving Frederick; it is said that he sprung it on Bach, who was visiting the royal court in Potsdam, on May 7, 1747, and commanded him to improvise two fugues using the theme as a subject, playing on a new-fangled fortepiano. One suspects, though, that Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel very likely had a hand in it. He was in his seventh year as Frederick’s staff keyboard accompanist (a father-son reunion was apparently the point of the elder Bach’s trip), and this melody, so potent in contrapuntal possibilities, would have been very much in his line — and not at all in Frederick’s. A more crucial question is whether the Musical Offering was meant for, or responds well to, performance. Certainly the trio sonata was and does; it was published in fully scored form for flute, violin, and continuo. The ricercars, too, are unquestionably playable, in their case as keyboard music. The one in three voices seems even idiomatic for the harpsichord or fortepiano, whereas the one in six voices is threatening in its fistfuls of notes; indeed, in the collection’s initial publication (achieved two months after Bach’s visit), each of those six lines was written on its own staff, suggesting the possibility of ensemble interpretation, although in Bach’s manuscript everything fits (just barely) onto two-staff systems dense with notes.
The canons are less comfortable in concert dress. They seem the sort of thing one would pore over in private, although the heading for one of them does say that it is for two violins in unison. (By “in unison,” Bach means that they play the same line literally, at the same pitch level, without altering the part’s rhythm, although one begins a measure later than the other, and both play above a separate bass line that is none other than the “royal theme.” This counts as simple in the scheme of the Musical Offering.) Other than that, the canons carry no indication of instrumentation.
Still, there is nothing wrong with playing them in a concert, although they make for tough listening when lined up in a row. Listening to canons is somewhat akin to eavesdropping on both halves of a simultaneous interpretation. When learning that skill, translators already adept in both the home and target languages typically start out by repeating a text several seconds after somebody else speaks it, maintaining the original language. They are speaking in simple canon. Someone listening in could focus on just the original speaker or just the translator who is repeating the words; but when this exercise is done in music, you would want to train your brain to hear each separately and both together. It might be that other translators-intraining leap into the act so that you have three or four people speaking the same text all at different times. Then at some point, the translator will start echoing the text just after it is spoken, now in a different language. But translators have it easy compared with serious composers of canons, who may end up rephrasing the original melody by changing its clef (thereby shifting the pitch level at which it is played); or one musician might be made to play from beginning to end while another plays from end to beginning; or one might play at a faster or slower speed than another; or one might turn the music upside-down on his music stand and play it the way it now looks while the other musician plays normally. The variety is considerable, and the challenge to a listener is formidable.
The Musical Offering does not get many performances, and Serenata of Santa Fe showed considerable bravery in presenting it. Serenata’s musicians included some who are more often heard with other organizations in town: violinist Stephen Redfield and flutist Carol Redman (Santa Fe Pro Musica regulars), violinist Phoenix Avalon (until recently one of Performance Santa Fe’s EPIK Artists), viola da gambist Mary Springfels (of the Music for Severall Friends series), along with harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh (who plays all over). The group had obviously rehearsed carefully, and each of the ensemble numbers came off without a hitch. This is a considerable achievement; entrances often fall in strange places, and if anybody gets the slightest bit off track, there is little hope for recovery. More leeway can be taken in the solo items, to be sure, and McIntosh depended a good deal on rubato to fit everything in during the three-part ricercar, with a concomitant loss of momentum; she kept her pace more evenly in the six-voiced one. In my experience, the most successful performances of the canons endow each with a distinct character. I sensed that Springfels was urging her colleagues in this direction through the specificity of her phrasing, but there is just so much a viola da gamba can do. In this reading all of the canons were given stern, reverential treatment, as if they really were intellectual exercises rather than compositions intended for performance. Some movements were entertaining in the way a recitation of math formulas is entertaining. The trio sonata was a different matter entirely, elegantly rendered by Redfield, Redman, Springfels, and McIntosh, who was an effective continuo partner throughout the concert. One so appreciated Redfield’s meticulously articulated playing that one regrets all the more the 11-minute spoken introduction he provided, which was too diffident to get the afternoon off to a robust start.