Bach’s Mu­si­cal Of­fer­ing, pre­sented by Ser­e­nata of Santa Fe

Ser­e­nata of Santa Fe First Pres­by­te­rian Church, Jan. 10

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — James M. Keller

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.

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