This evening I am finishing up a book that I’ve enjoyed as much as anything I’ve read in a very long time! James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment is historical/biographical narrative of the lives of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick II, the “Great” King of Prussia. The climax of the book is the only point at which these two men ever met, shortly before the composer’s death.
During that encounter, the King presented the virtuoso keyboardist with a theme that was written specifically to be nearly impossible to perform as a fugue. Bach was a master improviser renowned for his ability to improvise a fugue on any theme. Something had to give!
To the amazement of everyone gathered that evening, Bach was able to compose on the spot a fugue that was not only functional, but beautiful! Two weeks later, he had prepared several more movements based on the King’s theme. The resulting piece, entitled Musikalisches Opfer (“Musical Offering”), is one of the most significant and astounding pieces of music ever composed. I’ll have a full book review written soon, but wanted to share with you this evening the piece in its entirety. You can also read a little about it here.
I hope you’ll be able to enjoy the entire work, but if not, at least listen to the first movement (a transcription of the fugue Bach improvised that evening) and the last one (an incredible 6-part fugue that may be the most complicated — yet exquisitely beautiful — keyboard piece ever written). In the final video you can watch this last movement (the “Ricercar a 6”) written out, and mapped so that you can always see which voice contains the theme.