Movement 1: Ricercare a 3
Movement 5: Ricercare a 6
Some ricercari allowed each section its own theme. Others had a single theme taking on different guises within each section. Gabrieli and Frescobaldi, in particular, drew upon the form. But the style reached its zenith with the three- and six-part examples in Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ (1747).
That year, while visiting Potsdam, Bach was challenged by Frederick the Great to improvise a six-part ricercare. The Berlin News (11 May 1747) reported:
His Majesty was informed that Capellmeister Bach had arrived in Potsdam and was waiting in His Majesty’s antechamber for His Majesty’s most gracious permission to listen to the music. His August Self immediately gave orders that Bach be admitted, and went, at his entrance, to the so-called ‘forte and piano’, condescending also to play, in person and without any preparation, a theme to be executed by Capellmeister Bach in a fugue. This was done so happily by the aforementioned capellmeister that not only His Majesty was pleased to show his satisfaction thereat, but also those present were seized with astonishment.
During the Potsdam gathering (4 May), Bach had essayed a 3-voice fugue for the monarch. This most likely became the basis for his lighter, more questing ‘Ricercare a 3’ which, in turn, joined canons and a trio sonata to make up Ein musikalisches Opfer (‘A Musical Offering’, 1747), a conjunction of contrapuntal works, dedicated to the Prussian king. Bach’s treatment of the royal theme has a variety of changing motifs. The increasing rhythmical and harmonic intensity retains its symmetry through recapitulations and later to a dimunution of motifs taken from the subject.
Bach also accepted the royal challenge and back in Leipzig fashioned what is sometimes known as his ‘Prussian Fugue’—Ricercare a 6—a miracle of expressive, elaborate harmony and structural compression. Here the royal theme is enlarged with a quiet grandeur in the manner of a slow alla breve. There are extended polyphonic episodes in quadruple and triple counterpoint. A rising chromatic motif from the bass leads to the final entry of Frederick’s theme.
Unlike contrapuncts within The Art of Fugue the splendour and severe lyricism of this Ricercare emerges from within the six entries and six additional statements of the theme, one in each voice. N.B. The Ricercari have no stretti, no inversions and no subsidiary themes.
From the Musical Offering it is the 6-part Ricercare alone that survives in Bach’s own hand. The original print was engraved in the main by J G Schübler of Zella. Then Breitkopf of Leipzig assembled and printed the work for distribution during the town’s Michaelmas fair, beginning on 1 October (1747). Bach asked for a 100-copy print run.
Apparently he distributed most of these among friends. One, on special paper, went to the king, the remainder were sold at one thaler each. His two eldest sons became agents for the ‘Offering’ in Halle and Berlin. This orginal edition has no consistence, either in format or pagination, though, as Cardiff University scholar Malcolm Boyd observed (1983): ‘The question of a fixed order does not arise until we wish to bind the work under one cover or to perform it complete, and there is no evidence that Bach envisaged either course.’
from notes by Howard Smith © 1992