Composed: 1747; 1934-1935
Length: c. 7 minutes
Orchestration: flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 27, 1969, with Lawrence Foster conducting
On May 7, 1747, Johann Sebastian Bach paid a visit to Frederick the Great of Prussia at the royal palace in Potsdam. On that famous occasion the King, who was an excellent musician, played for Bach on the piano a fine tune of his own invention, containing both diatonic and chromatic elements, and asked him to improvise a fugue on it.
Bach’s response is history. Upon his return to Leipzig, he expanded his improvisation by writing a magnificent Musical Offering, a cornucopia of contrapuntal devices culminating in a magnificent Ricercar, in six voices. Bach entitled this Ricercar in the form of an acrostic: Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (At the King’s command, a theme and additions are by canonic art resolved).
The term Ricercar, or Ricercare, literally “to research,” was originally applied to the “searching” of correct intonation on a string instrument – in other words, tuning. By a semantical extension it came to signify the seeking of the tonality of the principal part of the work, a preamble or a prologue. Through further differentiation, the Ricercar developed into a full-fledged fugal exposition, and the terms Ricercar and Fuga became interchangeable. Bach’s Musical Offering is indeed a manifestation of the highest art of the fugue.
Anton Webern (1883-1945), who adapted his great polyphonic skill mainly to dodecaphonic techniques, had profound reverence for the great masters of the Baroque art, and particularly for Bach, and approached the task of orchestrating the concluding portion of Bach’s Ricercar with great fidelity to the spirit of the music.
But he believed, as did his revered teacher Arnold Schoenberg, that classical music must be arranged in terms of modern instrumental ideas. In his orchestration, Webern used a flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, and strings. The opening notes of the Royal Theme are given to the muted trombone, and the rest of the subject is allotted to muted horn and muted trumpet. This overlapping of instruments is fashioned after the medieval hocketus (literally, hiccup), an effect created by a deliberate discontinuity of a melody.
Expression marks and tempo indications in Webern’s score are noteworthy: zart fliessend, fliessender, sehr fliessend, rubato. Who would think that an ultra-modernist like Webern, arranging the music of Bach, would ask the players to perform tenderly, flowingly, more flowingly, and in free measure? In this instance, classicism and modernism suddenly turn romantic.
— Nicolas Slonimsky