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J. S. Bach: A Musical Offering

Can you guess this piece? Here's a hint: thanks or no-thanks?

For a non-celebrity like J. S. Bach, a visit to the court of King Frederick II of Prussia would have been a major event. By the 1740s, Bach’s son Carl Phillip Emmanuel, Frederick’s court composer, had a wider reputation than his slightly old-fashioned father. Still on top of his game, however, Old Bach impressed the music-savvy monarch by improvising a three-part ricercar on Frederick’s own theme. Later, Bach published “A Musical Offering,” a collection dedicated to Frederick which developed the simple theme to incredible complexity. Some have seen this encounter as a triumph of Bach’s traditional musical values over Frederick’s taste for the fashionably modern. There’s little evidence, however, that this competitiveness actually existed. The dedication to Frederick may have simply been a way to boost sales—or perhaps even a way to say “thanks.”

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