Room 30—Bach's amazing gift to Frederick the Great

In 1747, King Frederick the Great, whose harpsichordist was C.P.E. Bach, asked his keyboardist to have his father drop by the castle. Johann Sebastian showed up and the King gave him a musical theme from which he wanted J.S. to create a piece of music on the spot. J.S. did so, but he was so impressed with the theme that he took it home and created an astounding composition in which the Regal Theme is used as a basis for all of the work’s 19 movements. First, here is the theme. Listen!

Bach created ingenious puzzles throughout the work. Many of the pieces are canons, like you can create with the song Row, Row, Row Your Boat. One of the early canons is a simple three-voiced piece. The royal theme is stated in the bass line, while over it two violins play a canon at the unison (exactly as you do with Row, Row, Row Your Boat.) Listen!

Later on, Bach only notates one of the voices in the canon, and at the top of the score quotes the Bible in Latin, “Seek and ye shall find." Where and when to start the other voice is the puzzle. The solution is that the notated voice begins and then the second voice enters, playing the mirror image of the first voice. Thus, as the first voice ascends at the beginning, the second voice descends at its entrance. Listen!

In the very next piece, the same theme is introduced but in this case, the mirror image is played first and then the canon (played right side up) comes in later. So this time the first theme descends and the second ascends. Listen!

Later on, in a true display of genius, Bach creates a four-voiced canon. Understand what a task he created for himself because in a canon, all of the voices play exactly the same thing at different intervals, so there is no room for error. Listen!

Bach: A Musical Offering; Le Concert des Nations; Jordi Savall, Director Label=Alia Vox Catalog number=9817

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