IT HAS BEEN ARGUED that the fiendishly chromatic theme—now known as the Royal Theme—was the Prussian King Frederick’s attempt to humiliate JS Bach when the great composer answered the king’s invitation to attend his court. Frederick considered himself a ‘modern’ man, a disciple of ‘reason,’ and that Bach’s music was, by that time, old hat.
On returning home to Leipzig, Bach translated the Royal Theme into a gift to the monarch (pictured) which he called Musikalisches Opfer. This astounding work, the centerpiece of last Sunday’s Santa Cruz Baroque Festival concert, provided a rare opportunity to hear the collection of canons and fugues known, in English, as The Musical Offering. Seldom performed, all of the pieces are based on the same melody, the Royal Theme. The highly chromatic tune of 21 notes was handed to Bach by Frederick “the Great,” an amateur musician and patron of the arts. Its length and character would challenge any composer to create multi-layered melodic lines, but Bach seemed to thrive on such a challenge.
There is almost no indication as to which instruments should play the pieces, but it is thought that most are intended for solo harpsichord. The Baroque Festival presented the work as many performers do, with an ensemble of flute, violin, and continuo consisting of harpsichord and cello. Fulfilling its mission of performing music as it sounded in its own time, the Festival players use instruments and setups that meet 18th century specifications.
Flutist Lars Johannesson played the Royal Theme alone, an opportunity for the audience to hear it unadorned. The tune would then be present in all the pieces. Festival artistic director Linda Burman-Hall performed the opening three-voice fugue on solo harpsichord, an intricate working of the tune that Bach improvised before the King in that 1747 encounter in Potsdam. Joined by violinist Edwin Huizinga and cellist David Morris, the ensemble then played six of the ten canons as duos and trios in varying combinations of instruments. A canon is similar to a round, such as “Row, row, row your boat.” But these by Bach are complex riddles to be solved. For example, one of them, a “crab” canon is to be played from beginning to end, and then continuing backwards from the end to the beginning. Played together by two instruments, the lines fit together in perfect consonance. Though because of the chromatic nature of the theme, harmonies become very colorful, even strange, with an otherworldly tinge.
The crowning achievement of Bach’s efforts is the 6-voice fugue requested by King Frederick. It’s an almost impossible challenge, and few composers other than Bach could even attempt it. Combining these six melodic lines according to the rules of fugal treatment becomes the “wedding cake of counterpoint,” as described by one writer. By performing the work as an ensemble rather than as a solo harpsichord piece, the melodies were easier to distinguish with the contrasting sounds of the instruments. The final piece of The Musical Offering was the four-movement Trio Sonata on the Royal Theme, played by the full ensemble.
Following intermission, the remainder of this concert was fugue-free. Edwin Huizinga is an active soloist and ensemble player at the annual Carmel Bach Festival. He offered the Partita No. 3 for solo violin, creating a lively mood for the many dance movements. His opening prelude had an expressive ebb and flow that infused life into the notes. The gavotte was a lively foot-tapper.
To close the program, the full ensemble performed one of Bach’s G Major trio sonatas. For an encore, they played an arrangement of the last movement of Bach’s Sonata in A Major for flute and keyboard that included the violin in effective dialog with the flute.
Gratefully contributing to the youth music scene, the Baroque Festival opened the concert with a tribute to young performers. As laureates of its annual Youth Chamber Music Competition, violinists Stanley Wang and Laura Wang performed the four-movement duo by Jean-Marie Leclair, an 18th century violinist and composer. Taking advantage of playing on two strings at once to create a fuller sonority, the Wang duo sounded almost like a full string quartet.
The Santa Cruz Baroque Festival returns to the UCSC Music Center Recital Hall on Sunday, April 29, for a program of music from Iberia and the Arab World.