Bach’s Musical Offering (Solving a Biblical Mystery)

James R. Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason is an entertaining and readable dual biography of J.S. Bach and Frederick the Great. (Hat tip for recommending it to me: Alan Rothenberg.) What’s it doing on this blog? Answer: It points to a mystery that (it seems) no one has yet solved. Who ya gonna call? The Bible Guy!

The mystery is contained in Bach’s remarkable puzzle piece, written for Frederick, called “The Musical Offering.” There are two fugues in this piece — written after Frederick more-or-less dared him to write them on the spot. (Which he did, for the simpler, three-part one.) But he does not use the word “fugue” to name them; instead, he uses a Latin term which by this time was obsolete: ricercar. These are the only pieces Bach ever called by that name. Gaines writes:

One theory was that he only used the word because it was a neat Latin acronym for a phrase that could be applied to the whole work: Regis Iussu Cantio et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (“By order of the King the tune [the Royal Theme] and the remainder, resolved with canonic art”).

But, as he goes on to say, Bach picked the word ricercar before he figured out the acronym. The musical term derives from an Italian verb meaning “to investigate, query, inquire, search out with diligence.” Gaines (following his source, Michael Marissen’s article “The Theological Character of J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering“) suggests that Bach was getting back at Frederick by leaving him a series of puzzles to solve:

Bach left trails of bread crumbs everywhere.

The bread crumb that I picked up was this one, from the fifth of the ten “canons” that are part of the work:

Play it six times, and it will be back where it started, only an octave higher, and yet without seeming to have left its original key. This canon is inscribed, “As the notes ascend, so may the glory of the king.”

In the context of a “ricercar,” that phrase “the glory of the king” is the clue to the solution of the riddle that Bach posed to Frederick. The combination points directly to Prov 25:2b (b indicating the second half of the verse):

כבוד מלכים חקור דבר — “The glory of a king is to research a matter.”

Frederick, “having given up on Christianity” (Gaines, 155), most likely did not pick up the clue. But presumably Bach, who was a profoundly religious man, was pointing him to the first half of the verse:

כבוד אלהים הסתר דבר — “The glory of God is to conceal a matter.”

It was Bach’s way of getting back at Frederick.

Bach owned a copy of the “Calov Bible,” and apparently made some extensive notes in his copy. There is supposed to be a digital edition of Bach’s copy (though it is not freely available and, I believe, not yet published). But if I’ve correctly understood the reference material that I found in the Penn Library, Bach did not notate Prov 25:2.

Too bad — that would be the smoking gun. But for an exegete, what Bach wrote in the “Musical Offering” is proof enough. He wanted to put Frederick in his place — and if Frederick was not even bright enough to figure that out, all the better.


2 Responses to “Bach’s Musical Offering (Solving a Biblical Mystery)”

  1. Ben Says:

    Wow – this is pretty cool. You should try to find that annotation

  2. Jeremiah Says:

    Greetings, music and holines go hand in hand. It goes further with meekness. And yet even higher is a hearty given to God 100%. Still higher, read the life of King David. Not all musicians have this musical ability to touch heaven, only the select few chosen by God. Too much to share in so few words.

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