"Ricercar" (pronounced 'ree-chair-kar') is derived from the Italian verb "ricercare", literally meaning "to seek out" and implies effort and imagination in the seeking (i.e., research). In music, according to the Oxford Companion, "...the verb is used as a noun and applied (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries) to a composition in the fugue style using the most elaborate contrivances of counterpoint, all variations of canonic writing, augmentation, diminution, inversion, etc." In other words, a ricercar is characterized by themes which may be played against themselves in different keys and intervals, at multiple and various starting points, backwards (contrary motion) and even upside down (inversion) without seriously violating the rules of traditional harmony. On occasion, the canonical theme joins its end seamlessly to its beginning to go on forever in a perpetual loop. Sometimes, the work is a musical conundrum in which the performer is required to figure out the structure of its mysterious and acrobatic juxtapositions with no clues given by the composer on the manuscript.
J. S. Bach used the word acrostically in describing a number of canonical and fugal variations upon a theme presented to him as a challenge by King Frederick II at a private concert in Potsdam in May, 1747, calling the collection "Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta" - translatable as "the theme given by the King's command, with additions, resolved according to the canonic style." The monarch was himself an accomplished musical dilettante and he brought forth eight highly chromatic bars for Bach to prove his cleverness in improvisation. Johann Sebastian took the phrase home and two months later published his efforts with a self-deprecating dedication to the King that described them as an attempt to do better justice to such an excellent regal theme than he had done in his improvising. Two of the works are remarkable six-part counterpoints, the equivalent, perhaps, of sextuple axles in figure skating!
The pieces now are called the "Musical
Offering" (Musikalische Opfer). They are an amazing demonstration of Bach's
ingenuity, daring harmonic depth, brilliant facility for the formal logic
of counterpoint and exalted aesthetic vision. The pieces are complex, intricately
symmetrical, recursive and hyperdimensional, yet emanating a haunting and
startling beauty out of the depths of their formalism. The performer is
left to puzzle out the solutions to two of the canons, one of which bears
the notation "quaerendo invenietis", "seek and ye shall find."
Why name the company "Ricercar"?