On the evening of May 7, 1747, Johan Sebastian Bach and his son Carl presented themselves, by royal command, at the palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia in Potsdam. Frederick, with his customary lack of courtesy, had required their immediate attendance following the old composer's arrival by coach, after a three-day journey. He wasn't given time to wash or change his clothes.
As part of the evening's entertainment, Frederick gave Bach a theme—a line of notes on which he expected Bach to improvise a fugue. Bach was famous for this sort of thing.
But Frederick had ulterior motives. He did not like Bach's Baroque style of music, centered on the fugue and the canon. An amateur musician himself, he favored the new “galant” style of music, featuring a single melody supported by instrumental and vocal harmonies. With the purpose of humiliating Bach, he had presented him with a theme (possibly actually composed by Carl, who worked for Frederick) designed to be almost impossible to turn into a fugue.
He had underestimated his man. Bach sat down immediately and improvised a brilliant, almost unbelievably complex, three-part fugue, as required.
The king, not to be shown up in his own house, then demanded a six-part fugue on the same theme.
At that point, Bach had to confess that he couldn't improvise that. He improvised something else instead.
The king went to bed satisfied.
But Bach went home to Leipzig determined not to be beaten. He composed the six-part fugue, entitled The Musical Offering, and sent it to Frederick.
Who probably never even looked at it.
But it's the background and the sequel to this encounter that engage the reader in James R. Gaines' remarkable book, Evening in the Palace of Reason. He uses the converging trajectories of these two men's lives, vividly portrayed, to tell the story of European culture in a time of dynamic and catastrophic change.
Johan Sebastian Bach was a simple man, in all but his genius. The son of a long line of professional musicians, he spent his life in the employ of churches and town councils, generally underpaid and under-appreciated, but managing (in the face of much pressure) to make music the way he wanted to. A master of Baroque, he could play any style he encountered, and find a way to adapt it to his own musical vision. This vision was founded on his faith (Lutheran, inclined toward Pietism, except for the Pietist distrust of secular music). Baroque music was the expression of a belief that the universe is like a great instrument or orchestra, in which every creature and event forms part of a divine harmony too subtle for human ears to detect (the Harmony of the Spheres). Baroque, in its characteristic forms of fugue and canon, was designed to imitate, in a small way, the many-faceted glory of God in creation. For that reason, Bach always inscribed the motto, S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria, To God Alone Be the Glory) on his compositions.
Frederick, on the other hand, was a man of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and aspired to be the ideal ruler of the age. He was not the best candidate for the office of rational philosopher king, being not entirely sane. He had been raised under the tyranny of a mad father who beat him often and publicly and, as punishment for a particularly serious infraction, forced him to watch his best friend (who was probably his lover) beheaded. When he finally ascended the throne, Frederick did make a number of reforms that substantially improved the lot of the common people of Prussia. But this earned him little affection, since his constant wars bled that same population cruelly of its sons. He was a perfect man of Reason in one regard, though—if love is an unreasonable passion, Frederick experienced little enough of that unreason in his own life.
When Bach stood before Frederick for his official humiliation, it looked as if the old composer was the sad survivor of a dying age, while Frederick represented a future full of promise and progress.
Yet the Age of Reason would be extremely short-lived, for the plain reason that its simplistic view of the world didn't hold up to experience. The Romantic Age crashed in, an age that rediscovered Bach and made something like a god out of him.
A thought worth pondering.
Gaines is a wonderful, conversational author, and just reading his prose is one of the many joys of this book.
All of the oddities contained in the work—the harrowing descent in galant passages, the melancholy fate of the king's fortune, the song to glory that goes nowhere, the German dedication, the Scriptural invocation to “seek and find” God's mercy rather than the harsh, eternal judgment of God's own canon law, the setting of a church sonata—all of these were of a piece, and this is what they say: Beware the appearance of good fortune, Frederick, stand in awe of a fate more fearful than any this world has to give, seek the glory that is beyond the glory of this fallen world, and know that there is a law higher than any king's which is never changing and by which you and every one of us will be judged. Of course that is what he said. He had been saying it all his life.
If you care about history, or theology, or music, or western culture, you really ought to read Evening In the Palace of Reason. I recommend it highly.