Courtly Culture War by Timothy A. Smith
FSJ & Touchstone Fundraising
Evening In The Palace Of Reason
by James R. Gaines
(336 pages, $23.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Timothy A. Smith
In a later, more liberated age, Frederick (1712–1786) might have been sympathetically
known as ‘Frederick the Gay’,” wrote the New York Times
reviewer of Evening in the Palace of Reason, implying that Prussia’s
Philosopher King and apostle of Enlightenment was, by the standards of our own
liberated and enlightened age, repressed. The truth is that Fédéric
(as he preferred) was in the modern sense both liberated and enlightened—more
than most moderns could imagine.
Which makes of Frederick the Great’s 1747 meeting with Johann Sebastian
Bach, pious Lutheran, church musician, faithful husband, and father of twenty,
perhaps the opening salvo in the culture wars. If not a clash of worldviews
, the author spins it in that direction, his plot predicated upon the assumption
that the elderly Bach was, to Frederick, a “subject” for experimentation
Evening in the Palace of Reason contrasts the dawn of the Enlightenment
with the dusk of Christian influence in Europe, a rise and fall exemplified in
the persons of Frederick and Bach, who met briefly in 1747. To make sense of
this encounter, James R. Gaines, former managing editor of Time, Life,
and People, escorts his readers through a spellbinding double biography.
To Frederick, contrapuntal music “reeked of religion.” With their
sacred symbols, allegories, and commitment to composition as a type of universal
truth, Bach’s fugues exemplified l’infame that Frederick
sought to crush.
Whereas for Bach music must conform to God’s laws because its purpose is
to glorify him, to Frederick, writes Gaines, “there were no immutable,
divine laws, only those which arose from human experience.” Accordingly,
he forbade his court musicians to write fugues, preferring instead the stile
galant (precursor style to Haydn), which, according to his confidant Voltaire,
existed for no more reason than to entertain.
But the king closeted another pretext for humiliating Bach. The aging composer
was of the same generation as Frederick’s too-religious father, Frederick
William, now seven years deceased. To the young king, Bach must have represented,
writes Gaines, “the backward, boorish, superstitious world on which Frederick
had turned his back, but which still haunted his sleep.”
Truth be told, Frederick had reason to be haunted. Within recent memory his father
had instructed his clergy to sharpen the crown prince’s sense of guilt
while the memory of Lieutenant Hans Hermann Katte’s beheading was “right
fresh.” Gaines’s inference, that Frederick was forced to watch Katte’s
execution not because they were co-conspirators but because they were lovers,
is based on the historian Thomas Carlyle’s assertion that the young prince
had a proclivity for “ways not pleasant to his Father and not conformable
to the Laws of the Universe.”
Or as the father wrote to his son: “I cannot abide an effeminate fellow
who has no manly tastes, who cannot ride or shoot . . . and wears his hair curled
like a fool.” It was a tendency that Frederick William determined to eradicate,
writes Gaines, “by a degree of violence perhaps unique in the annals of
kings and their crown princes.”
No wonder Frederick developed a cruel and sadistic streak; he had reason enough
for a palace of treason. If years earlier he had conspired with Katte to overthrow
his father, he would now require, Gaines implies, the help of court harpsichordist
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to humiliate his father, Johann Sebastian.
Although an amateur composer, Frederick was incapable of writing a theme resistant
enough to development to defeat the elder Bach, renowned for his skill as an
improviser. His plan was to play the younger Bach’s theme (which history
would dub the “royal theme”) to his father when he arrived, with
the request that he make of it a three-voiced fugue (read “relic”)
on the spot.
So Bach arrived in Potsdam. Having endured the jarring coach ride, tired and
dusty, the elderly man was accorded no time to shave or bathe, but immediately
summoned to the royal chamber, rehearsal in progress, with Frederick’s
agitated aside to the assembled musicians: “Gentlemen, old Bach is come.” What
history did not record (suggests Gaines) was “Let’s amuse ourselves.”
To moderns, the amusement, veiled deep within the connotations of Frederick’s
theme, is difficult to apprehend. But to Bach the point was apparent: Something
precious to him was the subject of satire. Frederick was mocking the core of
Sebastian’s musical and theological universe.
The first clue would have been the royal theme’s descending half steps.
Bach would have expected five, his arcane symbol for Christ’s passion and
cross. He had often transformed this metaphor, by motion in the opposite direction,
to represent the resurrection and crown awaiting those who carry Christ’s
cross (a musical expression of his motto: Christus Coronabit Crucigeros).
Instead of reversing directions, Frederick followed the fourth descent with four
more in rapid fire—as if to scoff, “no cross, no crown,” and
certainly no resurrection. But the dignified Bach rose to the occasion, immediately
improvising the required three-voiced fugue—in view of its treacherous
subject, a stunning achievement. Astonished, Frederick demanded another, in
six parts, to which Sebastian demurred that this required preparation.
How Bach must have stewed on the ride home. Perhaps he thought of the “Nota
Bene” that he had written beside Psalm 119:158: “I look on the
faithless with loathing, for they do not obey your word.” It would have
been impossible to know Bach’s thoughts but for the telling way he soon
would act them out: Upon his return home, he forwarded his sovereign a souvenir:
a folio of canons, trio sonata, and fugues that he called A Musical Offering—satire
of a subtler sort.
First there are the pregnant theological terms weihen and Opfer with
which Bach graced the title page. Usually translated “dedicated” and
“offering,” they actually mean “consecrated” and “sacrifice.” The
Offering’s dedication in German, a tongue that Frederick despised
and barely understood, tells us Bach’s opinion of the chic and fawning
His sonata da chiesa (in a “church style”) exposes the shelves,
emptied of sacred forms, in Frederick’s bulging library at Sanssouci. If
the king detested Christianity, Bach’s ten canons (Commandments), particularly
the riddle with its Gospel clue, “Seek and you will find,” were calculated
to make a “counter” point.
Especially sardonic would have been the modulating canon with its never-ending
illusion of rising keys that return from whence they came. Bach’s cryptic
Latin, “as the notes rise, so may the King’s glory,” leaves
little doubt as to the composer’s meaning. But the summa would have
been the promised six-voice fugue, curiously called by the antique word Ricercar,
implying strict observance of contrapuntal law. Gaines interprets:
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
and know that there is a law higher than any king’s . . . by which
you and every one of us will be judged.
There is no evidence that Bach’s “sacrifice” was anything but
wasted—on Frederick or his contemporaries. In three years the maker of
fugues would meet his own Maker, having faithfully upheld his motto even when
it cost: Christ will crown those who carry his cross. In the following
century his fugues would be forgotten, and his memory eclipsed by much more entertaining
Frederick died lonely and disillusioned, despising Mozart’s operas more
than he had Bach’s fugues. His identity was eventually stolen by the Nazis,
with formal proclamation of the Third Reich coinciding with Hitler’s laying
flowers at Frederick’s tomb. The memory of this patron of the arts was
turned to propaganda, with Frederick’s likeness religiously plastered alongside
those of Bismarck and Hitler.
Before the Führer’s suicide, Göring dredged up Frederick’s
bones, “precious Teuton relics” (Gaines calls them) for safekeeping
in the Harz Mountains. There they remained until Chancellor Kohl, in celebration
of German reunification, returned them to Sanssouci (with a gaggle of Baroquely-clad
activists in attendance to reinstate Fédéric the Gay as propaganda).
Who had the last word? In his later years Bach knew full well that his music
was not in vogue. Although he had demonstrated on several occasions that he could
write in the popular style, he rarely did so, continuing to favor contrapuntal
music long after it had fallen out of favor. Why?
Gaines’s answer: Bach knew that time indeed would tell. He knew that his
counterpoint had profound spiritual substance that would, someday, be welcomed
and treasured. He had appropriated these words, having marked them well in his
the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were
called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” •
Timothy A. Smith is a professor of music theory at Northern Arizona University and the author of the Canons and Fugues of J. S. Bach website. He lives with his wife and the youngest of their three daughters in Flagstaff, where they are members of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany.
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