Courtly Culture War
Evening In The Palace Of Reason by James R. Gaines
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 and humiliation.
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 French.
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:
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 sons.
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 Bible: “Fight 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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“Courtly Culture War” first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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