Bach’s smackdown of Frederick the Great

I have just finished a book that I am going to count among my favorites of all time. It is that good. You have GOT to read it. It’s entitled Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James A. Gaines.

In 1747, Frederick the Great–the king of Prussia, patron of Enlightenment rationalism, and military strongman–invited Johann Sebastian Bach, now an old man three years from his death, for an audience. Frederick fancied himself a musician and scorned the old-fashioned polyphony that Bach was known for in favor of music with a single pleasant melody. Frederick, who enjoyed humiliatating his guests, had composed a long melody line full of chromatic scales that was impossible to turn into a multi-voiced canon (that is, a “round”: think “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with different groups starting at different times) and told Bach to turn it into a fugue (an even more complicated “round”). Whereupon Bach, on the spot, sat down at one of the new piano fortes and turned it into a three-part fugue. The flummoxed King said, in effect, OK, turn it into a 6-part fugue. A few days later, Bach sent him a 6-part fugue and more than a fugue, “A Musical Offering” that rebuked Frederick and all of his Enlightenment notions with the Christian faith.

This book tells about that confrontation and the events in each man’s life that led up to it. Gaines, in effect, gives us a dual biography, with alternating chapters on each subject. We learn about Frederick’s miserable childhood with an abusive father, the previous king (who, at one point, had his son’s best friend beheaded and made him watch, thinking that he would be next). Then we learn about Bach’s happy childhood in a Christian home. We learn about Frederick’s unhappy and childless marriage. Then we learn about Bach’s family, in which he was a loving husband and father of 20 children. We learn about Frederick’s decadent love of the arts and his infatuation with the Enlightenment, and his mutual admiration society with Voltaire. Then we learn about Bach’s deep Christian faith and his orthodox Lutheran theology. We learn about Frederick’s ascension to the throne, his turning Prussia into a military powerhouse, and his unprovoked wars against his neighbors for nothing more than his ego. We learn about Bach’s career at courts and churches, his stubborn integrity that caused him to battle with virtually all of his employers, and, despite occasional musical respect, how he died in obscurity with his music all but forgotten. We also learn about the aftermath, how Frederick’s legacy would blossom but burn out under Hitler. And how Bach was rediscovered by Mendelssohn in the 19th century, whereupon he has become recognized as arguably the greatest musical composer and one of the greatest artists in any form ever.

The author, James Gaines, is a journalist–a former editor of TIME–and so, though he knows his music as an amateur classical musician, he writes not with scholarly heaviness but with a lively and enjoyable narrative flair. And his secular background makes the book all the more remarkable for what it says about the relationship between Christianity–indeed, Lutheranism–and art. Gaines suggests that Bach was a greater man and a greater creator than Frederick precisely because of his faith. Bach was transcendent because he built his life on something transcendent.

Gaines shows how Bach’s view of music goes right back to Luther. For them and other Christians of their time, music was quite literally a sign and measure of God’s created order in the universe. Bach and Luther favored polyphony–many voices going on at the same time, whether in the multiple but unified melodies of canons and fugues, or in the phenomenon of harmony–because it imaged forth the unity-in-diversity that is everywhere in creation; indeed, in existence itself; not only that, but in the Godhead Himself.

Gaines also draws on the Bach scholarship that demonstrates how music in this tradition encoded specific meanings. In Bach’s final “Musical Offering” to Frederick, he includes 10 canons, which are emblematic of the Ten Commandments (“canons,” laws, get it?). He includes a caption in one section that refers to how the notes ascend like the King’s glory, except that the notes go nowhere and turn into the most melancholy of melodies. He thus says through his music that Frederick may think himself “Great,” but his glory goes nowhere, that he will end only in death, that he doesn’t stand up very well to those Ten Commandments. Bach works in chorale motifs and church music–which Frederick hated–but which give this king his only hope. Yes, Bach was using his music to witness to this august secularist King in his palace of reason.

You will learn a lot about music and a lot about history in this book. It is also one of the best books about the relationship between Christianity and the arts that I have ever come across. It also illuminates the relationship between Lutheranism and the arts. Gaines keeps bringing Luther into his story, to the point of saying that Bach and Luther had the same personality (intemperate, stubborn, no-comprising, but also warm and sensitive and devout). We learn surprising things, such as the way Enlightenment skepticism had a rather harder time in Lutheran countries than in those of other theologies, since Lutheranism had already developed a vigorous intellectual tradition that had thoroughly worked out the relationship between faith and reason. We also learn about the magnificent use of music in Lutheran worship that was unique to any other religious tradition.

And we confessional Lutherans can also appreciate what Gaines does not go into, that Frederick the Great, with his religious “toleration” was literally the grandfather of the Prussian Union, that ecumenical amalgamation and theological watering down of the state church in the name of enlightenment principles, that two kings later would send orthodox Lutherans fleeing to America and other New Worlds. Gaines also makes outstanding use of Bach’s notations in his Calov Study Bible, which happens to be owned by Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and which I have held in my hot little hands.

So drop whatever you are doing and buy this book. You will be glad you did. Here, I will make it easy for you:

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks, Veith. Best post in a month, in my opinion. Happy Birthday.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks, Veith. Best post in a month, in my opinion. Happy Birthday.

  • Esther

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this book! Can’t wait to read it!

  • Esther

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this book! Can’t wait to read it!

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    I’d also recommend Glory and Honor, by Gregory Wilbur – a fantastic book about Bach illustrating some of the very same things you mention here.

    In Christ.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    I’d also recommend Glory and Honor, by Gregory Wilbur – a fantastic book about Bach illustrating some of the very same things you mention here.

    In Christ.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’m going to see if I can get permission to order this for our library.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’m going to see if I can get permission to order this for our library.

  • http://www.christlutheran.net Jeff Samelson

    Well, this book will certainly go on my list! It sounds like a “can’t miss” for me as a Lutheran, a Bach-lover, and as someone with Prussian ancestry. Thanks for the recommendation!

    And Happy Birthday!

  • http://www.christlutheran.net Jeff Samelson

    Well, this book will certainly go on my list! It sounds like a “can’t miss” for me as a Lutheran, a Bach-lover, and as someone with Prussian ancestry. Thanks for the recommendation!

    And Happy Birthday!

  • womanofthehouse

    Thanks for the recommendation, Dr. Veith! I teach music history to high schoolers, and this book looks like it will add a lot to my understanding of Bach and his times, which I will be able to pass on to my students. I’ve already ordered it.

    Adrian Keister~I assign my students to read and write a paper on _Glory and Honor_. It is a very good introduction to Bach. :-)

  • womanofthehouse

    Thanks for the recommendation, Dr. Veith! I teach music history to high schoolers, and this book looks like it will add a lot to my understanding of Bach and his times, which I will be able to pass on to my students. I’ve already ordered it.

    Adrian Keister~I assign my students to read and write a paper on _Glory and Honor_. It is a very good introduction to Bach. :-)

  • cruxsola

    excellent post, Dr. Veith. I appreciate any opportunities to introduce Bach to others. I ordered the book immediately.
    Happy Birthday…. mine is tomorrow!

  • cruxsola

    excellent post, Dr. Veith. I appreciate any opportunities to introduce Bach to others. I ordered the book immediately.
    Happy Birthday…. mine is tomorrow!

  • Richard

    Just purchased it on Amazon. Thank you for your birthday present to us, Dr. Veith!

  • Richard

    Just purchased it on Amazon. Thank you for your birthday present to us, Dr. Veith!

  • Economist Doug

    My birthday is on Oct 31. I’ll see if my wife will add this to the Lutheran Study Bible she already got me.

  • Economist Doug

    My birthday is on Oct 31. I’ll see if my wife will add this to the Lutheran Study Bible she already got me.

  • Peter Leavitt

    I plan to read this book to learn more about my favorire musician, Bach’s contribution to Christian Civilization is profound. He still speaks richly to moderns who are just beginning to wake up and understand the limits of the Enlightenment.

  • Peter Leavitt

    I plan to read this book to learn more about my favorire musician, Bach’s contribution to Christian Civilization is profound. He still speaks richly to moderns who are just beginning to wake up and understand the limits of the Enlightenment.

  • Steve

    Dr. Veith,
    You have really smitten me in a good way. As I read your post I looked at my copy of “Evening” looking longfully back at my. My dear wife has read it and it is on my list but I truly haven’t gotten to it yet. I have bumped it up several books in my order because you really spiked my interest.

    Happy Birthday also, God’s blessings to you!!!

    Steve

  • Steve

    Dr. Veith,
    You have really smitten me in a good way. As I read your post I looked at my copy of “Evening” looking longfully back at my. My dear wife has read it and it is on my list but I truly haven’t gotten to it yet. I have bumped it up several books in my order because you really spiked my interest.

    Happy Birthday also, God’s blessings to you!!!

    Steve

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    The book is good not only for its fascinating and illuminating subject matter but as a piece of writing in itself. It has these two biographies going on at once in counterpoint with each other. It does in non-fiction what Bach does in music!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    The book is good not only for its fascinating and illuminating subject matter but as a piece of writing in itself. It has these two biographies going on at once in counterpoint with each other. It does in non-fiction what Bach does in music!

  • Rob Cartusciello

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful post.

    I fancy Mozart, but grew to appreciate Bach as we selected the music for our wedding. Our prelude was “Sheep May Safely Graze”.

  • Rob Cartusciello

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful post.

    I fancy Mozart, but grew to appreciate Bach as we selected the music for our wedding. Our prelude was “Sheep May Safely Graze”.

  • Booklover

    I have this book, don’t remember how I found out about it, and would also recommend it highly, though perhaps not as ably and eloquently!

    I love Bach! His music is having a revival in Japan!!! He is truly the fifth evangelist and God’s truth lives on.

  • Booklover

    I have this book, don’t remember how I found out about it, and would also recommend it highly, though perhaps not as ably and eloquently!

    I love Bach! His music is having a revival in Japan!!! He is truly the fifth evangelist and God’s truth lives on.

  • fws

    Happy birthday Dr Veith! i am green with envy that you all get to have access to these books whereas I in brasil do not…. :(

  • fws

    Happy birthday Dr Veith! i am green with envy that you all get to have access to these books whereas I in brasil do not…. :(

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ Carol-Christian Soldier

    thank you for the historical overview—and the book recommendation

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ Carol-Christian Soldier

    thank you for the historical overview—and the book recommendation

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  • Julia

    Thank you so much for the review! I can hardly wait to get and read this book. I will also buy several copies to give to my musician friends. I’m a professional musician and a high school music teacher. During the course of my Music Appreciation class, I talk a great deal about J.S. Bach. I also talk about Martin Luther, the Reformation, Frederick the Great and the Enlightenment. I am also a Lutheran and love the musical traditions of our church. A Christian art teacher at my school sent the website to me and I’m so glad he did! God bless!

  • Julia

    Thank you so much for the review! I can hardly wait to get and read this book. I will also buy several copies to give to my musician friends. I’m a professional musician and a high school music teacher. During the course of my Music Appreciation class, I talk a great deal about J.S. Bach. I also talk about Martin Luther, the Reformation, Frederick the Great and the Enlightenment. I am also a Lutheran and love the musical traditions of our church. A Christian art teacher at my school sent the website to me and I’m so glad he did! God bless!

  • LAJ

    I’m sure glad I looked at your blog today. Thank you for the delightful recommendation. That made my weekend! I hope there’s some books left!

  • LAJ

    I’m sure glad I looked at your blog today. Thank you for the delightful recommendation. That made my weekend! I hope there’s some books left!

  • James Hageman

    Just ordered a copy online. Am anticipating the read with more excitement than many a book in many a year (even the Shack–ha!). Thank you, Dr Veith, and belated birthday greetings.

  • James Hageman

    Just ordered a copy online. Am anticipating the read with more excitement than many a book in many a year (even the Shack–ha!). Thank you, Dr Veith, and belated birthday greetings.

  • The Terrible Swede

    Very cool and thank you, Dr. Veith. I’ll have to get this for our family.

  • The Terrible Swede

    Very cool and thank you, Dr. Veith. I’ll have to get this for our family.

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