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:

A new Leonardo?

A previously obscure painting has been identified as a work of Leonardo da Vinci with the discovery that the artist’s fingerprint is on the painting. Here it is:

A new Leonardo da Vinci?

Christian movies try to be better, but still. . .

From an article entitled “Growing quantity of `Christian’ films now focus on quality”:

In addition to “To Save a Life,” [about basketball players facing a friend's death] other upcoming 2010 Christian movies include “Letters to God,” a Possibility Pictures film about a cancer-stricken boy who writes to God in letters carried by a troubled postal worker. “The Revelator,” a Pure Flix Entertainment production about a terminally ill orphan who tries to save his doctor’s marriage, also is scheduled for release next year.

OK, I’m glad the filmmakers are focusing on better quality. I salute you. But take some lessons from the past. I am currently teaching a course entitled “Major Christian Authors,” covering such authors as Dante, Spenser, Herbert, Bunyan, Hopkins, Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor. NONE of them wrote about people’s personal problems. There is not one terminally ill orphan in the whole lot. No scenes about broken marriages or friends dying or sports teams winning the big game. These classic Christian authors–who actually did influence their cultures–saw Christianity as being rather more than a means of solving life’s problems, and none of them lapsed into the deadly aesthetic sin of SENTIMENTALITY.

These aesthetically more ambitious movies still have a soft-spot for sentimentality. Try making movies that do not attempt to make us cry. That means no diseases, no thrilling comebacks, no dying children. Try making movies that are exciting, or send our imaginations reeling, or that are funny. You will be surprised how well such stories can express and even explore the Christian faith.

Conversation with the Wittenberg playwright #4

More of my correspondence with David Davalos, author of the play Wittenberg, shared with his permission. My answer to his answer:

Fair enough, David. I get what you are trying to do.

It just seems that a Faustus without the devil is hardly a Faustus–like Ahab without the whale, or Hamlet without his father getting killed. The whole point about Faustus is that he DOES believe in the devil, but considers the fulfillment of his desires worth the price of eternal unhappiness. You did get close to that when you had your Faustus say something like, “I will do anything, ANYTHING, to find my answers.” I’m trying to think of an archetype of someone who believes in no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell. Nietzsche? That architect in the Ayn Rand novel? Slim pickings, I admit.

But now you raise an even more puzzling question. Why believe in a Christianity without the supernatural elements? The supernaural elements are surely the best parts! Jefferson’s censored, cut-up Bible–you wouldn’t want anyone to do that with your plays!–leaves nothing but dried up moralism. He cut out all the parts about grace, redemption, atonement, forgiveness, suffering, resurrection. I admit that a lot of conservative Christians, in effect, do the very same thing. But they too are leaving out what makes Christianity so profound.

For example, you honor Christ, even worship him, agnostic that you are. Well, Christianity teaches that Jesus is God. That is to say, the true God, according to Christianity, is not the abstract deity that looks down upon the earth–how easy it is not to believe in that kind of God–but a transcendent deity who became a human being. Furthermore, this incarnate God turns out not to be like the deity of our speculations and projections, but someone gracious and compelling. That God, according to Christianity, is incarnate complicates issues in some important ways (even though, unaccountably to me, many Christians still imagine God as purely transcendent and not incarnate). Take the reason not to believe in God because how could there be a God when there is so much evil and suffering in the world. That assumes the imagery of a transcendent God looking down, separate, onto His creation. But if God, as Christianity teaches, became flesh and entered the human condition, and specifically took into Himself all of the evil and suffering in the world, which Christ did when He was crucified, that surely complicates the argument in some important ways. (It was your friend and character Luther who said that we ought never to think of God apart from His incarnation in Jesus Christ.) It seems to me that the problem with Christianity today is that it has already thrown out much of this supernatural stuff, to its great detriment.

Anyway, one of the things I appreciate about you as a writer and about your play is that, unlike many writers today, you are fair-minded when it comes to these religious issues. You give Luther his due, just as you give Faustus his due, and Hamlet his due.

Another question, if I may: How do you know so much about the Renaissance? Were you an English major who went on to get a Ph.D. in the field, like I did? If not, you seem to have learned about as much as I did with all that effort, what with your multi-valent references and allusions to the texts, personages, and ideas of the time. Or did you just pursue your own research on your own? If so, was this because you are interested in the area or because you wanted to write this play and needed to research the background and in doing so plunged so deeply into the scholarship?

And, finally, what are you working on now?

Conversation with the Wittenberg playwright #3

Picking up on my exchange with David Davalos, author of Wittenberg–the play about Luther, Hamlet, and Faustus, this is his answer to what I posted yesterday:


Again, thank you so much for your thoughts and encouragement. Emerson to Whitman? Wow. You may of course post my comments on your blog — I’m flattered to be asked.

Not to beat a dead horse-courser here with Faustus at the end of the play, but I did want to respond to your perfectly valid (and thorough!) analysis of the situation. My response is threefold: the first two parts are technical, the last a bit more esoteric. First, as you note, the play is, after all, a comedy. A serious comedy, perhaps (hopefully), but a comedy nonetheless. Faustus’ tragedy is still to come (maybe), but in another play (as is Hamlet’s, for that matter: the prince is last seen in my play embracing his philosophical acceptance at a moment of relative triumph). Second, Faustus is singing his final song in the here and now — his voice is the melody, with Luther and Hamlet speaking as temporally-displaced harmony — but I can’t really show him both in the present and the future simultaneously. So the perspective on Faustus at the end is less about where he’s headed and more about where he is. The last point is that I wanted to allow the possibility of Faustus meeting an end outside of the established tradition about him. The actual, “historical” Faustus, after all, allegedly met his fate as the result of an alchemical explosion, with neither the Devil or the Christ as active participants. Every age, it seems, reinvents its own Faustus — I wanted my reinvention to at least on some level address the possibility of having a fate beyond either salvation or damnation, a fate comprehensible to those in the audience who profess no particular beliefs, and one which takes the beliefs of the play’s Faustus at face value: no God, no Devil, no heaven, no hell. This gets back to my original point about each audience member bringing his own beliefs and judgments to the play with him — for those who want to see him damned, he can be damned. But I wanted my Faustus’ fate as open-ended as possible to accommodate as many different points-of-view about it as possible.

This also brings me to my answer to your question about my own theology. I was raised Methodist (with a set of Catholic grandparents) but have at this point in my life come to describe myself in the same way Vonnegut did in Palm Sunday, as a Christ-worshipping agnostic. I find the story of Jesus’ life and teaching profoundly moving and inspirational, but withhold judgment on the supernatural aspects of it. This makes me a reader of Jefferson’s Gospel, I suppose.

I will of course keep you up-to-date on further Wittenberging and the like. And as I mentioned, if you have any further comments after reading the play, please don’t hesitate to send them my way.

Once more, thank you, Gene. Your words are genuinely and deeply appreciated.

Warmest regards,

Conversations with the Wittenberg Playwright #2

Continuing the conversation with David Davalos, the author of Wittenberg, this is what I wrote back after the message I posted last time:


How good of you to write! I had wanted to come back to Maryland on the day you were speaking and to hear the reading of your play about Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli. That would have been some long drives, but then I got sick, making it all a moot point. So I greatly appreciate your responding to my review, and going so far as to address some of my questions. And to give me a copy of your play is extremely generous and helpful. Just leafing through it shows me an abundance of things I missed.

Would you mind if I posted your comments about your play on my blog? Speaking as the English professor that I am, what you say about your intentions could be of great help to future students and directors of your play, which I really do believe has artistic staying power. Would that they had blogs in Shakespeare’s day so that he would explain what he had intended with that Hamlet character!

Your explanations about the points I had some problems with are very helpful. With Faust, it is true that he is an archetype. But he is an archetype of a man who sells his soul to the devil; that is, the archetype of a man who wants something so badly (knowledge in Marlowe; experience in Goethe; artistic success in Thomas Mann; the American dream in St. Vincent Benet) that he would give up his soul for it (in all the senses that can mean). So for the archetype to fully work, it seems to me, the character has to pay a price, a tragic price, for what he yearns for. Yes, in Marlowe, he is damned, though it’s evident that he doesn’t have to be, that he can repent and is close to repentance till the very end, but in that last scene, when he opens his mouth to pray for rescue to Christ, he ends up praying to Satan instead. In Goethe’s version, he is indeed saved, but only because Gretchen, an innocent and naive girl whom he seduced, got pregnant, and drove to suicide, nevertheless forgave him and interceded for him in Heaven. Thus, he is saved because he is redeemed–by the innocent suffering and death of Gretchen rather than Christ, but the meaning is the same–but this also involved his guilt and his attempt to atone for that guilt by using his powers in an effort to do good. All of the manifestations of the Faust archetype have that tragic dimension that I missed in yours. I do recall some lines that might point in that direction, and I suspect when I read your script I will see it more, and, after all, you were writing a comedy rather than a tragedy, but still. From another angle, there is this: Goethe’s Faust is all enamored with the Eternal Feminine, of course, but what he forgets is that Gretchen is not just his ideal, but an actual, particular human being, whom he ends up, with all of his narcisstic idealism, destroying. You did have that great moment in your play in which the prostitute refuses to go along with Faust’s Eternal Feminine fetish to his great agony, but she isn’t quite the Gretchen figure whom he victimizes, feels remorse for, and yet surprisingly experiences her unmerited love. I think that kind of humanizing of the Eternal Feminine character a little more would have also made the sexual stuff seem less coarse. But, again, my dissatisfaction with the Faust figure–my sense that his destiny is not prefigured in the way Luther’s and Hamlet’s is–does not mean that I don’t love the play!

The depth of learning that has gone into this play is staggering. I mean, I have taught “Hamlet,” Marlowe, and Goethe for years and have a personal interest in Luther, being indeed a Lutheran, but your references and allusions and underlying structures and all are rich and perceptive. So you knew about Rheticus, who inspired you for the masterful things you do with the Copernical cosmology and how disorienting that had to be. Knowing more than you actually use, while drawing on it, is a sign of true scholarship, and that you handle it so lightly and so wittily is a sign of true mastery.

Can I ask where you come down on these issues? You know your theology. Do you consider yourself a Christian of any kind? I know artists don’t like to answer questions like that, but I won’t categorize you. I am just curious.

Anyway, as Emerson said to Whitman, with the same sense of discovery that I feel, I greet you at the beginning of a great career. (Though I’m sure “Wittenberg” isn’t the actual beginning, since you must have gained a lot of experience already to have written such a good play.) I’d like to follow what you’re doing–hearing about other productions of “Wittenberg,” hearing about what else you are working on, and just being a fan.

With many regards and accolades,