James Gaines.

Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment

Evening in the Palace of Reason





Fourth Estate

An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF


First published by Fourth Estate 2005

Copyright James Gaines 2005

PS section copyright Louise Tucker 2005, except How I Came to Write This Book by James Gaines James Gaines 2005

PS is a trademark of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

James Gaines asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

Cover images: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Portraits of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great Bettman/CORBIS

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Source ISBN: 9780007153930

Ebook Edition JULY 2014 ISBN: 9780007369461 Version: 2017-08-15


From the reviews of Evening in the Palace of Reason:

A wonderful work of popular history, intelligent, stylish, wryly witty, serious yet never solemn, and above all passionate


Wonderfully engaging a piece of theatre that is witty, instructive and often bizarre It is a book that is almost impossible to put down when one is dancing, swerving, stumbling through the extraordinary brilliance, blood-thirst, cruelty, fecundity and religious and other feuds of the society that helped to inspire Bach and sustain Frederick

Independent on Sunday

Gainess style is readable, crisp and compelling.

He is an excellent guide: informed, unpretentious and frank The impressive research is lightly worn The minor parts are well played: Voltaire, Handel, Maria Theresa and George II all contribute beautifully drawn cameos. The reader retains a strong sense of their deeper and more complex historical characters. Above all, the musical prose is first-rate. Gaines is thoroughly acquainted with the repertoire, and his ability to convey a sense of Bachs unique sensibility and spiritual power is often remarkable A story told with wit, knowledge, the odd flight of fancy, and love

Times Literary Supplement

James Gaines vividly brings to life the personalities involved [A] dramatic story, told with great pace and gusto

Scotland on Sunday






Title Page


















P.S. Ideas, Interviews & Features

About the Author

A Passion for Thought

Life at a Glance

A Writing Life

Top Ten Books About Back

About the Book

How I Came to Write This Book by James Gaines

Read On

Have You Read?

If You Loved This, You Might Like

Find Out More

Notes On Sources

A Selected Bibliography

A Very Selective Discography

A Glossary of Musical Terms



About the Author

By the Same Author

About the Publisher



FREDERICK THE GREAT HAD ALWAYS LOVED TO PLAY the flute, which was one of the qualities in him that his father most despised. Throughout his youth, Frederick had to play in secret. Among his fondest memories were evenings at his mothers palace, where he was free to dress up in French clothes, curl and puff his hair in the French style, and play duets with his soulmate sister Wilhelminahe on the flute he called Principe, she on her lute Principessa. When Fredericks father once happened unexpectedly on this scene, he flew into a rage. Even more than his sons flute playing, Frederick William I hated everything FrenchFrench clothes, French food, French mannerisms, French civilization, all of which he dismissed as effeminate. He had of course been educated in French, like most German princes (he could not even spell Deutschland but habitually wrote Deusland), so he had to speak French, but he hated himself for it. He dressed convicts for their executions in French clothes as his own sort of fashion statement.

In this regard and others, Fredericks father was at least half mad. Flagrantly manic-depressive and violently abusive, he also suffered from porphyria, a disease common among descendants of Mary Queen of Scots (which he was, on his mothers side). Its afflictions included migraines, abscesses, boils, paranoia, and mind-engulfing stomach pains. The rages of Frederick William were frequent, infamous, and knew no rank: He hit servants, family members (no one more than Frederick), even visiting diplomats. Racked by gout, he lashed out with crutches, and if the pain was bad enough to put him in his wheelchair, he chased people down in it brandishing a cane. He was infamous for his caningshe left canes in various rooms of the castle so they would always be close at handbut he also threw plates at people, pulled their hair, slapped them, knocked them down, and kicked them. A famous story has him walking down the street in Potsdam and noticing one of his subjects darting away. He ordered the man to stop and tell him why he ran. Because he was afraid, the man said. Afraid?! Afraid?! Youre supposed to love me! Out came the cane and down went the subject, the king screaming, Love me, scum! Such a rage could be sparked by the very word France.

Not until his father died when Frederick was twenty-eight could he play his flute free from the threat of censure or attack, so naturally it was among his most beloved and time-consuming pastimes as king. With the musicians in his court Kapelle, who were not only the best in Prussia but the best he could buy away from Saxony and Hanover and every other German territory, he played concerts virtually every evening from seven to nine oclock, sometimes even on the battlefield. He cared as much about music as he cared about anything, except perhaps for war.

Having had both a love of the military and a cynical, self-protective ruthlessness literally beaten into him by his father, Frederick had already been dubbed the Great after only five years on the throne, by which time he had greatly enlarged his kingdom with a campaign of outrageously deceitful diplomacy and equally incredible military strokes that proved him a brilliant antagonist and made Prussia, for the first time, a top-rank power in Europe. A diligent amateur of the arts and literatureavid student of the Greek and Roman classics, composer and patron of the opera, writer of poetry and political theory (mediocre poetry and wildly hypocritical political theory, but never mind)he had managed also to make himself known as the very model of the newly heralded philosopher-king, so certified by none less than Voltaire, who described young Frederick as a man who gives battle as readily as he writes an opera. He has written more books than any of his contemporary princes has sired bastards; and he has won more victories than he has written books. Fredericks court in Potsdam fast became one of the most glamorous in Europe, no small thanks to himself, who worked tirelessly to draw around him celebrities (like Voltaire) from every corner of the arts and sciences.

One Sunday evening in the spring of his seventh year as king, as his musicians were gathering for the evening concert, a courtier brought Frederick his usual list of arrivals at the town gate. As he looked down the list of names, he gave a start.

Gentlemen, he said, old Bach is here. Those who heard him said there was a kind of agitation in his voice.

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH was sixty-two years old in 1747, only three years from his death, and making the long trip from Leipzig, which would be his last journey, was surely more a concession than a wish. An emphatically self-directed, even stubborn man, Bach took a dim view of this particular king, the Prussian army having overrun Leipzig less than two years before, and at his advanced age he could not have relished spending two days and a night being jostled about in a coach to meet the bitter enemy of his own royal patron, the elector of Saxony. Even more problematic than the political and physical difficulties of such a journey, though, the meeting represented something of a confrontation for the aging composera confrontation, one might say, with his age. In music and virtually every other sphere of life in mid-eighteenth-century Germany, Frederick represented all that was new and fashionable, while Bachs music had come to stand for everything ancient and outmoded. His musical language, teaching, and tradition had been rejected and denounced by young composers and theorists, even by his own sons, and Bach had every reason to fear that he and his music were to be forgotten entirely after his death, had indeed been all but forgotten already. For this reason and others, his encounter with Prussias young king threatened to bring into question some of the most important qualities by which he defined himself, as a musician and as a man. It would also present him the opportunity for one of the most powerful and eloquent assertions of principle he had ever made, but that would have been anything but clear to him at the time.

Bach came despite the challenges involved because Frederick was the employer of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the chief harpsichordist in Prussias royal Kapelle. Carl had been hired on when Frederick was still crown prince, hiding from his father the fact that he had any musicians and paying their salaries by borrowing secretly from foreign governments and padding his expenses. It was even then an extraordinary group, including the best composers and musicians of the modern generation, most of them well known tobut a good deal younger thanCarls father. Frederick had been hinting broadly that he would like to meet old Bach ever since Carl had come to work for him, and Carls letters home had reflected a growing concern that at some point the kings wish would become his command. But no one knew better than Carl just what a collision of worlds a meeting between his flashy, self-regarding employer and his irascible, deeply principled father would be.

There were very few similarities indeed between the young king and the old composer, but there was this one: They stood firm in their respective roles, their fields of work having been determined by long ancestry. The Hohenzollern dynasty had ruled in Germany for three hundred years before Frederick was born and would rule for two hundred more, to the end of World War I. The Bach line stretched from Luther across three centuries, and theirs too was a family business; more than five dozen Bachs held important musical positions in German towns, courts, and churches between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Such strong ancestral lines made the journey to Potsdam even more pointedly a foray into enemy territory for Bach, of course, not only literally, as a proud son of Saxony standing against the aggressive Prussian neighbor, but figuratively as well: The king and the composer faced each other as the embodiments of warring values. Bach was a devout Lutheran householder who had had twenty children with two wives; one left him a widower, the second was waiting for him at home. Frederick, a bisexual misanthrope in a childless, political marriage, was a lapsed Calvinist whose reputation for religious tolerance arose from the fact that he held all religions equally in contempt. Bach wrote and spoke German. Frederick boasted that he had never read a German book.

Nowhere were they more different, though, than in their attitudes toward music. Bach represented church music and especially the learned counterpoint of canon and fugue, a centuries-old craft that by now had developed such esoteric theories and procedures that some of its practitioners saw themselves as the custodians of a quasi-divine art, even as weavers of the cosmic tapestry itself. Frederick and his generation were having none of that. They denigrated counterpoint as the vestige of an outworn aesthetic, extolling instead the natural and delightful in music, by which they meant the easier pleasure of song, the harmonic ornamentation of a single line of melody. For Bach this new, so-called galant style, with all its lovely figures and stylish grace, was full of emptiness. Bachs cosmos was one in which the planets themselves played the ultimate harmony, a tenet that had been unquestioned since the sacred science of Pythagoras; composing and performing music was for him and his musical ancestors a deeply spiritual enterprise whose sole purpose, as his works were inscribed, was for the glory of God. For Frederick the goal of music was simply to be agreeable, an entertainment and a diversion, easy work for performer and audience alike. He despised music that, as he put it, smells of the church and called Bachs chorales specifically dumb stuff. Cosmic notions like the music of the spheres were for him so much dark-age mumbo jumbo.

In short, Bach was a father of the late Baroque, and Frederick was a son of the early Enlightenment, and no father-son conflict has ever been more pointed. Put all too simply, as any one-sentence description of the Enlightenment must be, myth and mysticism were giving way to empiricism and reason, the belief in the necessity of divine grace to a confidence in human perfectibility, the descendants of Pythagoras and Plato to those of Newton. In music, as in virtually every other intellectual pursuit, the intuitions, attitudes, and ideas of a thousand years were being exchanged for principles and habits of thought that are still evolving and in question three centuries later. Frederick the Great and Johann Sebastian Bach met at the tipping point between ancient and modern culture, and what flowed from their meeting would be a more than musical expression of that historic moment.

WHEN FREDERICK SAW old Bachs name on the visitors list, he called for the composer to be brought to the palace immediately. Bach no doubt was looking forward to settling in at Carls house for the eveninghe would have been exhaustedbut this was a summons, not an invitation. What followed was reported in a palace press release that was picked up by newspapers in Prussia, Saxony, and other German territories.

One hears from Potsdam that last Sunday the famous Kapellmeister from Leipzig, Herr Bach, arrived [at the castle]. His August self [Frederick] went, at [Bachs] entrance, to the so-called Forte et Piano, condescending also to play, in His Most August Person and without any preparation, a theme for the Kapellmeister Bach, which he should execute in a fugue. This was done so happily by the aforementioned Kapellmeister that not only His Majesty was pleased to show his satisfaction thereat, but also all those present were seized with astonishment. Herr Bach found the theme propounded to him so exceedingly beautiful that he intends to set it down on paper as a regular fugue and have it engraved on copper.

The account is incomplete, and the blur of Baroque rhetoric somewhat obscures the story. The facts are these: Frederick gave Bach an impossibly long and complex musical figure and asked the old master to make a three-part fugue of it, which was a bit like giving the word salad to a poet and asking for a sonnet. So difficult was the figure Bach was given that the twentieth centurys foremost composer of counterpoint, Arnold Schoenberg, marveled at the fact that it had been so cleverly contrived that it did not admit one single canonic imitationin other words, that the Royal Theme, as it has come to be known, was constructed to be as resistant to counterpoint as possible. Still, Bach managed, with almost unimaginable ingenuity, to do it, even alluding to the kings taste by setting off his intricate counterpoint with a few galant flourishes.

When Bach had finished the three-part fugue, while his audience of virtuosi was still seized with astonishment, Frederick asked Bach if he could go himself one better, this time making the theme into a fugue for six voices. Knowing instantly that he had no hope of doing such a vastly more complex improvisation (Bach had never even written a six-part fugue for keyboard), he demurred with the observation that not every subject is suitable for improvisation in six voices; he said he would have to work it out on paper and send it to Frederick later. Clearly no one would have faulted him for turning aside Fredericks challengeevery musician and especially the composers in the room would have realized just how ridiculously demanding it wasbut there is no other recorded instance in Bachs life when he had had to concede such a defeat, and this was an exceedingly proud man, the ages acknowledged master of both fugue and improvisation, before an audience of fellow virtuosi as well as his two oldest sons.

Bachs embarrassment may have been the reason he was invited to Fredericks court in the first place. Writing two hundred years later, Arnold Schoenberg found in the Royal Themes uncanny complexity the evidence of a malicious scheme to humiliate Bach, to beat him at his own game. Schoenbergs even darker conclusion, based on the belief that Frederick could never have written such an insidiously difficult theme by himself, was that the author could have been none other than Bachs son Carl, the only person in Fredericks court with a knowledge of counterpoint sufficient to trump his fathers. Whether malice of his own induced [Carl], or whether the joke was ordered by the king, can probably be proved only psychologically, Schoenberg wrote, concluding from Fredericks sadistic personality and bellicose martial history that his motive was to enjoy the helplessness of the victim of his well-prepared trap.

Johann Sebastian must have recognized the bad trick, Schoenberg continued. That he calls his Offering a Musikalisches Opfer is very peculiar, because the German word Opfer has a double meaning: offering, or rather sacrifice, and victimJohann sebastian knew that he had become the victim of a grand seigneurs s joke.

Schoenbergs theory that Frederick wished to embarrass Bach cannot be proved or disproved, but some unfortunate facts support it. The Prussian king was infamous for mean-spiritedly baiting even (or perhaps especially) those for whom he had the greatest respect. As Voltaire put it at one of the many low points in their relationship, when Frederick said you were his friend, he means my slave. My dear friend means you mean less than nothing to me. Come to dinner means, I feel like making fun of you tonight. Schoenbergs theory that the author of the theme was actually Bachs son Carl, though equally impossible to prove, is also at least plausible. More than once Carl seemed to feel that his respect and affection for his father was in some measure unrequited, a sense of filial injury that often afflicts second sons. There would have been an Oedipal aspect to such a victory over Bach for Frederick as well. When they met, Bach was roughly the age Fredericks father would have been, a father at whose hands Frederick had suffered the worst kind of abuse, including the greatest trauma of his young life.

Whoever the author of the Royal Theme may have been, the nature of it leaves no doubt that Frederick meant to give historys greatest master of counterpoint the most taxing possible challenge to his art, and it is easy to imagine that, as his carriage rattled over the rutted roads from Potsdam back to Leipzig, Bach was already working out the puzzle Frederick had presented to him. Certainly he lost no time working on it once he was back in Leipzig. At his composing desk in the southwest corner of the second floor of the St. Thomas Schoolthe noise of the student dormitory barely muffled by a thin wall and the ad hoc insulation of bookshelves heaped with musiche finished his Musical Offering to Frederick within a fortnight, turning the kings joke, if that is what it was, back upon him with all the force at his command.

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