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May 2020

Bach Book Blog

Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul. – Johann Sebastian Bach

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 thought of himself as a musician, and scorned the old-fashioned polyphony that Bach was known for in favor of music with a singular melody. Frederick, who enjoyed humiliating his guests, had composed a long melodic line full of chromaticism that he thought was impossible to turn into a multi-voiced canon, and told Bach to turn it into a fugue. At which point Bach, on the spot, sat down at the piano and turned it into a three-part fugue. The stumped King then asked him to turn it into a six-part fugue. A few days later, Bach sent him more than just a six-part fugue, but a “Musical Offering” that rebuked Frederick and all of his Enlightenment notions with the Christian faith.

Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment talks about this confrontation, and the events in each man’s life that lead up to it. The author, James R. Gaines, 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, at which point he became recognized as arguably the greatest musical composer, and one of the greatest artists in any form ever.

Gaines is a journalist and an amateur classical musician himself, and what makes this book truly remarkable are the conclusions he draws about the relationship between Christianity and arts. He 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. He shows how Bach’s view of music goes right back to Luther; as 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 because it imaged forth the unity-in-diversity that is found everywhere in creation; indeed, in existence itself; not only that, but in the Godhead Himself.

Gaines also draws on Bach scholarship to demonstrate how music in this tradition had very specific meanings. In Bach’s final “Musical Offering” to Frederick, he includes 10 canons, which are emblematic of the Ten Commandments. He includes a caption in one section that refers to how the notes ascend like the King’s (Frederick’s) glory, except that the notes go nowhere and turn into the most melancholy of melodies. He is therefore saying through his music that Frederick may think himself “Great,” but his life doesn’t stack up well against the Ten Commandments, and his glory will ultimately go nowhere and end in his death. Yes, Bach was using his music to witness to this imposing secularist King in his palace of reason.

Evening in the Palace of Reason is a wonderful historical book that also happens to be one of the best books I have read recently about the relationship between Christianity and the arts. If you consider yourself an artist, a Christian, or both, consider giving this book a whirl.

Shelby out!


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