[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Evening in the Palace of Reason': Being Geniuses Together
checker at panix.com
Sat Apr 16 13:10:40 UTC 2005
'Evening in the Palace of Reason': Being Geniuses Together
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17
By EDMUND MORRIS
EVENING IN THE PALACE OF REASON
Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment.
By James R. Gaines.
336 pp. Fourth Estate/ HarperCollins. $23.95.
When geniuses meet, the results are not always incendiary. One thinks
of T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx exchanging the lamest of dinner-table
conversations, Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders collaborating
disastrously on ''Beyond the Clouds'' and Van Gogh spoiling Gauguin's
breakfast with something that was definitely not a dried apricot. Yet,
every now and again, sparks fly from the odd encounter. Among the
oddest -- it surely burst into the purest flame -- was one between
Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great of Prussia. James R.
Gaines's ''Evening in the Palace of Reason'' shows us how a challenge
by the king prompted the aging composer to produce the ''Musical
Offering,'' a contrapuntal achievement that uniquely allies cerebral
and auditory beauty.
Gaines, a former managing editor of Time, Life and People, is not the
first popular writer to make literature of this famous incident.
Douglas R. Hofstadter's ''Godel, Escher, Bach'' (1979) is a study of
the aesthetic similarities that unite Bach's great work with the
mathematics of Kurt Godel and the drawings of M. C. Escher. It
deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize, and remains an example of how plain
prose can be used to communicate abstruse ideas in ways that are not
only revelatory but thrilling.
While Gaines is no match for Hofstadter as a thinker or stylist (he
tends to be chatty), he writes with admirable erudition. The story he
tells is a reminder that there was once a time when heads of state
valued high culture as much as high finance, and when artists won fame
through mastery rather than media manipulation.
He adopts the rather slow form of a double biography, crosscutting for
more than 200 pages before returning to the evening of May 7, 1747,
when Frederick scanned a list of foreign visitors to Potsdam and
agitatedly announced to his musicians, ''Gentlemen, old Bach is
here.'' What happened next is the climax of a narrative whose larger
purpose is to set the king and the commoner up as exemplars of two
contrary tendencies in Germanic traditions: Frederick the
expansionist, power-drunk, atheistic Prussian, and Bach the
warmhearted Lutheran Pietist, a family man of parochial horizons and
No author could want a more promising pair of antagonists -- except
that the record of Bach's life is slight, compared with Frederick's.
Gaines keeps his book balanced with a lot of dry Bach ballast, while
fighting the temptation to tell us too much about one of the most
fascinating rulers in European history.
In a later, more liberated age, Frederick (1712-86) might have been
sympathetically known as ''Frederick the Gay.'' Great he no doubt was
as king and commander in chief -- at least, until his autocracy
degenerated into tyranny -- and he was almost as eminent in his role
as a patron and practitioner of the arts. But homosexuality, and the
suppression of it forced on him early on, appear to have been the key
to his personality. Gay memoirs today offer no scenes of horror
comparable to what Frederick was forced to witness, at 18, through the
barred window of a prison cell in Kustrin Castle.
AS Crown Prince of Prussia, he had been jailed by his father, the
maniacal homophobe Frederick William I, ostensibly for plotting to
desert the kingdom and seek asylum in Britain with a young lieutenant,
Hans von Katte. Although the accusation was true, Frederick's real
treason was having grown up as un-Prussian as could be imagined:
Frenchified in language, dress and deportment, art-loving,
flute-playing, pompadoured, fixated on his mother and sister -- in
short, and in his father's eyes, more of a queen than a king in the
Effeminate as he may have seemed, and openly as he and Katte flaunted
their relationship -- within the proprieties of the day -- there was a
tough obstinacy about Frederick that no number of fatherly whippings
(many in full view of the royal court) could break. His decision to
flee paternal persecution rose from pride rather than fear. ''The king
has entirely forgotten that I am his son. . . . I have too much honor
to submit to such treatment; and I am determined to put an end to it
one way or the other.''
Frederick William reacted with similar determination when the youths
were betrayed and arrested. (In Gaines's too frequent colloquialism,
he was ''beyond angry'' at their disloyalty and ''beyond firm'' in
punishing it.) Unmoved by Frederick's apology, the king ordered that
Katte be beheaded below Frederick's window.
The execution took place at dawn, while grenadiers apologetically held
the prince to the bars. Frederick could only scream, ''My dear Katte!
Forgive me!'' and receive a hand-blown kiss from his friend before the
executioner's sword swung. At that point, Frederick fainted. Gaines
''He returned to consciousness in a delirium. He spent the day weeping
and in shock . . . staring at the body below, on which someone
(defying the king's instructions) had thrown a black cloth, now caked
with Katte's blood. Unable to eat or sleep, Frederick spent the night
in a high fever, talking to himself. 'The king thinks he has taken
Katte away from me,' someone heard him say, 'but I see him all the
Frederick was too much a product of the Age of Reason not to think his
way out of this trauma, knowing that his father would execute him too
if he did not quickly prove himself as much a ''man'' as any warrior
in the Prussian Army. He proceeded to do just that, earning Frederick
William's respect as a soldier of extraordinary ability and a student
of the most minute arcana of political science. He even married the
princess chosen for him, Elizabeth of Brunswick-Bevern, resigning
himself to ''servicing'' her when necessary (the actual French verb he
used was more graphic). In the event, he fathered no children, and
spent as much private time as possible with the men he most cared for
-- comrades-in-arms and intellectuals of every discipline. His
accession to the throne in 1740 allowed him to come out of the
cultural closet as the only true ''philosopher-king'' of the German
Enlightenment. In the words of his friend Voltaire, Frederick was ''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.''
The best poor Bach could do to compete, biographically speaking, was
get himself imprisoned in 1717 after a contractual squabble with the
Duke of Weimar. Far from being traumatized by this experience, he used
his few weeks of detention to compose Book 1 of ''The Well-Tempered
Clavier.'' Gaines strives to dramatize Bach's other clash with
authority -- over which official of St. Thomas's Choir School,
Leipzig, had the right to appoint prefects -- but its thrill quotient
Understandably, therefore, Gaines devotes as much space as possible to
the real drama of Bach's life: his advancement of the art of
counterpoint to a perfection never surpassed. Theorists are divided as
to which late masterpiece best represents the plenitude of his powers:
the ''Goldberg Variations,'' the Mass in B minor and the unfinished
''Art of the Fugue'' are all candidates. But Gaines is on strong
ground in his advocacy of the ''Musical Offering,'' all 13 movements
of which are based on a theme by Frederick the Great. In particular,
Gaines cites the suite's concluding ricercar, a six-voice fugue of
almost inhuman clarity. It would be an overwhelming achievement even
if the king's theme were simple. But Frederick composed (possibly with
the naughty connivance of Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel) a subject
so jagged and chromatic that only a freak mind could work it out in
three voices, let alone six. In his book, Hofstadter compares the
latter task to ''the playing of 60 simultaneous blindfold games of
chess and winning them all.'' Bach accomplished it with no apparent
effort, throwing in a sheaf of canons and other contrapuntal jeux
d'ésprit for good measure.
Gaines is at his best here, trading a faux-jovial historical style for
serious and lucid exegesis. Indeed, the clash between sensibilities
that is his book's main topic seems to characterize his own authorial
persona. He loves the baroque complexity of religious or philosophical
or musical argument, and is uncomfortable with linear storytelling --
that rational progression and development of themes that is the
essence of Classical design. He is never happier than when he gives up
trying to keep track of Bach's jobs or Frederick's wars, and can write
about one of the composer's works: ''Nowhere better than in a
perpetual canon like this can you hear so clearly the connection
between musical and celestial harmony, the canonic voices weaving in
and around one another like so many orbiting planets, eternally in
motion and eternally the same.''
What Frederick thought of the ''Musical Offering'' when Bach mailed it
to him two months after their meeting is not known. The likelihood is
that he tossed it aside unperformed. He was by then well on the way to
becoming an arch-reactionary both to the music of the past,
exemplified by Bach, and the music of the future, pioneered by Gluck
and Haydn. The stony core that had begun to form within him when he
saw Katte executed eventually petrified his entire personality. He
died a depressive recluse in 1786, 36 years after Bach.
Geniuses both, polar opposites the pair of them, king and commoner
sharing only a mutual worship of St. Cecilia -- let us hope that, in
some heavenly auditorium (M. C. Escher, architect) they are twiddling
away together at harpsichord and flute, in endless variations on
Frederick's ''right Royal theme.''
Edmund Morris's biography of Beethoven will be published this fall. He
is writing the third volume of his life of Theodore Roosevelt.
More information about the paleopsych