[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Evening in the Palace of Reason': Being Geniuses Together

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'Evening in the Palace of Reason': Being Geniuses Together
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17


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
    unbounded creativity.

    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
    time.' ''

    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
    is low.

    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 [1]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.

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