When God’s Composer Met the Philosopher King

If you’re looking for a fascinating (and short) read for this Christmas season, check out James R. Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason. It tells the life stories of two men: Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer of the baroque period, and Frederick the Great, the philosopher king. One represented Lutheranism and a God-soaked vision of the world. The other, enlightenment skepticism about religion, combined with ultimate faith in reason.

Frederick and Bach met once in their lives. At the time, Frederick was a young man, who loved playing his flute (and all other things french), listening to opera, and even composing a ditty or two. He hated music that “stunk of the church,” and believed that all music served one purpose: to delight the senses. The whole baroque style seemed, to him, trite, overwrought, and stilted.

Bach, however, was an aging man, three years away from death. He saw music as audible proof for the existence of God. Every note in the scale, Bach knew, worked by ratios of sound. Harmonies, which sounded mysteriously beautiful to the human ear, also followed mathematical ratios. For him, all of music pointed to the orderly creator of the universe. He loved to take a single melody, and explode it into myriad melodies, turning it upside down, and backwards, or pulling it apart and reshaping it, or diminishing and augmenting at a turn.

The fact that a single melody could be expanded so infinitely, yet again pointed to the invisible hand of God behind the properties of music. He excelled at writing Fugues, a genre of music that took a single melodic theme, played it in multiple voices (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, Etc.) and then expanded it simultaneously in each voice in perfect harmony.

Here’s a fun one. Listen to the melody played at the beginning (alone) several times, until you get it in your ears, and listen as it’s played in multiple voices, and expanded. Fast forward to 1:06 to hear the fugue: 


Frederick the great hated fugal music. He wanted music in the galant style, which emphasized a single melody playing over an ensemble. The fugue was too complex, and unnatural.

So it was strange that Frederick desperately wanted “Old Bach” to come to his court. Of course Bach was a virtuoso organist and keyboardist, but he represented the whole old establishment, with it’s passé interests in God. Nonetheless, Frederick begged Bach’s son, who functioned as his court’s keyboardist, to bring his father to Postdam. For numerous reasons this was difficult: Bach was old, and Frederick was an occupying force in Bach’s homeland of Saxony.

Nonetheless, in 1747, Bach finally visited Postdam. The minute his carriage arrived, before Bach could clean up or rest from his arduous journey, Frederick demanded him to visit his court. He trolled the old composer around his collection of Harpichords, Clavichords and Piano Fortes, asking him to play each one.

Finally, the king asked Bach to do a trick he was famous for: taking a single melody, expanding it into four voices, and then, in the fugal style, expanding it into a whole harmonic work…. by improvisation. Bach was a master improviser, so he happily agreed.

The king then set out a 21-note long melodic theme (rather longer than normal). Even worse, the theme used complex chromaticism, breaking in and out of key. Modern critics agree that Frederick did not invent his melody on the spot. It was likely created for the very purpose of embarrassing Bach. The melody was intentionally constructed to be about as difficult as possible to expand into four melodies.

Frederick seemingly said, “You see order in all of music. You say God is over it. Well let’s see you make order out of this mess.”

Bach sat down. He began to play the king’s theme. He expanded it into four voices, and by improvisation completed a whole Fugue. According to newspaper accounts, the entire room was dumbstruck. A flustered Frederick demanded Bach do it in six voices now. Up to this point Bach had never written a Fugue in six voices. He had to concede, with some shame, that he could not do so.

This is like asking Payton Manning, right after he gets off a 15 hour flight, to step into the stadium, throw a 50 yard touchdown pass, during a blitz, to a five-foot wide receiver in double coverage. And then, after Manning miraculously does it, asking him to do it again with his eyes shut.

Bach offered to play a Fugue in six voices based on his own theme. This he did.

Frederick appeared to win. See, there is no God behind music. There’s just what we hear, and what we like. But two weeks later he received a special gift in the mail from Bach: ten canons, a sonata (for hist flute) and several fugues. Each one was a unique song based on the king’s melody.

The first piece? A fugue in six voices. This youtube video represents each voice with a different color:

Throughout the cryptic work, punningly titled A Musical Offering (Bach implied that Frederick attempted to sacrifice, or offer, Bach at the altar) Bach put special notes for the king. A note on one canon, said “As the notes rise, so may the glory of the king.” In fact, when you look at the score, the notes do rise, as the keys modulate upwards. The problem comes when you listen to the song. Bach crafted it so finely, that it does not sound like the piece is rising.

In another spot, Bach creates a galant melody, much like Frederick loved to hear. Bach, however, takes the melody and crushes it into one of the most ugly moments in his writing. He enchains it with fugal style, so that when then song ends, and the melody repeats it sounds coy and silly.

The whole piece is masterful. It’s a grand gesture that rebukes the religious cynicism of Frederick. God’s hand can even be found in the most wily melody.

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