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

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

by James R. Gaines

ISBN: 9780007156610

Publisher Harper Perennial

Published in History/World

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Theme For A Pasdedeux

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 mother's 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 Wilhelmina -- he on the flute he called Principe, she on her lute Principessa. When Frederick's father once happened unexpectedly on this scene, he flew into a rage. Even more than his son's flute playing, Frederick William I hated everything French -- French 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, Frederick's 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 mother's 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 canings -- he left canes in various rooms of the castle so they would always be close at hand -- but 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?! You're 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 o'clock, 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 literature -- avid 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." Frederick's 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 composer -- a 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 Bach's 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 ...

Excerpted from "Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment" by James R. Gaines. Copyright © 2005 by James R. Gaines. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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