“This book has a really ambitious premise. Gaines wants us to believe that a once-off encounter between Bach and a Prussian king, featuring a head-spinning musical riddle, was loaded with all sorts of philosophical significance, which can help us understand the predicament we face as moderns. I'm sold! Profound, colorful, disarmingly funny and humane, this book really cuts straight to the roots of the modern/postmodern cognitive dissonance between head and heart. Gaines, who seems to be agnostic, gives no ultimate conclusion - his heart is with Bach, his head is with Frederick, and he knows it. I'm thankful that God made humans to be whole, integrated persons. As a Christian like Bach, I won't accept the Enlightenment's riddle as "impossible", though I can't solve it with anything like his astonishing skill.”Christina Baehr wrote this review Sunday, February 24, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“This is on my all-time top 5 list; I've read it at least twice. It paints the picture of the worldview at the time of Bach, and how things really turned in 1750. You can't understand the problems of the modern world until you understand where we began to go wrong.”Steve Thomas wrote this review Monday, January 21, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“On the evening of May 7, 1747, Frederick the Great issued a very focused challenge to an aging J.S. Bach: improvise, on the spot, a three-part fugue based on a 21-note theme that was written specifically to make the task all but impossible. James R. Gaines uses this famous historical challenge not simply to tell the stories of these two historical giants, but also to frame the broader cultural tensions they each represented: reason vs. faith; materialism vs. belief; the cold rationality of the Enlightenment vs. a deep and abiding trust in a loving God. By making Frederick's challenge the book's focal point, Gaines is able to provide a wonderful introduction to some of the cultural forces that led to the Enlightenment, and serves the reader up with an engaging and interesting overview of the lives of both the composer and the king of Prussia. As much as anything, though, the book reinforced for this reader not only Bach's unalloyed genius, but also his ability to create -- prolifically -- in the face of the griefs, challenges and difficulties of everyday life. Three quick examples make the point: 1. he buried 12 of his 20 children; 2. In Leipzig, he lived with more than a dozen people in an 800-square-foot apartment with a single (unheated) bathroom; 3. the first performance of his "St. Matthew Passion" -- "perhaps the greatest oratorio and one of the most ambitious and powerful works of music ever written" -- was so unappreciated during his lifetime that, following its premiere, Bach's supervisors actually docked his pay, proof, as Gaines understates it, "of their shortsightedness." This is a tremendous book about an important moment in our cultural history -- and a wonderful introduction to one of the world's monumental, towering geniuses. Highly recommended. ”Tim Westermeyer wrote this review Monday, January 21, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“On May 7, 1747, composer Johann Sebastian Bach was summoned into the presence of King Frederick II of Prussia--that's "Frederick the Great" to you. The king, who not only employed Bach's son Carl but was a musician himself, sat down at a fortepiano and played a theme which musical scholars have described as ingeniously impervious to counterpoint; he then challenged the elder Bach to improvise a three-voice fugue on that theme. Bach did so, to the astonishment of all present. The king then suggested a six-voice treatment, but Bach was forced to admit that this lay beyond his skill. Weeks later, however, Bach sent a manuscript to the Prussian king: A Musical Offering, composed of ten sophisticated musical canons featuring the Royal Theme, as well as Bach's original three-voice fugue and the six-voice one he had been unable to improvise on demand.
This astonishing feat of musical architecture was far more than a long-in-the-tooth composer's "parting shot" at a cultured snob who had embarrassed him in public. Journalist-author Gaines, sometime editor of Time magazine, argues that it was a volley in a war between competing views of philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. Bach's achievements represented the crowning glory of classical philosophy and rhetoric, esoteric theories about the music of the spheres, mathematical proportions, and human affections (or emotions). A pious Lutheran, Bach held the traditional view that music exists to reflect the glory of God. Frederick, on the other hand, was the very model of an enlightened despot, drinking deeply of the philosophy of the "Enlightenment" and the aesthetics of music that existed to please the hearer. Out of the moment of tension between them arose one of the greatest masterpieces in music history.
I am not here to spoil Gaines's story for you. It's really too huge a story to summarize, anyway. In clear, economical prose, he makes a compelling case that the meeting of Sebastian Bach and the Prussian king in 1747 was a significant battle in a war of culture and ideas. Gaines digs back as far as ancient Greek philosophers, the Lutheran reformation, and the ancestry of both major players. He interlards chapters of each man's life and career with those of the other, building up to the king's challenge and the composer's response. After a very readable and yet penetrating analysis of the work of art that resulted, Gaines then traces the waning fortunes of both men in life, and how their fortunes were reversed after death.
I do not mistake James R. Gaines for a penetrating scholar of Lutheran or Reformed theology, or an original interpreter of Bach's music. Nor does he mistake the reader for one conversant in Enlightenment philosophy, music theory, or the works of Voltaire. His book breaks no really new ground; it requires no expertise on your part. Gaines simply brings two giant historical figures vividly, earthily, humanly to life: their weaknesses of character as well as their successes, the tragedy of their separate lives as well as the irony of their brief meeting, and each man's legacy in human culture. Reading this book is like being personally invited to attend that royal evening in Potsdam and to bear witness, with a fair grasp of the context, to a triumph of the idea that all that is pretty is not beautiful. And it may stimulate you to read more deeply on the most amazing musical artist of all time. ”
“Informative. Interesting. Readable. I gave it three stars only because it is non-fiction, and non-f has a less pleasureable pleasure to it than fiction.”Hunter B wrote this review Saturday, June 5, 2010. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Very interesting place to take off into politics, music, the competing esthetics of the times, the evolution and critique of religious thought and the role of the church in the society. ”Margaret D wrote this review Thursday, November 19, 2009. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No