That would be J. Sebastian Bach and Frederick II Hohenzollern (AKA the Great) of Prussia, who famously met in 1747. The King proposed a Royal Theme and asked Bach to extemporize fugally; Bach did so on the spot, somewhat, and a few weeks later sent Frederick The Musical Offering. This episode appeared at the beginning of Gödel, Escher, Bach, and now finds itself at the center of another book: Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines, of whom I’d never previously heard. It’s pretty good; read on for some remarks on the book, Frederick, Sebastian, and the Offering.
Bach · There’s really not that much new to learn about Bach, but I think Bach newbies would enjoy Gaines’ narrative, and this Bach obsessive did too. If you want to read one book about Bach, that would be The Bach Reader, which collects every word Bach is known to have written and adds some excellent supporting and historical material.
It might not be nuts to recommend this book as the second. But only for those who know the music pretty well; Gaines, for example is apt to give you twenty paragraphs on the Meaning of the big harpsichord cadenza in Brandenburg 5 without actually describing it for those who don’t know it; if you don’t know it, go get a recording of the Brandenburgs and play #5 really loud. The cadenza is kind of like something Eddie van Halen would have played if he’d lived in the 18th century and didn’t have electricity. I dunno what it means but it’s fun to listen to.
Frederick · On the other hand, before reading this book I knew pretty well nothing about Frederick other that he played the flute, enlarged Prussia, and met Bach. It turns out he was an interesting—not nice, not likable, but interesting—character. Probably more so than Bach, who was prickly, thin-skinned, and litigious. Anyhow, Gaines has a lot of fun telling Frederick’s story, spending time on his relationship with his awful father, his sexuality (metro- at least), and his world-view, and I had a lot of fun reading it. I think I should track down a good big thick book on Frederick (this volume is fairly slender) and learn more.
The Musical Offering · People who write about this piece of music, including Hofstadter and Gaines, tend to be reduced to fannish gurgling. They have a point. It’s not flashy like that Brandenburg nor thunderous like the big organ showpieces, nor does it contain either the huge vaulting curves of the big choral works or the raw howls of emotion from the cello suites. But you can listen to it as long as you want and you’ll keep hearing more, it’s deep, deep, deep.
My favorite recording for some decades has been by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which makes few concessions to historical correctness, but on the other hand is perfect, approximately. The version I have is on a double CD paired with The Art of the Fugue, another fine performance.
But as I type this I’m listening to a version by Jordi Savall and the Le Concert des Nations, which my brother gave me for Christmas this year and I’m just now listening to seriously. I like it a lot, I may have to give it twenty or thirty more listens to decide if it holds up. You can do that with this piece of music, it just doesn’t wear out.
The History · It’s pretty sad. There’s evidence of family malice afoot in the theme that Frederick proposed, and then there’s no evidence that Frederick ever actually listened to The Offering, and it’s clear that Bach got more or less nothing either for his long trip or for writing the music. He may never have heard it either.
Whatever. Thanks, Sebastian and Fred.