One of the best books I've read in years!
Despite its curious and daunting title, this book -- written by the former managing editor of Time -- is eminently readable, scholarly, and fascinating. The book is about the meeting between two great figures -- the Baroque composer J. S. Bach in the last years of his life, and the powerful Enlightenment King Frederick the Great of Prussia -- that took place one evening at the King's palace. This meeting led up to Bach's composing "the Musical Offering" for Frederick, and Gaines' book unravels the many layers of coded meaning that Bach had woven into this composition which he had dedicated to Frederick.
The book begins by drawing a sharp contrast between the two men, who each stood for their own generation, in their lives, upbringing, and beliefs. Gaines masterfully portrays the characters of Bach and Frederick in a very tangible and accessible way. From bare historic facts, with a reporter's skill, Gaines is able to give life to the human experiences that these two men must have lived through. His description of Bach is especially poignant and sympathetic. For instance, Gaines describes Bach as a father having to look after a wayward son, even having to deal with debt-collectors who come to him to collect his son's debts. Bach is seen worried and exasperated with this troublesome son, hearing no news from him, only to find out that his son had died in a distant city of his profligacy. Gaines' accounts of the events in Bach's life are so engaging, that we are able to see Bach as a person with a beating heart; and it also helps us to listen to Bach's music more sympathetically, so as to be sensitive to what thoughts and experiences may have generated the emotional power of his melodies.
Also fascinating is Gaines' account of the tormented youth of Frederick, and the strange family dynamics that had brought about the duality of darkness and light in the personality of this ruthless, but flute-playing, king -- who was just as full of paradox as is the term "Enlightened Despot." The complexity of this grand King is set in stark contrast against Bach, who, despite his genius and the intricate craftsmanship that made his music great for all times, lived his life simply as a church musician, a Lutheran, a husband and father.
The story culminates a few years before the end of Bach's life, on a certain evening at the King's palace, when the meeting of these two entirely different personalities takes place -- and what led up to Bach's writing of the "Musical Offering" for Frederick. The book is ultimately about this single composition, and Gaines unravels the many layers of intricately coded messages -- sometimes warnings -- that Bach had intended for the King. In order to fully appreciate the hidden social, human and religious meanings that Gaines unpacks from this single composition, the reader would have to begin at the beginning, just as one would read a good mystery. The book is so very well written that it will be a wonderful and worthwhile journey; and the reader is sure to be running to get a recording of "the Musical Offering" after reading this book.