Frederick the Great was young. He had his hand on the rudder and a pleasant zeitgeist blowing into his sails. Johann Sebastian Bach was, at this time, a year from his death, and his whole reputation was built around a resistance to this zeitgeist. It was the same old battle that had started in the 1590s in Florence, but it was perhaps coming to a head here 150 years later in royal palace of Germany. Bach and Frederick were to engage in a clash of ideology, and not on entirely equal footing. J. S. Bach was the last great contrapuntal composer, and everyone knew it. Even his son, J. C. Bach, apparently knew it, since he was in the employ of Frederick the Great, composing music just how Frederick liked it. Not contrapuntal.
J. S. Bach, the father, arrives. Frederick shows off all his beautiful harpsichords and pianofortes, the way millionaires these days show off their cars. As Bach is feeling around one particular model, Frederick asks him if he might improvise a bit. He gives Bach a fugue subject of 8 measures. The melody contains 4 measures of straight chromatic scale. The rest contain intervalic relations designed specifically to make parallel fifths and parallel octaves a likely occurrence. The melody was conceived precisely to make it difficult for Bach.
Lots of people were present at this point, including members of the 18th century “press”. Bach had a reputation of being the last great contrapuntal master and legends had grown up around him about his ability to spontaneously invent a fugue. The ability to do so on a competent level, however, was more or less unprecedented in that age and possibly even in past ages. Given a melody like this with this level of pressure is bad enough. Much more was at stake than Bach’s reputation, though, and everyone knew it.
Bach took the royal melody and subsequently improvised a three-part fugue or “ricercare” on it. Keep in mind: a fugue does not simply harmonize its main melody. You essentially have to maintain two other, separate melodies whenever that melody appears. You must do so while adhering to the rules of counterpoint, which insist that there be no parallel fifths or octaves between voices. And you must do all this while still being artistic in your invention: melodies need to be recycled, structure has to be observed, and, much like a debate round, after the first page and a half, no new material should be introduced, only old stuff developed.
If Bach’s later transcription of his improvised ricercare is anything like what he improvised, Bach didn’t simply meet Frederick’s impossibly difficult taunt. He did so slapping Frederick in the face. Frederick’s whole opinion of music was based on the idea that the Old Style was outdated, incapable of entertaining, incapable of elegance. He favored the galant style, which was a direct descendent of the Italian monodist style. It was much more harmonically based music, the sort of thing Rameau would be proud of. It loved ornate melodies and simple ostinato accompaniment.
And so Bach does his typical thing, almost caricaturing Frederick’s caricature of counterpoint, making the fugue quite grave and serious. But here and there, he dabbles galant style on top of the royal melody. He does what he’s consistently done throughout his career: he imitates the galant style and does so in a contrapuntal way. The result is better than the original galant. And not just better all around, but better at the specific goals of the galant style. Better at entertaining, better dance music, a more enjoyable lightness, a more engaging elegance. Bach was the worst sort of opponent for a young man trying to lay to rest an outmoded style. Bach was just simply better at music than everyone else, and so at a grumpy 68 years old, he did an epic in-your-face to a young, rich prince who hated church music.
The papers, after the event, couldn’t elaborate in too much detail on the broader implications, for obvious reasons. Frederick had expected the evening, apparently, to be a once-and-for-all triumph of the galant style. By tempting Bach’s pride to bite off more than he could reasonably chew, Frederick could essentially take down the best the old style had to offer. Laughter is the greatest weapon, and an unsuccessful Bach would have allowed for some great smirks. But, there was nothing reasonable about how much Bach could bite off.
So the papers didn’t report that Frederick had, in some sense, lost the battle. But not, it seems, the war.