Scott D. Paulin
March 14, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

J.S. Bach’s 1747 command performance for Frederick the Great was no ordinary concert, argues former Time and People editor James R. Gaines, but a battle of values between the young Prussian monarch’s Enlightenment rationality and the aged composer’s faith-based worldview. Further, the musical offering Bach later dedicated to Frederick was a veiled rebuke, an ”exploding bouquet.” Though Gaines’ premise doesn’t totally convince — nor does his theory about Frederick’s malice toward Bach — he maps sweeping cultural history onto his dual biography with dazzling virtuosity. Gaines clearly sides with Bach, while Frederick is portrayed less sympathetically as a connoisseur of gizmos like the flatulent mechanical duck. But if you’ve ever wondered about the metaphysics behind Bach’s music, you won’t find a more lucid and engaging guide.

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