Books: Duel at the Tipping Point

A fascinating study says a King's musical challenge to Bach marked the beginning of modern culture

Caesar and Cleopatra. Galileo and Pope Paul V. Thomas à Becket and Henry II. Encounters between great figures, especially when their world views clash, can create historical watersheds. Such an encounter, writes James R. Gaines, took place on a spring evening in 1747, when an aged Johann Sebastian Bach arrived at the court of Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia. Frederick, a music lover with as deep a passion for the arts as for waging war, had summoned Bach in order to set him a musical challenge--one that Bach triumphantly met two weeks later when he presented Frederick with one of...

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