March 28, 2005 12:00 PM

NONFICTION

by James R. Gaines

In 1747 Frederick the Great, the ruler of Prussia, summoned Johann Sebastian Bach to his palace and presented the composer this challenge: to improvise a six-part fugue on a deeply complex theme. At 62, Bach was a relic who had fallen into near obscurity, yet he produced the defiant Musical Offering as a response to the royal gambit. Evening’s chapters alternate between Bach and Frederick, detailing their lives leading up to their meeting. Bach, who sired 20 offspring, embraced discipline, while Frederick endured public beatings from his own father, who forced the heir to witness the beheading of his friend (and perhaps lover). Gaines, a former managing editor of PEOPLE, has a deep understanding of music and an infectious zeal for narrative history. Examining the clash between Frederick and Bach as a symbol of the emerging era of reason, he has created a moving portrait of genius and human failure.

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