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Johann Sebastian Bach created what may be the most celestial and profound body of music in history; Frederick the Great built the colossus we now know as Germany, and along with it a template for modern warfare. Their fleeting encounter in 1757 signals a unique moment in history where belief collided with the cold certainty of reason. Set at the tipping point between the ancient and modern world, Evening in the Palace of Reason captures the tumult of the eighteenth century, the legacy of the Reformation, and the ...
Johann Sebastian Bach created what may be the most celestial and profound body of music in history; Frederick the Great built the colossus we now know as Germany, and along with it a template for modern warfare. Their fleeting encounter in 1757 signals a unique moment in history where belief collided with the cold certainty of reason. Set at the tipping point between the ancient and modern world, Evening in the Palace of Reason captures the tumult of the eighteenth century, the legacy of the Reformation, and the birth of the Enlightenment in this extraordinary tale of two men.
Frederick the great had always loved to play the flute, which was one of the qualities in him that his father most despised. Throughout his youth, Frederick had to play in secret. Among his fondest memories were evenings at his mother's palace, where he was free to dress up in French clothes, curl and puff his hair in the French style, and play duets with his soulmate sister Wilhelmina -- he on the flute he called Principe, she on her lute Principessa. When Frederick's father once happened unexpectedly on this scene, he flew into a rage. Even more than his son's flute playing, Frederick William I hated everything French -- French clothes, French food, French mannerisms, French civilization, all of which he dismissed as "effeminate." He had of course been educated in French, like most German princes (he could not even spell Deutschland but habitually wrote Deusland), so he had to speak French, but he hated himself for it. He dressed convicts for their executions in French clothes as his own sort of fashion statement.
In this regard and others, Frederick's father was at least half mad. Flagrantly manic-depressive and violently abusive, he also suffered from porphyria, a disease common among descendants of Mary Queen of Scots (which he was, on his mother's side). Its afflictions included migraines, abscesses, boils, paranoia, and mind-engulfing stomach pains. The rages of Frederick William were frequent, infamous, and knew no rank: He hit servants, family members (no one more than Frederick), even visiting diplomats. Racked by gout, he lashed out with crutches, and if the pain was bad enough to put him in his wheelchair, he chased people down in it brandishing a cane. He was infamous for his canings -- he left canes in various rooms of the castle so they would always be close at hand -- but he also threw plates at people, pulled their hair, slapped them, knocked them down, and kicked them. A famous story has him walking down the street in Potsdam and noticing one of his subjects darting away. He ordered the man to stop and tell him why he ran. Because he was afraid, the man said. "Afraid?! Afraid?! You're supposed to love me!" Out came the cane and down went the subject, the king screaming, "Love me, scum!" Such a rage could be sparked by the very word France.
Not until his father died when Frederick was twenty-eight could he play his flute free from the threat of censure or attack, so naturally it was among his most beloved and time-consuming pastimes as king. With the musicians in his court Kapelle, who were not only the best in Prussia but the best he could buy away from Saxony and Hanover and every other German territory, he played concerts virtually every evening from seven to nine o'clock, sometimes even on the battlefield. He cared as much about music as he cared about anything, except perhaps for war.
Having had both a love of the military and a cynical, self-protective ruthlessness literally beaten into him by his father, Frederick had already been dubbed "the Great" after only five years on the throne, by which time he had greatly enlarged his kingdom with a campaign of outrageously deceitful diplomacy and equally incredible military strokes that proved him a brilliant antagonist and made Prussia, for the first time, a top-rank power in Europe. A diligent amateur of the arts and literature -- avid student of the Greek and Roman classics, composer and patron of the opera, writer of poetry and political theory (mediocre poetry and wildly hypocritical political theory, but never mind) -- he had managed also to make himself known as the very model of the newly heralded "philosopher-king," so certified by none less than Voltaire, who described young Frederick as "a man who gives battle as readily as he writes an opera ... He has written more books than any of his contemporary princes has sired bastards; and he has won more victories than he has written books." Frederick's court in Potsdam fast became one of the most glamorous in Europe, no small thanks to himself, who worked tirelessly to draw around him celebrities (like Voltaire) from every corner of the arts and sciences.
One Sunday evening in the spring of his seventh year as king, as his musicians were gathering for the evening concert, a courtier brought Frederick his usual list of arrivals at the town gate. As he looked down the list of names, he gave a start.
"Gentlemen," he said, "old Bach is here." Those who heard him said there was "a kind of agitation" in his voice.
Evening in the Palace of Reason
Johann Sebastian Bach was sixty-two years old in 1747, only three years from his death, and making the long trip from Leipzig, which would be his last journey, was surely more a concession than a wish. An emphatically self-directed, even stubborn man, Bach took a dim view of this particular king, the Prussian army having overrun Leipzig less than two years before, and at his advanced age he could not have relished spending two days and a night being jostled about in a coach to meet the bitter enemy of his own royal patron, the elector of Saxony. Even more problematic than the political and physical difficulties of such a journey, though, the meeting represented something of a confrontation for the aging composer -- a confrontation, one might say, with his age. In music and virtually every other sphere of life in mid-eighteenth-century Germany, Frederick represented all that was new and fashionable, while Bach's music had come to stand for everything ancient and outmoded. His musical language, teaching, and tradition had been rejected and denounced by young composers and theorists, even by his own sons, and Bach had every reason to fear that he and his music were to be forgotten entirely after his death, had indeed been all but forgotten already ...
How could the meeting of two men be so important to the intellectual climate of their time? Why should this seemingly unimportant encounter be talked about centuries later?
When Bach and King Frederick the Great of Prussia met, they brought together two conflicting worldviews. Bach had been trained in the classical tradition; he was a baroque composer through-and-through. King Frederick the reat was not only the rival of Bach's own patron, the Elector of Saxony, he was a flashy dictator and stood for all that was new in European politics and music. Bach was a Lutheran; Frederick a lapsed Calvinist. Bach spoke German; Frederick spoke barely any German and instead relied on French, the language of his court.
Yet Bach traveled two days and a night to meet the king, suffering all the while from the infirmities of old age. Bach's own son worked for Frederick the Great, which was reported as the ostensible reason for the trip. At the time he went, Bach had other worries as well: his musical legacy was questionable, his own son's accomplishments threatened to eclipse his.
On his arrival, Bach was given a tour of the King's palace and invited to try all of the King's opulent collection of musical instruments. The two men moved from room to room as Frederick showed off his wealth and encouraged Bach to demonstrate his musicianship.
But something else happened that night. Frederick challenged Bach to a contest. This is the story of the King's challenge to Bach, a challenge steeped in the growing culture wars of 18th century Europe. James R. Gaines takes us on a tour of 18th century Germany and shows us how all of the prevailing ideas were wound together into this one meeting.
Questions for Discussion
About the Author
A native of Dayton, Ohio, James R. Gaines is a journalist who served as the managing editor of People, Life, and Time and who describes himself as an "enthusiastic amateur" pianist. He published two previous books, Wit's End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table and The Lives of the Piano and now lives in Paris with his family.
Posted June 26, 2006
Music is the centerpiece of this wonderfully compact biography of two men confronting the great Enlightenment collision of faith and reason. I like the topic. Many people who question things wrestle with it, as Gaines admits he does, and it is still relevant 250+ years later with faith-based initiatives and ¿intelligent design¿ being part of public discourse. The prose and musical discussions are accessible, especially after having read some of the more scholarly works of Maynard Solomon (excellent biographies of Mozart and Beethoven), and I especially appreciated the glossary, being a mere lover of music and not a student of it, especially the Baroque period. Sometimes the presentation becomes a little to conversational for me, a tiny tick, however, compared to the fine work Gaines does in succinctly illuminating several centuries of European history. I was dismayed by the barely clothed assertion in the epilog of Bach¿s musical superiority to Mozart. I have never believed in comparing artists from different generations, because each artist writes for his own time and has to make a living there. The comparison can only be done in the context of one¿s own personal taste and really is a similar intellectual exercise to one¿s balance between faith and reason. Of course, Bach gave people who like to debate such things plenty of ammunition. The prelude to the first unaccompanied cello suite is almost sufficient in itself to end any argument.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2005
I have never read a book that moved me quite as much as this one, or one from which I learned more. Maybe I have special interests, but honestly I don't think so. This book explained to me things like why I love the music of Bach, why I distrust so much the suppposedly 'scientific' ideas of life, why I have always had a dislike of people in power, why I have always identified with people who were a little bit down and out, as Bach was. Really, I can't say enough about this book. Everybody, whatever their interest, will get a great deal from reading this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.