Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Walter Isaacson
“James Gaines writes with great beauty and intelligence…an exciting saga that brings the turmoil of the Enlightenment alive.”
Mary Karr
“History winningly told , with the immediacy of a great novel...Gaines paints a whole age with the skill of Tuchman.”
Jan Morris
“Evening in the Palace of Reason has given me enormous pleasure and instruction.”
(four stars) - People Magazine
"A moving portrait...Gaines has a deep understanding of music and an infectious zeal for narrative history."
Time Magazine
"An eloquent and fascinating study, highly debatable at points yet all the more stimulating for that…Accessible and entertaining."
The Independent(Sunday)
"Impossible to put down when one is dancing, swerving, stumbling through [the] extraordinary brilliance…a wonderfully engaging tale."
The Independent (Sunday)
“Impossible to put down when one is dancing, swerving, stumbling through [the] extraordinary brilliance…a wonderfully engaging tale.”
Denver Post
“Lively…with a delicious cast of characters…Gaines shows himself a deft writer.”
San Antonio Express-News
“Filled with sensible speculation and insights, Gaines’ books is a model for humanities writing.”
New York Times Book Review
“Gaines writes with admirable erudition…No author could want a more promising pair of antagonists.”
Time magazine
“An eloquent and fascinating study, highly debatable at points yet all the more stimulating for that…Accessible and entertaining.”
Booklist
“Gaines writes very accessibly…A marvelous story that will captivate the classical music audience.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“First rate...[Gaines] writes superbly and makes us feel at home with things that would have sounded arcane otherwise.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Gaines maps sweeping cultural history with dazzling virtuosity…You won’t find a more lucid and engaging guide.”
Harper's Magazine
“A book-length romp that is less like a B-Minor Mass than an Italian opera…Wonderful.”
New York Sun
“Gaines elegantly sketches parallel biographies of the two protagonists....His enthusiasm is infectious.”
Sunday Telegraph
“Articulate, well-informed and rigorous…Gaines makes this dauntingly technical subject accessible.”
People (four stars)
“A moving portrait...Gaines has a deep understanding of music and an infectious zeal for narrative history.”
The Guardian
“Intelligent, stylish, wryly witty, serious yet never solemn, and above all passionate in its celebration of a great composer.”
People
“A moving portrait...Gaines has a deep understanding of music and an infectious zeal for narrative history.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Gaines maps sweeping cultural history with dazzling virtuosity…You won’t find a more lucid and engaging guide.”
Booklist
“Gaines writes very accessibly…A marvelous story that will captivate the classical music audience.”
The Guardian
“Intelligent, stylish, wryly witty, serious yet never solemn, and above all passionate in its celebration of a great composer.”
Sunday Telegraph
“Articulate, well-informed and rigorous…Gaines makes this dauntingly technical subject accessible.”
Denver Post
“Lively…with a delicious cast of characters…Gaines shows himself a deft writer.”
New York Times Book Review
“Gaines writes with admirable erudition…No author could want a more promising pair of antagonists.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“First rate...[Gaines] writes superbly and makes us feel at home with things that would have sounded arcane otherwise.”
Harper's Magazine
“A book-length romp that is less like a B-Minor Mass than an Italian opera…Wonderful.”
Time magazine
“An eloquent and fascinating study, highly debatable at points yet all the more stimulating for that…Accessible and entertaining.”
San Antonio Express-News
“Filled with sensible speculation and insights, Gaines’ books is a model for humanities writing.”
New York Sun
“Gaines elegantly sketches parallel biographies of the two protagonists....His enthusiasm is infectious.”
People (four stars)
“A moving portrait...Gaines has a deep understanding of music and an infectious zeal for narrative history.”
The Independent (Sunday)
“Impossible to put down when one is dancing, swerving, stumbling through [the] extraordinary brilliance…a wonderfully engaging tale.”
Edmund Morris
While Gaines is no match for Hofstadter as a thinker or stylist (he tends to be chatty), he writes with admirable erudition. The story he tells is a reminder that there was once a time when heads of state valued high culture as much as high finance, and when artists won fame through mastery rather than media manipulation.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Like contrapuntal voices in a Bach fugue, the lives of an aging composer and a young dictator are intertwined and interlocked in this absorbing cultural history. Gaines (The Lives of the Piano), former managing editor of Time, Life and People magazines, begins by recounting Frederick's abrupt summons of Bach to his court at Potsdam. Here, in an apparent effort to humiliate the old-style composer, Frederick, enamored of the new in philosophy and art, sets Bach a succession of seemingly impossible musical challenges: to each, the composer responds with unthinkable genius, culminating in his Musical Offering. But beneath the biographical counterpoint traced by Gaines is a longer, unfinished duel between two visions of humankind-one that the sensitive and musically inclined Frederick was also fighting within himself. He had been brutally abused by his father and was increasingly committed to the cynical pursuit of military expansion; the sun gradually sets on the Prussian king, who is consumed by disillusionment, inflicting pain on himself and countless others. As night falls on the (un)enlightened despot, Bach's star begins to rise, and later, he will acquire the veneration his genius merits, his music a perennial reminder that "the light of reason can blind us to a deeper kind of illumination." Illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Liz Darhansoff. (Mar. 4) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The best-documented event in the life of J.S. Bach was his meeting, three years before his death, with Frederick the Great of Prussia. The two were polar opposites: Bach, the learned contrapuntalist, was the devout composer of ornate, "old-fashioned" liturgical music, while Frederick the enlightened philosopher-king favored the lighter secular music of the era. At their meeting, in front of a distinguished audience of court musicians, Bach improvised a three-voiced fugue on a theme presented to him-and ostensibly composed by-the king himself. A few months later, Bach completed one of his greatest works-the Musical Offering-a collection of ten canons, two fugues, and a trio sonata based on the same theme and dedicated to the king. In this highly entertaining book, Gaines masterfully weaves parallel narratives of the lives of Bach and Frederick leading up to their momentous meeting. Gaines is not a musicologist but has drawn extensively on numerous up-to-date sources, and his journalistic background is evident in the stylish, often humorous prose, which never bogs down in dry musical or historical minutiae. There is some needless speculation, but lovers of music, European history, and Western philosophy will find this book an enormous pleasure. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/04.]-Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious, if not entirely successful, synthesis of the old-fashioned, pious ideals of Sebastian Bach and the newfangled values of the enlightened monarch Frederick the Great. Gaines's history of the dawning Enlightenment in the German states is dazzling but somewhat fractured, since Frederick was twenty-seven years older than Bach and the two didn't actually meet until Bach was 62, three years before his death in 1750. That meeting, in Potsdam, between the foremost adherent of the esoteric theory of counterpoint and the fashionable, not-easily-impressed philosopher king proved "the tipping point," Gaines asserts, "between ancient and modern culture in the West" and resulted in Bach's magisterial closing statement, The Musical Offering. American journalist Gaines (Wit's End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table, 1977), now Paris-based, ranges across the century in order to capture the backgrounds of the men: first, we have Bach's Baroque roots in a long line of church musicians from Thuringia, culminating in his post as Royal Composer to the Leipzig court; then we have Frederick's ascension to the Hohenzollern throne at twenty-eight, after a childhood under the abusive treatment of his autocratic father. The education of the crown prince makes the more compelling story, as he hides his love of music and all things French and eventually is imprisoned for plotting to flee his father's violent treatment. But chapters on Bach-however mesmerizing to the musician-tend to mire down in notions of making "sermons in sound" and theories of composition. Bach's work wasn't published or played outside of Leipzig until long after his death, while the world considered his son Carl (C.P.E.Bach), Frederick the Great's keyboard composer for thirty years, the greater musician. In the end, Frederick steals the show here as Gaines offers up a twin-faceted treatment of the ideas of the age-in a work that's not easily classifiable as music or history but is composed with a refreshingly nonscholarly flourish. A bit of a stretch, but it's a light-pedaling, virtuosic work of epistemology. Agent: Liz Darhansoff/Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007156610
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2006
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: with P.S.
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 323,811
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

A longtime journalist and the former editor of several magazines, including Time and People, James R. Gaines lives with his family in Paris.

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Table of Contents

Here's a virtuoso performance of cultural history. James R. Gaines, the former managing editor for Time, Life, and People, strikes all the right chords with his mesmerizing story about the musical smackdown Bach put on Prussia's despot, Frederick the Great. With wit, erudition, and style, Gaines captures the tensions of the age and reveals a transformative moment in which Bach began his ascent to the pantheon of great musicians. The pleasures in this one leave us yelling, "Bravo."
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First Chapter

Evening in the Palace of Reason
Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment

Chapter One

Theme For A Pasdedeux

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.


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 ...

Evening in the Palace of Reason
Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment
. Copyright © by James Gaines. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

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

  1. Bach and Frederick the Great embraced very different views of human nature and very different musical tastes. What effect did their different philosophies of human nature have on their taste in music and compositional styles?

  2. How did Bach's Calvinism and Frederick's Lutheranism affect their aesthetics?

  3. What affect do you think his friend's beheading had on Frederick's conduct as king?

  4. How was it that J.S. Bach's music rose to such prominence if it had become largely forgotten at the time of his death?

  5. How do you think that Frederick's upbringing influenced his dual personality: his warlike nature, and love of the fine arts and culture?

  6. Was Bach a rebel in his own right, as suggested some of his contemporaries, or was he merely an artist giving the public what they wanted?

  7. Samuel Johnson once called Frederick the Great "Voltaire's foot-boy." How accurate do you think this statement is?

  8. What was Bach's greatest contribution to music? What's your favorite of Bach's pieces?

  9. Ultimately, why do you think Bach went to meet Frederick?

  10. Why was Bach at first unable to complete Frederick's challenge?

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.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2006

    A wonderfully compact dual biography

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2005

    Best book of this or any year

    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.

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