Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenmentby James Gaines
Behind the pomp and flash, Prussia's Frederick the Great was a tormented man,
In one corner, a godless young warrior, Voltaire's heralded 'philosopher-king', the It Boy of the Enlightenment. In the other, a devout if bad-tempered old composer of 'outdated' music, a scorned genius in his last years. The sparks from their brief conflict illuminate a turbulent age.
Behind the pomp and flash, Prussia's Frederick the Great was a tormented man, son of an abusive king who forced him to watch as his best friend (probably his lover) was beheaded. In what may have been one of history's crueler practical jokes, Frederick challenged 'old Bach' to a musical duel, asking him to improvise a six-part fugue based on an impossibly intricate theme (possibly devised for him by Bach's own son).
Bach left the court fuming, but in a fever of composition, he used the coded, alchemical language of counterpoint to write 'A Musical Offering' in response. A stirring declaration of faith, it represented 'as stark a rebuke of his beliefs and world view as an absolute monarch has ever received,' Gaines writes. It is also one of the great works of art in the history of music.
Set at the tipping point between the ancient and the modern world, the triumphant story of Bach's victory expands to take in the tumult of the eighteenth century: the legacy of the Reformation, wars and conquest, the birth of the Enlightenment. Brimming with originality and wit, 'Evening in the Palace of Reason' is history of the best kind - intimate in scale and broad in its vision.
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Meet the Author
Jim Gaines was the first Editor in Chief of People Magazine, as well as the Editor of Time Magazine. His first book, ‘Evening in The Palace of Reason’ was published in2005. He lives in Paris with his family
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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.
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.