A review by chloecaprice
Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James R. Gaines


James R. Gaines is a former editor of Time and People magazines - I found his writing style captivating.

Synopsis: Frederick the Great was a music-loving warrior king who took pride in being on the cutting edge of Enlightenment philosophy - the idea that man's reason can solve all mysteries and religious faith has no role. Bach, a Baroque musician and devout Lutheran, was in his 60's when he was summoned to Frederick's court, and his life and philosophy were in direct opposition to the king's. Bach represented everything considered old and outdated, particularly his music style (learned counterpoint) and his faith. In his court, the king attempted to humiliate Bach by requesting he improvise a six-part fugue on an impossibly difficult theme. Bach wrote "A Musical Offering" as a victorious response.

Analysis: I loved this book. It was very interesting and entertaining. It bogged down slightly for me in the passages on intensive musical theory. The message of the book, to me, was this: both men had difficult, even traumatic, lives and both had the potential for genius if in different areas. However, Beach was securely rooted in his faith and commitment to God (as put in the book, a power to be feared more than man), while Frederick was entrenched in bitterness and self-indulgence. Arguably, nothing truly good and lasting came of Frederick's life, but Bach's music continues to inspire musicians and listeners alike.

Things I learned:
From Ch 4.: Counterpoint mathematically matched harmonies - it was supposed to duplicate the "music of the spheres" or the celestial dance of the planets orchestrated by God. The supreme example of this music theory is the canon form - like Pachelbel's "Canon in D". Bach was Pachelbel's apprentice from the age of 9 to 14.

From Ch. 6: Baroque used music to illustrate lyrics. For example, music soaring higher with text that says things like "He is risen" or plunging lower with concepts like death and sorrow. The idea was to use the music to "invoke specific emotional and moral messages." (p. 85)

From Ch. 7: Due to his father's increasing abuse, Frederick attempted to run away to Paris with his best friend (and possibly gay lover) Katte. The king discovered the plot and had Frederick thrown in jail accused of treason. The king's generals and advisers managed to talk him out of executing Frederick, but instead the king forced F. to watch as Katte was beheaded. F. promptly suffered a nervous breakdown.

From Ch. 8: In Bach's time, the great debate in music was intellectual purity vs. aesthetic pleasure which matched the new moral debate of community vs. individual interest.

From Ch. 13: When Hitler came to power, he held Frederick as a hero, even having a portrait of F. over his desk. When Hitler began his Aryan crusade, he laid flowers on F's tomb and gave the mission its inaugural speech from there. The only lasting influence F. had on the world was the militaristic spirit of Germany. His Enlightenment ideology, particularly his ideas about music, were ridiculed and rejected by Romanticism, the follower of Enlightenment philosophy. Bach died shortly after his meeting with the king but his music was embraced by Romanticism and influenced many important composers (including Mozart and Beethoven) for centuries.