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    Evening in the Palace of Reason

    May 27, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    The next book scheduled to soon depart from my Current Reading shelf in the library is James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, which I mainly picked up because it sounded fascinating. I was not disappointed when I got my first taste of the connection between counterpoint, mathematics, and astronomy. {And never before did contemporary music seem to be so entirely lacking depth!}

    I’ll be reviewing this book either tomorrow or next week, so I thought I’d set it up first, as setting usually matters.

    Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (P.S.)The book portrays this meeting between Bach and Frederick the Great as monumental on many levels. On the political level, Bach is the subject of the elector of Saxony, who was an enemy of Frederick the Great. On the personal and religious levels, Bach and Frederick are opposites, Bach being a faithful Christian who has been married twice {widowed once} and had 20 children, while Frederick is “a bisexual misanthrope in a childless, political marriage, …a lapsed Calvinist whose reputation for religious tolerance arose from the fact that he held all religions equally in contempt.” But most importantly of all, the author plays up what I’m calling the symbolic level. The men were symbols of their ages:

    [T]he 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.

    Gaines explains that their musical differences revealed all of these deeper, philosophical differences:

    Bach represented church music and especially the “learned counterpoint” of canon and fugue, a centuries-old craft that by now had developed such esoteric theories and procedures that some of its practitioners saw themselves as the custodians of a quasi-divine art, even as weavers of the cosmic tapestry itself. Frederick and his generation were having none of that. They denigrated counterpoint as the vestige of an outworn aesthetic, extolling instead the “natural and delightful” in music, by which they meant the easier pleasure of song, the harmonic ornamentation of a single line of melody….Composing and performing music was for [Bach] and his musical ancestors a deeply spiritual enterprise whose sole purpose…was “for the glory of God.” For Frederick the goal of music was simply to be “agreeable,” an entertainment and a diversion, easy work for performer and audience alike.

    Gaines calls this meeting the “tipping point between ancient and modern culture.” Bach represented a spiritual age, where every part of creation was infused with the glory of God. Frederick represented the enlightenment, a world without God which held fast to “a confidence in human perfectibility.”

    This meeting, incidentally, was more than shaking hands. Much more. It was a musical challenge. Frederick had, in a sense, invented a game called Stump Old Bach. When Bach entered the room to meet Frederick for the first time, Frederick seated himself at the piano and played “an impossibly long and complex musical figure and asked the old master to make a three-part fugue of it,” not an easy task, especially since this was a particularly devious melody, “constructed to be as resistant to counterpoint as possible.”

    But Bach rose to the task and improvised a three-part fugue.

    So Frederick asked for a six-part fugue.

    Bach had never written a six-part fugue for piano before. Ever. But Bach simply said he’d need time to work on it.

    The story, then, teaches the reader beautiful bits of music theory, science, history, and philosophy, while detailing the outcome of this challenge.

    Soon, I’ll have some wonderful morsels to share from the latter contents of the book.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply May 30, 2010 at 2:37 am

    Sounds like a fascinating book! I seriously heart baroque music. Do you ever listen to Georg Philipp Telemann? If he isn’t my very favorite composer, he is in the top two or three.

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