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    Evening in the Palace of Reason: A Few Excerpts

    June 4, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I‘m realizing that if I wait until I am completely finished reading Evening in the Palace of Reason, there will be too much material for one post. So, I thought I’d post a few more excerpts in order to spread things out a bit.

    The book alternates with a little bit of history concerning Bach, and then a little bit of history concerning Frederick the Great. Even though they are not the same ages {Bach was, I think, at least 20 years older than Frederick the Great}, the author tries to trace the same stages of life of the two men side by side {hence my difficulty in grasping their age difference}, possibly to provide a comparison of how they were raised, what they experienced, etc.

    Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (P.S.)The history of Bach is, more than anything, a history of music. Granted, there is a lot about Bach {and the Bach musical family} within that history, but I feel I’m learning a lot more about music than I am Bach per se. With Frederick, it is almost exactly the opposite. I am learning a lot about Frederick and his {horribly abusive} relationship with his father, but not a whole lot about his music. I’m not exactly sure how he learned to play his flute, though I know that he did, and that he loved it.

    This first quote is actually in regard to Frederick the Great’s odd father, Frederick William. He was, as I stated above, wicked in his relationship with his son. He was also known to beat his subjects {in this regard, his son was treated as a subject, something rare for a crown prince}. He prided himself on building a huge military, being a competent manager of his kingdom’s funds, and he was the ultimate micromanager.

    He also liked giants {no joke}:

    Frederick William’s chief consolations in life were getting drunk and kidnapping giants {not at the same time}. He had stolen hundreds and thousands of very large, mostly moronic men for his ornamental guard, the Potsdam Grenadiers, from their homes and fields and from the armies of enemies and friends alike…At one point kidnapping the giants got a little expensive for him, so he tried breeding them instead, insisting that every large citizen of the realm marry an equally large person, but mixed results sent him back to kidnapping…


    When he was in one of his melancholy moods, which were frequent, having a few hundred of them file past him was known to be a reliable pick-me-up.

    Isn’t that weird?

    On to more interesting topics, the author traces a bit of the history of the Reformation in regard to music. Like everything else, the relationship of music to church hung in the balance during revolutionary aftermath of Luther’s 95 Theses and his subsequent translation of Scripture into the common tongue. Thankfully for cultures everywhere, Luther had an affection for music. But it was more than an affection; Luther had a theology of music:

    Luther’s idea of music as the faithful servant of theology inspired every Baroque composer’s defining challenge: to devise melodies and harmonies that could carry and dramatize meaning, or, to put it a bit oversimply, to make music speak in words.

    This is where we begin to understand the depth of counterpoint. Luther called music “sermons in sound” and counterpoint was an attempt to perfect both the art and science involved in writing and performing such sermons:

    It reinforced the Baroque composer’s notion of himself as an artisan: not as an artist “expressing” a personal idea or feeling–a conception the Baroque composer would have found entirely strange–but as a professional with an assigned task and learnable, teachable methods of doing it.

    As an aside, I thought I’d mention that I’m about to begin piano lessons with my oldest once per week. I have never taught piano before, but, like all other subjects I’ve taught the children so far, I figure I know enough to teach him {I studied piano for 13 years, but to say I am “rusty” is an understatement}. I find myself trying to discover the best way to teach piano. Many of the modern books teach piano students the way one would teach a monkey to do tricks. They do not strive for an understanding of music nor of the instrument. And yet we see here that the Baroque period considered the most difficult music on record to be “learnable” and have “teachable methods.” Those methods are discussed briefly, but they are discussed in light of a student who already has mastered the instrument{s}. I would love to discover how that instrument mastery was brought about.

    I mean, if we’re going to start piano, why not first discover the most superior way of doing it?


    Gaines goes on to tell that the Baroque composer had hundreds of terms for specific mechanisms they utilized within their music–mechanisms intended to provoke certain emotions {connected to the text, not subjectively chosen}, what they often called affections:

    Being able to move people without their having any idea how they were being moved made the Baroque composer into something of a wizard.

    I love that Gaines takes pains to explain music’s mathematical nature, and why in the world it was included in the ancient Quadrivium, the complement to the Trivium, known together as the Seven Liberal Arts. Incidentally, Gaines’ description of the Actus tragicus is enlightening, and not to be missed. I read it and again lamented the state of the arts both within and without the Church today. Here is his conclusion:

    [T]he Actus tragicus is almost unspeakably beautiful. In fact its beauty is unspeakable, though we can talk about it. We can marvel at how Bach lulls us in the deceptively simple first movement into a world of delectable pain and exquisitely broken hearts, or how the chorale “Mit Fried und Freud” emerges from Jesus’ promise of paradise like a tissue being offered to someone who is crying. We can talk about his brilliantly melodic part writing, the richness of his counterpoint, the way his music follows text the way roses follow a trellis, in perfect fidelity and submission but at not the slightest sacrifice of beauty. Finally, though, one comes up against the fact that the greatness of great music is in its ability to express the unutterable. {emphasis mine}

    I have, ever since first picking up this book, found the concept of “the music of the spheres” and its spiritual implications for the time, to be enchanting. Gaines gives details on this philosophy of music in pieces throughout his work, such as:

    In the book Walther finished before Bach arrived, he defined music as “a heavenly-philosophical and specifically mathematical science.” The quasi-scientific and quasi-cosmic view of the composer’s art was of course mainstream, certified as such by none other than Leibniz, who started in on most great metaphysical problems with his motto, “Let us calculate.” For Leibniz and in the Baroque worldview, harmony was both an ideal and a fact. Leibniz believed that everything in the universe was composed of “monads,” the smallest, indivisible units of matter, whose forms and flow in the physical world were regulated by God in accordance with the “pre-established harmony” with which He created and imbued the universe. While Bach was in Weimar, Leibniz received a letter from his foremost disciple, Christian Wolff, requesting his definition of perfection. He answered this way: “Perfection is the harmony of things…the state of agreement or identity in variety; you can even say that it is the degree of contemplatibility. Indeed, order, regularity and harmony come to the same thing…”

    Once we understand this, then we begin to understand the premise of the book {that Frederick the Great’s challenge to Bach was nothing less than a battle of worldviews} and how a rejection of counterpoint was, at the philosophical level, a rejection of the spiritual worldview that the Church had held throughout the Middle Ages, both before and after the Reformation.

    We have the Baroque composers connecting their music to the highest realities and the most noble thoughts:

    [N]owhere better than in a perpetual canon…can you hear so clearly the connection between music and celestial harmony, the canonic voices weaving in and around one another like so many orbiting planets, eternally in motion and eternally the same.

    And then we have the critics of canon and counterpoint:

    [T]the critics of counterpoint were renouncing music’s allegorical and cosmic nature, its claim to be a manifestation of the divine. To this generation, music was not to be written according to any higher theory or objective than that of sensual, aural pleasure.

    That quote sounds like the debates over church music that I’ve engaged in with others since at least 1997. At the end of the day, I must confess that the vast majority of church music I’ve heard–at many different churches, mind you–had not much higher in mind than sensual pleasure. In fact, it was authenticated by the sensual response it drew out of a person.

    If that doesn’t lend itself to acedia in the long run, I don’t know what does.

    Upon beginning this book, I really thought that Gaines was exaggerating in order to give force to his argument. Now, I’m not so sure that he’s guilty of hyperbole at all:

    Obviously, given the heat of the debate, this was an intense moment in the history of music. Theorists were full of ideas, newly able presses were there to deliver them up to a ready audience, and there was really something interesting to talk about. Music was now at the intersection of what could be thought of as a horizontal-vertical crossroads: the point at which the idea of music as a spiritual weave of independent voices moving roughly equally and together through time {polyphony} was giving way to the ideal of a sensuously beautiful and all-important melody hoisted aloft and borne forward by an undergirding of chords {homophony}. The arrival of thoroughbass accompaniment–the part played by the harpsichord and perhaps a bass viol or a similar “continuo” group–put a roof and a floor on this divided house, as it were, by giving priority to the highest and lowest voices, but it was still a house without walls, and it was on the brink of collapse.

    When I was younger, I thought music history was just about the most boring thing a person could study.

    Charlotte Mason would knowingly say I was reading the wrong books.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply The BadgerMum June 17, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    If you’re still looking for piano books for your son, I’d recommend Nancy and Randall Faber’s books.

    I really don’t know much about teaching music — my own formal musical education was severely lacking — but this is the series my children’s piano teacher uses and we’ve had fantastic results with it. My daughter’s knowledge of music theory passed my own within her second year of lessons (I studied piano for six years and I’ve always loved music, but theory never clicked for me). Now, she started lessons when she was twelve, so that accounts for some of her speed in learning.

    My mom, who is also a piano teacher (and I can’t blame her for my lousy education — we had serious personality clash *cough* when I started out, so she farmed me out to someone else, and I would not take the trouble of practicing), says that in general it’s better not to start formal lessons before third grade, I’m assuming because of the abstract/symbolic nature of reading music, but that if the child is eager to learn it’s far better to get him started than to discourage him.


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