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    Evening in the Palace of Reason: Even More Excerpts

    September 3, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I am almost finished reading James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason, and I still find it fascinating. My parents paid for a generous amount of musical training for me in my youth, and then I even spent a short time studying opera as a music major. All of this to say that I thought I understood music decently enough. This book has been humbling, as it has caused me to realize how shallow my understanding.

    Of course, I’m not sure it’s because I had bad teachers per se. (My last teacher was definitely my best, I think, heads above the rest.) It’s just that everything in our culture is taught mechanically. My “understanding” focused on how the instrument worked (if that–some of my early teachers focused on simply teaching me to read the music and play the song and it is amazing but true that a person can do this without grasping how music–or even the instrument–actually works). What I was never taught was the history of music–what the ancients thought to be its significance, why it was important, the effect of the Enlightenment on our view of music, and so on.

    This book is not a book for children. However, it is great reading for those of us who feel sort of dim-witted when it comes to music, and yet we’re expected to teach composer studies and pretend we know what we’re talking about. Evening in the Palace of Reason is a living history book for grownups, and it opens up a whole new window to thinking about music.

    I have posted excerpts before, and even blogged a little bit about some of the ideas in the book, but here we go again…

    First, I hadn’t realized that the Enlightenment, which I think of as a philosophical/sociological occurrence, had a major impact upon music. (You’re probably thinking that there is an extent to which music is sociological. I told you I was dim-witted sometimes!) I think it could be safely stated that we view music the way that we do as a direct result of the Enlightenment.

    One of the most persistent and provocative dialogues in the history of Western culture takes place between those who claim for art a universal, metaphysical basis and those who see it as culturally determined, the articulation of the artist’s response to a particular time and place. On one level it is clear that both positions must be correct. It seems quite obvious that a composer writes from and about a particular time and place and equally obvious that a composer’s power of expression and a listener’s empathy have a more complex system of roots.

    Directly following this paragraph, Gaines launches into an amazing description of music theory that had reached all the way from Plato’s time to Bach–and was promptly discarded by the Enlightenment musicians. This is particularly interesting to me because my basic working definition of the Enlightenment has always been formed around the idea that this was the time when the Greeks were rediscovered and had more impact on the West than prior to the fall of Constantinople. But reading Gaines would make a person think that, for all the Greek reading, the Enlightenment was more concerned with throwing off the chains of religion (and any authoritatively binding views on music along with it), which, obviously, reached its pinnacle in the work of Darwin, when we threw off even the notion of a Creator, dispensing with God and His influence upon the West once and for all (or, at least, this was the hope).


    Before the Enlightenment, music had a sort of meaning that is difficult to wrap my mind around. Gaines sets up the old view (in Bach) in antithesis to the new Enlightenment view (in Frederick the Great).

    [A]mong the Enlightenment’s least explicit legacies to us is a common understanding that there is a gulf, a space that defines a substantial difference, between spiritual and secular life. For Bach there was no such place, no realm of neutrality or middle ground…

    Later, Gaines clearly compares Bach with the Enlightenment musicians in Frederick the Great’s court:

    What most divided him from them was their motive for making music at all, of whatever sort. The new “enlightened” composer wrote for one reason and one only: to please the audience.

    We learn that Bach was deeply influenced by Martin Luther’s views on music (and life).

    Bach the religious man was simply Bach the man…As he wrote in one of his very few prose works for students, the purpose of music “can be nothing else but the glory of God and the restoration of the heart.”

    Martin Luther, we are informed, had once written something similar.

    On the other hand, we have Frederick the Great, the young Enlightenment king, who loved the new music and the new philosophy with all his heart. There was an extent to which he and his reign embodied the Enlightenment. And what is the Enlightenment? Gaines tells us

    It was the wish and the freedom to question everything, to submit everything to the rigor of reason and experiment, to take nothing on faith, and to resist the long-standing practice of using abstract principles to generate other abstract principles. In the mid-eighteenth century they knew also what they were against; the cry was to écraser l’infame!, and while the infamy to be smashed was mainly Christianity, it was more broadly the great muddle of philosophical and theological speculation.

    Enter Utopianism.

    These were heady times. Given enough time and the courage to follow empirical fact where it led, all was knowable and would be known; all diseases would be cured; all secrets of the universe would be disclosed.

    Empirical fact and reason were the new idol in town.

    Back to Bach, whom I admire now more than I ever have. It is said of his music that

    the cantatas and passions were “not intended to be works of music or art on their own, but [were meant] to carry on, by their own means, the work of Luther, the preaching of the word and nothing but the word.

    Gaines discusses a number of Bach’s pieces, including The Goldberg Variations.

    We have listened to an extravagantly various set of variations on a simple series of notes that represents a stunning demonstration of the ideal identity in variety, analogue of the indivisible presence of God in the manifold, phenomenal world, a feat that was possible only in counterpoint.

    I’m almost done with the book, and then I’ll post one more set of excerpts. I can’t help but think this is a good book for those of us teaching through Year Three of Ambleside, as the Enlightenment is touched on for the first time during this year.

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