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    Evening in the Palace of Reason: Final Excerpts

    September 21, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I‘m really done with this book. At least I think I am. Either way, I liked this book even more than I expected. Like I said initially, until this book, I thought music history was boring. I repent! I was wrong.

    Of course, James Gaines is a good crash course on Bach because he sets the man’s life up as part of a cosmic drama, a conflict between God and secularism. I had wondered how accurate Gaines was in regard to who Bach was, but I found that some of his tale was confirmed to me when I was listening to a talk by John Hodges in which he said that Bach was an old man–a man of the past, even when he was born. He was the culmination, Hodges said, of eighteen generations of work in music.

    Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (P.S.)

    And Gaines would say that, at least to some extent, the Enlightenment was the destruction of all that work.

    Well, maybe he would say that. It seems that Bach certainly thought that.

    Gaines presents Bach as a man of God, but not in some sort of overly spiritual, Gnostic sense of the phrase. Rather, he was a man of deep faith and conviction, and his life–his normal, daily life and work–flows from that starting place.

    As I explained before, Gaines framed Bach’s meeting with Frederick the Great near the end of his (Bach’s) life as a worldview confrontation of great importance. Bach’s Musical Offering, which was a written response to Frederick’s challenge, is a rebuke, a condemnation of the king and what he stands for. Gaines goes on to write:

    If this seems a foolhardy message to have sent an absolute monarch and his son’s employer, it was entirely in keeping with past practice. Bach would no more have held back, trimmed, or censored his musical and theological beliefs for Frederick than he would have shrunk from telling the young Saxon prince, grandson of his king Augustus and the son of his elector, to choose Virtue over Vice. He did not hesitate to side against his own superior in Mühlhausen, or to tell the town fathers there that God is my King, or to defy repeatedly and roundly both the consistory of Arnstadt and the council of Leipzig. If he could press his patron-elector about a student prefect, what would he draw back from addressing with a monarch he did not like? He had nothing to be afraid of, or, more precisely, what he feared was far more powerful than any monarch. (emphasis mine)

     This reminds me of the two types of fear I wrote about yesterday. Because Bach feared the Lord, he was a free man, and did not walk in such a way that he was intimidated by the power of those upon the earth.

    Gaines tells us that Bach did not set out to change Frederick (which is just as well because there is evidence that he never listened to this masterpiece), but that

    it was simply another declaration of faith in a lifetime of such declarations…Bach’s indifference to Frederick’s opinion was not stubborn or arrogant but rooted in his character too deeply even to be considered a matter of principle.

    What a truly great man! What an integrated soul! And what a great composer.

    What set Bach so far apart from other composers, though, are not specific skills and devices but the heights and depths he could reach from the security of the ground on which he stood…He could thank his ancestors for that–his stubborn father and his Anabaptist mother alike–and he could thank the writings and example of the notoriously, triumphantly intemperate Martin Luther for inspiring in him not only a love of God but, perhaps more important to his music, a sense of certainty rooted in something deeper than approval or respect.

    In our modern age of music designed to tickle the ears and appeal to the basest of sensuality, Bach’s aim in his music seem positively revolutionary.

    [Bach] was attempting to come as close as anyone had come before to the celestial music of a divinely ordered universe, the very music of Creation.

    Gaines gives a brief history of the Romantic movement in the Epilogue. It is always amazing to me, the similarity between Romanticism and Postmodernism.

    [Johann Gottfried] Herder’s contribution was to undermine the certainty that all questions are in theory answerable by reason and that truth is singular, that one truth could never contradict another. Herder did not set out to refute this fundamental notion, but his powerful assertion of the fact that different cultures have very different “truths,” all of them valid in their different contexts, inevitably had that effect. [Immanuel] Kant likewise was in no way trying to prepare the way for a movement with his Critique of Pure Reason, but the notion that order was a quality of the mind rather than the universe, that the mind was capable of many different metaphysical conceptions of the world, dashed any hope of cosmic certainty…

    After Lisbon, the French Revolution, Herder, and Kant, no one could argue for an orderly universe or for the ultimate triumph of empiricism. If only the mind knew order, and if various intellectual constructions of order could be equally valid, every human being would now be, like it or not, the maker of his own world, every person responsible for her own Creation, and the progress toward human fulfillment that had once been the project of the church would now be the province of the creative self. Every life would be a work of art, and the ultimate task of finding a source of meaning in the world would belong to the artist.

    Sound familiar? Of course the problem is that the artists ended up despairing of any real meaning to be found, the art became ugly and pointless, and so on and so forth.

    My, we could use a Bach or two these days, no?

    Bach’s music makes no argument that the world is more than a ticking clock, yet somehow manages to leave no doubt of it.

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Monica, I am thrilled that you are reading it! The only thing better than reading a good book is getting to share it with someone. 🙂

  • Reply Monica September 22, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Hi Brandy,
    Oh how inspiring your writing is!! I just picked up my copy at our library and have started on Chapter 1.
    I am already enjoying it!

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