Evening in the Palace of Reason

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9780007156580: Evening in the Palace of Reason

One Sunday evening in the spring of his seventh year as king, as his musicians were gathering for the evening concert, a courtier brought Frederick the Great his usual list of arrivals at the town gate. As he looked down the list of names, he gave a start.

"Gentlemen," he said, "old Bach is here." Those who heard him said there was "a kind of agitation" in his voice.

So begins James R. Gaines's Evening in the Palace of Reason, setting up what seems to be the ultimate mismatch: a young, glamorously triumphant warrior-king, heralded by Voltaire as the very It Boy of the Enlightenment, pitted against a devout, bad-tempered composer of "outdated" music, a scorned genius in his last years, symbol of a bygone world. The sparks from their brief conflict illuminate a pivotal moment in history.

Behind the pomp and flash, Prussia's Frederick the Great was a tormented man. His father, Frederick William I, was most likely mad; he had been known to chase frightened subjects down the street, brandishing a cane and roaring, "Love me, scum!" Frederick adored playing his flute as much as his father despised him for it, and he was beaten mercilessly for this and other perceived flaws. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape, Frederick was forced to watch as his best friend and coconspirator was brutally executed.

Twenty years later, Frederick's personality having congealed into a love of war and a taste for manhandling the great and near-great, he worked hard and long to draw "old Bach" into his celebrity menagerie. He was aided by the composer's own son, C. P. E. Bach, chief keyboardist in the king's private chamber music group. The king had prepared a cruel practical joke for his honored guest, asking him to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme so fiendishly difficult some believe only Bach's son could have devised it. Bach left the court fuming. In a fever of composition, he used the coded, alchemical language of counterpoint to write A Musical Offering in response. A stirring declaration of everything Bach had stood for all his life, it represented "as stark a rebuke of his beliefs and worldview as an absolute monarch has ever received." It is also one of the great works of art in the history of music.

Set at the tipping point between the ancient and the modern world, the triumphant story of Bach's victory expands to take in the tumult of the eighteenth century: the legacy of the Reformation, wars and conquest, and the birth of the Enlightenment. Most important, it tells the story of that historic moment when Belief -- the quintessentially human conviction that behind mundane appearances lies something mysterious and awesome -- came face to face with the cold certainty of Reason. Brimming with originality and wit, Evening in the Palace of Reason is history of the best kind, intimate in scale and broad in its vision.

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Review:

In his lively history, Evening in the Palace of Reason, James R. Gaines sets two remarkable--and remarkably different--historical figures on a collision course toward a single night in Potsdam in 1747: the composer Johann Sebastian Bach--"old Bach," as he was called then at the age of 62--and the still-young Prussian king, Frederick II, already known as Frederick the Great after less than a decade on the throne. Having long employed old Bach's son Carl--a more celebrated composer at the time--Frederick summoned the father from Leipzig and challenged him, with an offhanded cruelty, to a public compositional puzzle designed to humiliate the great wizard of the waning art of counterpoint.

Gaines is a pleasant guide through the incestuous patchwork monarchies of middle Europe, with a breezy tone fitting for a former editor of People. ("The Hohenzollerns were a funny bunch," he writes at one point.) But he is also a passionately learned student of the intricacies of the era's musical theories and the secret languages of its coded compositions. (One is thankful that he and his publisher resisted calling the book The Bach Code.) Gaines leads up to his pivotal encounter with a double biography of his two principals, told in alternating chapters. Bach's mostly homebound life, which left few documents for historians, is often no match for the grotesque dramas of Frederick's parallel story, which climaxes when his father the king forces Frederick to witness the execution of his best friend (and perhaps lover). The weight that keeps the two stories in balance is the genius of Bach's work, particularly the masterful Musical Offering that he composes in response to the king's challenge. The encounter itself may not bear the full burden that Gaines wants to give it, as a clash between two epochal worldviews, the faith of the Reformation versus the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but the two life stories he so vividly describes make the journey there more than worthwhile. --Tom Nissley

About the Author:

A longtime journalist and the former editor of several magazines, including Time and People, James R. Gaines lives with his family in Paris.

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