Monday, January 12, 2009

James Gaines - Evening in the Palace of Reason - Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment

Two men who stood for two very different worldviews met in 1747: one was the musician Johann Sebastian Bach the other the king of Prussia Frederick the Great.

In his sixties, Bach illustrated the hard life of a professional musician in the XVIII century, shuffling between court appointments and working for town councils (teaching at the local school and composing), profoundly imbued in the teachings of Luther and Protestantism; Frederick was a newly appointed king (1740) in his thirties and a poster-child for Enlightenment.

James Gaines takes this meeting as a starting point to explore and intertwine the two biographies as well as the collapse of religion as the axis of everyday life and the rise of philosophy in its place.

I like music but I don’t play an instrument. Most important I don’t read music. I’d say that if you don’t have some foundations of musical theory, large chunks of “Evening in the Palace of Reason” are going to fly over your head. Counterpoint, canon, fugue, cantata, sonata, chromaticism – if these terms mean absolutely nothing to you imagine how you’ll feel confronted with notions such as passus duriusculus and quodlibet. Even if the author was able to convey these terms in a simple way (which to my mind, he doesn’t, because they aren’t simple) it’s still like being colour-blind and having extol on the richness of Impressionist painting.

Yes, many of the passages on Bach left me feeling very stupid, which is never a good feeling especially while reading something aimed at the general public. In fact, I planned to start reading more musical biographies but this one already scared me stiff. I quit.

Also, Bach never really came alive to me. He always seems distant, impenetrable and aloof. Gaines himself said in an interview (included in the book) that he was surprised in his research to find Bach “such a crab”; he also concedes he came to find him frustrating and irritating. His life was sad (he became orphan at an early age, lost many infant children, brothers and first wife) and seems to have had quite a nitpicking temperament. Not much fodder for empathy maybe, but I hoped for more.

Frederick the Great on the other hand is a very magnetic character and it’s almost impossible not to become mesmerized by his life. A hair-curling, flute-playing, French-loving, hypothetical homosexual or bisexual, his personality is so complex it’s no wonder he has inspired many biographies and enjoyed cult status with many political and literary figures (including, infamously, Hitler). His father, Frederick William, was a bully who enjoyed insulting and beating him in public. He hated everything French, effeminate and arty and soon in Frederick’s life they came to blows. To his father the most important values were those of the military life and economic strategy.

Interestingly enough after his father nearly had him executed for treason (and hanged his best friend, or to some, lover) Frederick came to follow in his father’s footsteps. In a feat of compartmentalization he managed to have both a rich, artistic court life, put into practice Enlightenment values such as freedom of speech and religious tolerance, and the most disciplined and best prepared army in Europe. Not surprisingly, he became an abuser (not a physical abuser though) regularly insulting everyone and anyone around him, just like his father before him.

On the whole this book was a slog to read, Frederick’s amusing (and tragic) episodes notwithstanding. If you have no musical training it’s probably best to skip this one.

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