978-0-00-715658-0 / 0007156588

Evening in the Palace of Reason

by Gaines, James R.




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About the book:

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

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