Book Review: Evening in the Palace of Reason

“Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment” by James R. Gaines

On the evening of May 7, 1747, two of the greatest living geniuses of the time met for the first and only time. When Johann Sebastian Bach, the Baroque master of contrapuntal music, visited the court of Frederick “the Great”, the dynamic King of Prussia, the immediate result was an unforgettable live performance on the pianoforte, followed two weeks later by a grand composition dedicated to the King. Bach’s Musicalisches Opfer is a true masterpiece on a number of levels, for which Gaines’ helpful instruction leads to a much greater appreciation, but the larger story is the clash of worldviews which led to this historic encounter in the first place.

Evening in the Palace of Reason begins with the events of that fateful night, but then backs up to show the broader context. This dual biography details the birth, childhood, education, and adult lives of the two protagonists, with chapters alternating between the two. Their lives couldn’t have been much more different! Bach, the staunch Lutheran from a working class family, had little in common (besides strong-willed obstinacy and a love of music) with the enlightened noble, a bisexual and an atheist who admired the great philosophers of his day.

As Gaines weaves the life stories of these two fascinating men together (another reviewer called the book a “contrapuntal biography”, which I think is a fantastic description), we begin to see the inevitable confrontation between mutually exclusive philosophical viewpoints on the world. Indeed, the author presents this evening as an epitome of the clash between two eras: the “Age of Faith” and the “Age of Reason”.

As the book reaches a climax in the final — and longest — chapter, we find ourselves back in Frederick’s palace as he attempts to humiliate Bach by asking him to improvise a fugue (a type of music the King despised) based on a melody specifically constructed to be resistant to contrapuntal imitation. But this time, unlike in the beginning of the book, we realize that there is much more at stake than the pride of two very proud men. This is a battle of wits between men of opposite convictions, each absolutely convinced that the other is terribly wrong, and determined to expose the errors of his opponent’s judgment to the gathered crowd.

Though this book is not nearly as in-depth as many other biographies available for both protagonists, it is easy to imagine what it must have been like to be in that room that night. It is easily the most riveting biography I’ve ever read — and not just because I am already a huge admirer of J.S. Bach! These two men are both fascinating, and Gaines tells the story of their evening together very well.

One suggestion that will greatly enhance your enjoyment of this book: Be sure that you have access to good recordings of Bach’s music. In a pinch, YouTube will suffice. Gaines discusses a great many of Bach’s compositions, and I found that listening to a piece after reading about it — and then re-reading the section after listening — made the entire experience much more rewarding.

My final comment has little to do with the book itself, and is rather a minor editing issue with the edition I purchased (the 2006 paperback published by Harper Collins). The very first thing I noticed when I picked up the book was the blurb on the back cover, which states that their meeting occurred in the year 1757, which is seven years after Bach’s death! The one thing that Jim Lotz made absolutely certain that every student in his music history class at Tennessee Tech University would remember — even if we remembered nothing else — were the dates of the musical periods! Twelve years later, the fact that the Baroque period ended in 1750 with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach is still cemented in my brain… which just goes to underscore the point Gaines was making about Bach being the last of his era. Again, this doesn’t reflect at all on the content of the book or on its author, but it would have been nice to see the editing match the effort that went into the material between the covers.

Buy this book. You won’t be disappointed!

3 comments on “Book Review: Evening in the Palace of Reason

  1. Thank you for drawing my attention to this work and for your reminder of enhancing listening thru more informed attention not to mention imagination as each reader can envision these two men’s interaction.

  2. […] Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, by James R. Gaines — This dual biography on two of the most fascinating figures in European history is a must-read for musicians, and a strong recommendation for anyone else. Riveting from cover to cover. My review is here. […]

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