Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James R. Gaines
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gaines has written a beautiful book exploring the transition of generations during the Enlightenment. The writing itself draws the reader in, is lucid, and develops its structure beautifully. The story is that of a clash of titans who's thinking is at polar extremes. The thinking has been bred through the generational and personal history of each man.
Frederick the Great is shown in his complexities; his duality is explored in depth. His love and his hatred of his father. His complete focus on music, poetry, philosophy, and all things French. Or his complete focus on war and militarism. These lives stand in stark contrast.
Gaines shows that sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. Frederick the Great and CPE Bach eventually come to be like the parent they had such mixed emotions about. A cautionary tale for parents and children.
But the real beauty here is Gaines' love for Bach: for his music and his respect, at least, for his faith. Bach is the sympathetic character of the piece, and although Gaines shows him in his imperfections at times, his strength of character and genius are thoroughly reveled in. Bach's love, character, and genius are all directly related (at least by Bach himself) to his love of God and His glory.
As a non-reader of music and one not as conversant as I'd like to be in musical language, there were places where Gaines was explaining music and what was going on that were just difficult to read. But the sense of what he explained came through nicely. I did not stop to listen (I had to keep reading despite the entreaties to stop!) but I plan on going back and listening to as much as I can using this book as a guide.
Gaines tells us a glossy overview of that night in Frederick's palace, then delves into the history of the two men, beginning with their ancestry. He shows how Prussia was brought together, how it became a "Kingdom," how authority was held by Frederick's line. He shows how Bach's family had, for generations, been musicians and writers of music.
He leads us through Frederick's and Bach's biographies. The device he uses is alternating chapters, and I don't see how he could have done otherwise. He was able to keep the reader in both story lines simultaneously so that the conclusion where he goes more in-depth into that Evening in the Palace of Reason is explored and can be both felt and understood (sensus and ratio?) by the reader.
The final chapter helps the reader see what happens in the world since the time of Bach and Frederick the Great ... and their influence (or supposed influence) upon it.
I can't recommend this book enough. I received it on Sunday and read ravenously to finish it (at 2 a.m. this morning!) The period, the thinking, the influences on today all resonate. The idea of clash between generations is as pronounced today as then, and we can use it as an instructive on education, parenting, discourse, and, for the Christian, encouragement in the faith.
A couple of negatives (if you've gotten this far), I wish the layout had included a timeline and family trees for the main characters. A glossary of minor players would have been helpful as well. The map in the front is so strange. Everything to the south and the east is approximately useless information, and Prussia and Poland (which would have been helpful) are barely included.
I plan on adding quotes from on my blog which I'll link here.
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