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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an extraordinary experience
One of the great books of a lifetime, a masterpiece of soaring imagination, history, and invigorating writing. More Bach comes through in these luminous pages of a one-night encounter with Frederick the Great than is found in a dozen books of Bach 'scholarship'. While the book's premise is Frederick's challenge to 'old Bach' that resulted in his composing 'A Musical...
Published on January 11, 2007 by LuelCanyon

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67 of 76 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and vivid, but questionable
Gaines uses a historical curiosity - the encounter between Fredrick the Great and JS Bach - as a launching point into a wonder filled voyage of discovery into the world of the Enlightenment. Bach and Fredrick represent two opposing philosophical currents in the Enlightenment whose positions are now reversed as Post Modernism marches relentlessly against the remains of...
Published on April 14, 2006 by Sight Reader


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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an extraordinary experience, January 11, 2007
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This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
One of the great books of a lifetime, a masterpiece of soaring imagination, history, and invigorating writing. More Bach comes through in these luminous pages of a one-night encounter with Frederick the Great than is found in a dozen books of Bach 'scholarship'. While the book's premise is Frederick's challenge to 'old Bach' that resulted in his composing 'A Musical Offering', Gaines' exploration of Bach's mind, life, faith, and music is so attuned, and wondrously rendered in such engaging prose that any plot artifice is subsumed in a dire, burning truth that never falters. It's a book of such pleasure and vision one ends recharged with love for 'old Bach'. One example - chapter 6 (The Sharp Edges of Genius) details Bach's funeral cantata 'Actus tragicus' (BVW 106) and offers a cogent summation of its musical parts, but ultimately provides an unforgettable rumination on the godly essence of Bach's music, indeed of those divine dimensions of human experience we hunger for. I've gifted it to many friends, each in turn confirmed my trust with their own experience of wonder. Everything's here - Bach's music, his towering mastery, orneriness and orderliness, his divine business, and a profound look into our common spiritual history. Evening in the Palace of Reason will change your life. No other recommendation truly suffices.
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67 of 76 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and vivid, but questionable, April 14, 2006
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Sight Reader "sight_reader" (Fort Collins, CO United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
Gaines uses a historical curiosity - the encounter between Fredrick the Great and JS Bach - as a launching point into a wonder filled voyage of discovery into the world of the Enlightenment. Bach and Fredrick represent two opposing philosophical currents in the Enlightenment whose positions are now reversed as Post Modernism marches relentlessly against the remains of scientific certainty.

The breadth of material is staggering, ranging from music to politics to philosophy to religion. Those (like myself) who thought this era to be a stilted period of polite powdered wigs will forever have their prejudices reversed by the passions that govern these very accessible pages. As an introduction to the period and as an incentive to learn more, one could not ask for a better book.

However, I must caution that this book should not be used as anything more than a way to stir interest in the period, for this is a history that does not seem to be seasoned by discipline. Following in the mold of books like "1421: The Year China Discovered America", Gaines seems to sacrifice professionalism and objectivity in favor of accessibility and passion. As little as I know about the period, it is hard to miss claims he makes that seem quite biased. When he amplifies the emptiness of the Enlightenment by claiming that Fredrick the Great's greatest years were BEHIND him before the Seven Years War even started, even a neophyte like me cringes. When he laments that Mozart's music is "missing something" when compared to Bach's, surely he must be aware that there's a substantial musical population that would say just the opposite (especially if you imagine Bach dying in his 30's). This book has many suspiciously categorical statements and unsubstantiated theories that fire off all sorts of warning signs in my head, but my grounding in this period simply isn't strong enough to bring any of them to justice. Suffice to say that any person that covers subjects ranging from Luther to Descartes to Hapsburgs to harmony is going to be an amateur in SOMETHING, and yet Gaines rarely predicates any of his assertions with academic caution or humility.

So the history may be questionable, but with that caveat in mind, he does succeed in his most important challenge: to make accessible a world that is far more colorful and wonderous than most of us could have imagined.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Enlightenment Gem, February 18, 2007
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Steve R (Colorado, United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
You can go to Peter Gay's two volumes on 'The Enlightenment' for a more exhaustive study, or you can try Norman Hampson's slimmer though comprehensive volume (also, simply, 'The Enlightenment'), and while both shine brightly from sheer size and scope, neither sparkle as much as Gaines' little gem, 'Evening in the Palace of Reason.' Little need be added to the more extensive reviews by others who have posted them here, but perhaps one overlooked point bears mentioning.

To whit, Gaines' excellent demonstration of the contradiction, by way of juxtaposition, of the standard views of the "traditionalist" J.S. Bach and the "progressive" Frederick the Great. Of course, classic interpretations of both men (the conservative composer vs. the first-ever 'enlightened' ruler) break down under the demonstrable complexity of their respective characters, and in the end Gaines clearly and cleverly reveals the counterpoints apparent in each: the avant garde, even radically political elements in Bach's music and the traditional, tried-and-true despotism employed by Frederick. Bach and Frederick, in other words, each contained aspects of traditional and the modern, as well as 'ratio' and 'sensus' (reason and faith, for Gaines)--but in differing proportions according to their station and their art. They were each of them perfect examples, and living contradictions, of the age they helped to define, and has since defined them.

To hinge, if only for a few hundred pages, essential elements of the Enlightenment on one musical composition (Bach's Musical Offering), is to reveal a jewel hidden in the historically messy pile that is the "age of reason." Bravo.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting, but slow in parts., February 1, 2007
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This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
I felt like I wanted this to be a kids' book, with the play-along CD to go with it. I wanted to hear and compare the types of music being discussed, to clearly understand the distinction between fugue and canon, counterpoint and the newfangled 'sensory' music of the Enlightenment! I suppose just my admission that this book made me want to keep learning about music and history means maybe I should have given it five stars?? All in all, a very enjoyable read. It's going to be the book of the month for our community book club as well, so we'll see how it's received there.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How grim the Great! -- How beautiful the serious, November 8, 2013
By 
Steve V (Norman, Oklahoma) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
The converging histories of Frederick and Sebastian take up most of the book, but the two lines are not equivalent: Frederick's story serves mostly as a foil to Sebastian and his music. A few pieces of music are treated in detail.

The writing is accessible and --well, flavorful-- but it is by no means always pleasant. (Did a muckraker let fall a few malodorous drops into this stew of cultural history?) And readers might wonder occasionally whether the author was peering into a 20th century crystal ball to find out why people think and act as they do.

The perspective of the author becomes more explicit near the end. He does not take into account that music Bach wrote or adapted for religious use, is still used by some people more or less as it was intended. Such listeners and participants ask God to lead them in worship and devotion through the musical expression of words in the text.

It was worth reading, but I won't hurry back to that shelf.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bleating goat, September 13, 2011
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This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) .... (Says Wikipedia).
Here is what the back cover of this book says:
(Bach) `created ...the most celestial and profound body of music in history; Frederick the Great built the colossus we now know as Germany... Their fleeting encounter in 1757 signals a unique moment in history where belief collided with the cold certainty of reason.'

Awesome, isn't it? Fritz met Bach 7 years after Bach died. Truly a unique moment.
And Fritz built Germany, though he himself died in 1786. That was 85 years before the Hohenzollern's Germany was founded by Bismarck in 1871, during the reign of Wilhelm I, who was Fritz' nephew's son's nephew, or something like that.
The cold certainty of reason can get a lot done.

This is all not the author's fault, so far. The book is generally well worth reading: an entertaining `double biography' of the two men, who were not really meant for each other. Different worlds and different times, despite their overlapping. Bach's Thuringia and Saxony, his music and his religion were not suitable for Fritz' Prussia. Their meeting happened in 1747, when one of them was nearly on his way out (3 more years for him), and the other still relatively fresh in his career as king.

Still: Gaines shouldn't have said that the Hohenzollern had ruled Germany for 300 years by then. No, they hadn't. They had started with ruling a small patch in the patchwork, and succeeded in growing their patch to a substantial size inside the total carpet. Germany as an entity didn't exist during Fritz' time. His Prussia had grown to challenge the leadership of the Habsburgs inside the Holy Roman Empire though.
(The book has a not altogether bad map at the contents section. The map could have been improved if the edges hadn't been cut off, which would have allowed to see the neighbors, specifically the `original' Prussia. Isn't it a joke that the book's map has `Prussia' outside its frame and needs to place an arrow to the NE?)

I feel more competent about Prussia and the Hohenzollern than about Bach's music. I tend to believe what Gaines writes about Bach, but I am often a little skeptical about his Fritzology. This book was recommended to me by a bassoonist. That supports my trust in its musicology, and it makes me chuckle at the story of young Bach's fist fight with the bassoon student who was offended when Bach said that his bassoon sounded like a bleating goat. You must have forgotten that one, Maestro!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Biographies In Counterpoint, December 23, 2008
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This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
In a deft stroke, James Gaines gives us in this book biographies of the great Bach and the arguably great Frederick of Prussia. The main strength of the work is in the way he gives flesh to the two protagonists by clearly contrasting their worldviews and spicing up his narrative with vivid details. The tone is never dull and the book is easy to read (I finished reading it within a day.). In a book of this scope, one cannot hope for exhaustiveness, and it is to Gaines' credit that he never attempts for that. There are small parts where his writing seems geared to please a "magazine reader," as when he adds wry comments (like "we'll soon get over this," when describing arcane ideas of counterpoint, but as a whole the book delivers on its premise. It will leave you wanting to know more about Bach and Frederick. There are only a handful of books that can do that.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Most Riveting Biography I've Read, June 2, 2012
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This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
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: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (P.S.) 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!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging contrapuntal biographies, July 19, 2011
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This review is from: Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Paperback)
James R. Gaines cleverly juxtaposes and interweaves the life stories of composer J. S. Bach and Prussian king Frederick the Great to depict a world in transition--from the Age of Faith to the Enlightenment (and subsequently, the Romantic and Modern eras). The point of contact upon which this dual biography pivots is a visit (make that "a respsonse to a summons") in which the elderly composer is invited to the young king's palace where he is given a challenge to extemporize a musical composition upon a theme presented by the King. The result is a masterpiece known as "Musical Offering" (BWV 1079). Gaines does an excellent job of bringing history to life, giving modern readers just enough detail to communicate a sense that the story he's recounting actually took place in another era when different customs and values held sway. (The many deaths of close family members that Bach lived through growing up and in his early adulthood are unfathomable today in developed nations; and the psychological and physical abuse prince Frederick suffered at the hands of his father would be classified as criminal.) Gaines, likewise, does an excellent job of concisely explaining musical terms and concepts. EVENING IN THE PALACE OF REASON is a lively story well told. Gaines provides a very helpful selected bibliography and discography. If you're like me, you'll want to intersperse your reading of this book with careful listenings to Bach's choral and instrumental works. I recommend having at least Bach: The Art of Fugue; Musical Offering on hand.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evidently A Sadly Neglected Book, January 25, 2008
By 
John A. Van Devender "Gadfly" (Millersville, MD United States) - See all my reviews
I bought this book as a "bargain" because it looked interesting. I was most pleasantly surprised to find an articulate, informed and evidently very knowledgeable introduction to the lives of two fascinating individuals - Sebastian Bach ("The" Bach) and Fredrick the Great. Gaines' prose is informal and "homey" with an occasional "aside" where he speaks directly to the reader. It is a bit jarring to have him mention to me during a very complex description of counterpoint music to "not worry, this will be over soon." I suppose this is his way of acknowledging that in a Post-Modern culture the reader has to constantly have his feathers smoothed. Other than that, Gaines' prose is lucid and direct.

What Gaines does very well is introduce us to the lives of these two very great but very different individuals. Along the way he illumines the age in which they lived, reminding us of its vagaries as well as its temper. It was the day when the great question of truth was addressed at every level. Does one find "truth" by being conformed to the harmonies of the universe through its self-evident symmetry (Bach, counterpoint music, etc. all the way back to Pythagoras) or does one rise to "truth" in the open ended quest for answers in a world of infinite possibilities, being stirred by passion and reflecting it in expression (Fredrick, the incipient romantic style, etc. all the way back to Aristotle). Quite frankly I had no intimation that such a philosophical tone had been consciously pursued in the underpinnings of Baroque music although I have long admired it. I am indebted to Gaines for this insight.

Further, the historical figure of Fredrick the Great is worth this books reading alone. Gaines' understands him well and his treatment is even handed when such fairness with such a figure is difficult to maintain. Fredrick is one of those men that we feel compelled to justify or castigate. Even to this day his controversial nature moves people to take sides (much like Andrew Jackson in our own history. Gaines does a good job.

I think this book has an awful lot to commend it and so - five stars though I admit that I am insufficiently acquainted with the more technical aspects of the book to affirm their accuracy. I would trust other specialists to that task.
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