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
From Publishers Weekly
Like contrapuntal voices in a Bach fugue, the lives of an aging composer and a young dictator are intertwined and interlocked in this absorbing cultural history. Gaines (The Lives of the Piano
), former managing editor of Time, Life
magazines, begins by recounting Frederick's abrupt summons of Bach to his court at Potsdam. Here, in an apparent effort to humiliate the old-style composer, Frederick, enamored of the new in philosophy and art, sets Bach a succession of seemingly impossible musical challenges: to each, the composer responds with unthinkable genius, culminating in his Musical Offering.
But beneath the biographical counterpoint traced by Gaines is a longer, unfinished duel between two visions of humankind--one that the sensitive and musically inclined Frederick was also fighting within himself. He had been brutally abused by his father and was increasingly committed to the cynical pursuit of military expansion; the sun gradually sets on the Prussian king, who is consumed by disillusionment, inflicting pain on himself and countless others. As night falls on the (un)enlightened despot, Bach's star begins to rise, and later, he will acquire the veneration his genius merits, his music a perennial reminder that "the light of reason can blind us to a deeper kind of illumination." Illus. not seen by PW
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