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3 May 2017

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Review- Gaines

James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason. (London: Fourth Estate,  2005).
reviewed by Madeline Goold

James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason is an informative and fascinating read. He takes one evening, May 7th 1747, as a pivotal moment in the history of Western music and makes it the focus of his book. J.S Bach was 62 when he attended a summons to the palace of Frederick the Great of Prussia at Potsdam. Voltaire’s 28 year old “Philosopher King” presented “Old Bach” with a sequence of 21 notes (possibly provided by Bach’s second son Carl Philipp Emanuel, harpsichordist to Frederick’s Court) and invited him to improvise a three-part fugue. Bach more than met the challenge, whereupon Frederick pressed him to do the same again for six voices. Not surprisingly, Bach demurred and, nettled by his discomfiture, he spent the next three weeks composing sixteen variations on the king’s theme. There is no record of Frederick’s reaction to The Musical Offering nor any evidence that he ever played it.

Gaines sees the incident as a musical expression of the confrontation between the old belief in Divine Order and a new rationality that was at the heart of the 19th-century Enlightenment; and sets it against the broader historic background. As a young man Frederick was beaten, abused and finally broken by a cruel father. Music was his only consolation, and Gaines gives us a vivid portrait of a red-robed Frederick, playing his flute and powdering his hair, who learned to hide his sensitive side, eventually becoming as hardened as his father --an old warrior king whose belief in the supremacy of man’s reason left him cynical, empty and alone. He also shows us the harsh school that formed Bach: passed over for inferiors by unresponsive civic and ecclesiastic employers and treated as a lackey by petty princes. It is a picture of an angry, frustrated man underlining revealing passages in his Bible commentary.

Gaines sees the evening at Potsdam as a crossroads in Western music. On one side was a centuries old tradition –the system of learned counterpoint of which Bach was the greatest exponent. We are given examples and explanations of the structure of canon, fugue and counterpoint, written in plain language that the non-musician can understand. On the other side, the new rationalists wanted charming, melodious, and above all, entertaining music: Some examples and similar explanations here would have been helpful.

The conflict between the music of belief and the music of reason, sensus versus ratio, was not clear cut. I had trouble reconciling Gaines’ reference to “the cold logic of counterpoint,” with his assertion that its practitioners saw themselves as guardians of a quasi-divine tradition; and why was the galant and Empfindsamer Stil the music of rationality? The feeling I got from the book was that Bach’s system was the more rational!

Whatever the underlying philosophical conflict, the instrument on which Bach was invited to improvise, a Silbermann fortepiano from the king’s collection, had rather more effect on changing styles of music in the second half of the eighteenth century than the half page mention in this book might suggest. Nonetheless, Gaines builds his ingenious idea to the marvellous conclusion of the book’s last half sentence: “… Bach’s music makes no argument that the world is more than a ticking clock, yet somehow manages to leave no doubt of it.”

©Early Music Media Limited, 2011.