Here's a book that could have been an important addition to my thesis bibliography. It is well researched, addresses some of the issues I need to deal with, and (perhaps most importantly) it confirms what I'd like to say about Bach. But it is written at a popular level, with a tone that almost begs not to be taken seriously. That's too bad.
Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines turns out to be an account of changing cultural and philosophical assumptions. The vehicle for his comparison, the conflict in changing times, is the famous meeting of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. “Gentlemen, old Bach is here.” (It’s a meeting, and a famous quotation, that I have already used in my thesis.) Bach represents a world view which took traditional religion seriously and composed according to philosophical principles that can be traced back to Pythagoras and Boethius. Frederick is presented as Europe’s first “enlightened” monarch, or at least as one given to the Enlightenment values. (In Germany, this era was called “Erklärung” – or a time of clarity, elucidation. It is the age of reason.)
C. P. E. Bach (Carl) was one of Frederick’s musicians. Like his brother W. Friedemann Bach, Carl was composing in the new style, the gallant style, the Empfindsamer Stil. Music was no longer to carry meaning, but to entertain, to amuse. So when Bach arrived at Frederick’s hall, he was “old Bach” the father of Carl, and “old Bach” the fussy old-school contrapuntalist who composed as if the music actually mattered; as if by composing some meaning could be transmitted to the hearers.
There is a lot of speculation in the book, which is one reason it is not suitable as a thesis reference. But to be fair, Bach was so old school that he left very little information about himself. Every Bach biography has to make informed guesses. The main question for Gaines concerns Frederick’s motive for setting a supposedly impossible challenge to Bach, and who actually wrote the challenging theme. Regardless, the facts of the case are these: Frederick sat at a pianoforte in his palace, and played a longish, meandering, chromatic melody, then asked Bach to improvise a three-part fugue on that theme. Gaines works from the assumption that this was to stymie – that is, humiliate – the great contrapuntalist and improviser. To the astonishment of all (the room was filled with dignitaries and musicians), Bach pulled it off. Frederick then asked for a six-part fugue; Bach demurred, saying he could not do justice to the “Royal Theme.”
You can see the theme here, with some information about the "Offering." And a YouTube here, though for my money it is easier to hear in one of the many settings for instruments.
Two weeks after Bach’s return to Leipzig, however, he had finished composing that six-part challenge, which we now know as the Ricercar from the “Musical Offering.” As well as writing out the 3-part improvisation, a four-movement sonata based on the theme, and ten canons which incorporate and play with the insidious theme. He had them engraved, bound, and sent to Frederick as a gift. And (I love the plausible notion which Gaines promotes) not only a gift, but a poke in the royal eye.
Twilight in the Palace of Reason traces the biographies of Frederick and Bach (who was roughly the age of Frederick’s father). Does he get the biographies correct? With Bach, it is always difficult to say. It seems to me, from what I’ve read, that he has the main features and that he makes no more conjectures than any other biographer. But a word of caution: I caught Gaines out on a couple of little details, which just made me keep grains of salt nearly as I read. [About Martin Luther, Gaines writes that while in hiding in the Wartburg Luther spent his days “teaching himself Greek and writing his world-shifting German translation of the New Testament.” (16) Well, I’m pretty sure that Luther already knew his Greek very well long before he posted his 95 Theses. Maybe he was teaching himself how to translate the Greek into German, but this unfortunate statement early in the book served to make me cautious about the facts of the case. Exhibit A in why I can’t use this in my bibliography!]
What Gaines does well is bring together two historical characters who really did meet, really did exchange words, really were from different worlds, and shaped not only their worlds but ours. It is a brilliant example of accessibly addressing history, philosophy and art. And I have to say that I think he really got Bach. The messages in the Musical Offering were “simply another declaration of faith in a lifetime of such declarations . . . Bach could not have cared whether Frederick like the Musical Offering or not, and . . . [his] indifference to Frederick’s opinion was not stubborn or arrogant but rooted in his character too deeply even to be considered a matter of principle.” (239) “Most importantly, [the Musical Offering] is a work of incomprehensibly comprehensive intellectual and sensual beauty . . . a feast of inexpressibly delicious delights.” Gaines addresses the challenge of explaining Bach’s music: “what is greatest about Bach’s work is literally impossible to talk about, a characteristic that perhaps more than any other distinguishes his music from the galant.” (240) He quotes Isaiah Berlin (from The Roots of Romanticism), who notes that works of art that are beautiful without being profound, one can describe and explain how and why they give pleasure: “But in the case of works which are profound, the more I say the more remains to be said.” (240)
And that is a fair warning as I write this thesis dealing with Bach’s music!
Within a generation of Bach’s death, and then Frederick’s, the Enlightenment project was already being rethought in light of the earthquake/tidal wave that destroyed Lisbon and later the French Revolution. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Romantics pressed forward from Reason to Feeling, but also looked back, and brought “old Bach” along with them into the modern world. Where he still challenges listeners and performers, still intrigues with his steadfast religious and philosophical worldview that took composition seriously. Here is a man who believed music means something, and whose music makes us believe that it can.
Evening in the Palace of Reason, James R. Gaines
(New York: Harper Collins, 2005)