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Evening in the Palace of Reason

4.02 of 5 stars 4.02  ·  rating details  ·  525 ratings  ·  88 reviews
Johann Sebastian Bach created what may be the most celestial and profound body of music in history; Frederick the Great built the colossus we now know as Germany, and along with it a template for modern warfare. Their fleeting encounter in 1757 signals a unique moment in history where belief collided with the cold certainty of reason. Set at the tipping point between the a ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published February 28th 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published 2005)
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D M Yes, there is plenty of Bach biography included, as well as insights into what drove him artistically, and musical examples beyond The Musical…moreYes, there is plenty of Bach biography included, as well as insights into what drove him artistically, and musical examples beyond The Musical Offering that are linked to his biography. It is a decent introductory resource to his life and times, and also some of his music (focusing especially on his polyphonic music, ie the chorale preludes, cantatas, and so on, and less so on his concerti, for example).

The book alternates chapters between Bach and Frederick the Great, so if the personal history about Frederick doesn't interest you, then sure, I think you could just flip through the Bach chapters.(less)

Community Reviews

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A while ago I picked up this book again with the idea of rereading it but was annoyed by something I read on the first page. This sums up my experience with the book which succeeds in tapping into my deep vein of irritation.

Perhaps this is a singular achievement, I was actually excited reading a review of this book in the paper before it came out and overjoyed to get it as a present one year, but the book didn't really work for me. I felt that there was a nice essay on the Musical Gift, perhaps
I'm a pretty big fan of this book. It does sortof amount to the grown-up equivalent of doodling "I <3 BACH" on one's Trapper Keeper for 300 pages, but Gaines makes a good argument for Bach's genius, and I've always been a big fan anyway. (Although no one will convince me that the Ricercar is a total success, man. Six voices was too many even for Bach.)

The history is solid and the story is good, but what really elevates this for me is Gaines' descriptions of some of Bach's work. It's very diff
Aubrey Amundson
The most insightful “program notes” on the music of J.S. Bach I have yet read. Mr. Gaines offers further understanding in the language of music, cosmological harmony, number theory, musical code, etc. specifically as it relates to the works of the greatest composer in the history of Western music, J.S. Bach. Every piece of Bach's music proclaims a sermon to the glory of God. He wrote music commissioned by pagan monarchs with obvious motifs that declare “there is a law higher than any king’s whic ...more
This was a fascinating way to look at the dawn of the Enlightenment and the setting of the Baroque, or what the author refers to as, "the tipping point between ancient and modern culture." Gaines uses Frederick the Great and J.S. Bach to, rather gently I imagine, define and contrast the two opposing philosophies. We are made witnesses to a deliberate clash, set up by Frederick the Great, to both humiliate J.S. Bach and vanquish the age he represents. But Bach turns the moment on its head and, I ...more
John Gardner
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' hel ...more
Very engaging story about the interaction between Bach and Frederick the Great. Gaines presents Bach as the quintessentially last pre-modern man while Frederick is representative of the Enlightenment. There is some solid music theory to help understand Bach.
Feb 05, 2013 Anna rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2013
This is music history the way it should be written. Maybe if I'd been able to read this back when I was taking piano lessons as a teenager, I would have had a greater enjoyment and appreciation for those Bach Preludes and Fugues I had to play that I thought were pretty boring. :) I was intrigued by the distinction he made several times between "pretty" music and "beautiful" music - something to ponder as I listen. The personal and political history was fascinating, too, if sometimes rather distu ...more
Gustav Dinsdag
This book I read a couple of years ago. It was one of the first I read on the history of classical music. One has to know the biographies of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart to begin with, of course. Especially if, in my case, one has committed oneself to teaching the basics of this history. I got half a year of prep-time to read up on the subject.

Evening in the Palace of Reason tells the story, not only of the making of a renowned masterpiece, but also of the figure of Frederic the Great. It recount
May 09, 2007 Wojelah rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in cultural history
Shelves: nonfiction
Extremely - and surprisingly readable; I found myself reaching for (and ordering) CDs to get a better handle on the music involved. Bach and Frederick the Great turn into well-drawn characters, representing changing social ideas and belief structures without turning into caricatures. One of the best things I've read lately.
This book was definitely not a light read, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning the history of the time. I stumbled across this book because it was the only book in our library system about Frederick the Great of Prussia. It was interesting to learn about this era when the children of the Age of Enlightenment pushed against the grandfathers of the Classical Period and the effect that had on how we live our lives today. I was fascinated to read about Bach's genius and thrilled to realize that my gra ...more
Douglas Dalrymple
In this rather light but entertaining history, Gaines gives us dueling biographies of J.S. Bach and Frederick the Great – the one as representative of the fading Baroque and the other as champion of the Enlightenment. The story turns on their sole encounter in 1747, when Frederick summoned Bach to his palace and, in a very public way, gave him an impromptu musical assignment that was meant to embarrass him. Bach turned the challenge on its ear and instead delivered the Prussian monarch a repudia ...more
Patrick Tai
This is a wonderful book. It is written in an easy style for the laymen in European history (circa 1720-s) as well as in Western music. It is just fine for me. I enjoyed the merging reference to significant events of that period, from the Thirty Years War, scientific progress by Newton and Boyle, as well as the gratifying finale of the Baroque period in Western music. I especially enjoyed sections on the significance of Bach's trip to see Frederick the Great: not only did Bach improvised on Fred ...more
Katrina Zartman
" The beauty of music, of course, what sets it apart from virtually every other human endeavor, is that it does not need the language of ideas; it requires no explanation and offers none, as much as it may say. Perhaps that is why music coming from a world where the invisible was palpable, where great cosmic forces played their part everywhere and every day, could so deeply move audiences so far from Bach's time. Whether in the thrilling exuberance of his polyphonic Credo or in the single voice ...more
Gaines tells a lively story of the lives of J. S. Bach and Frederick the Great which is great fun to read, but which also has a very serious point. Frederick represents the Enlightenment; Bach the Reformation; two clashing worldviews.

Here's a snippet which says well what the book is about:

"Perhaps most important, the work [Bach's Musical Offering:] addresses the point of greatest conflict between these two men and one of the thorniest of all the issues raised by the Enlightenment...: the role of
James R. Gaines is a former editor of Time and People magazines - I found his writing style captivating.

Synopsis: Frederick the Great was a music-loving warrior king who took pride in being on the cutting edge of Enlightenment philosophy - the idea that man's reason can solve all mysteries and religious faith has no role. Bach, a Baroque musician and devout Lutheran, was in his 60's when he was summoned to Frederick's court, and his life and philosophy were in direct opposition to the king's. Ba
This is one of my favorite books ever, it is beautifully written; however, it highly technical in terms of music theory as it pertains to J.S. Bach. This is wonderful for musicians, but non-musicians can skim through the descriptions of the more technical information and will enjoy the story just as much. C.P.E. Bach, J.s. Bach's son, was the chief keyboardist in Frederick the Great's private chamber music group, Frederick, of course, had been beaten by his father for his musical tendencies and ...more
As a musical illiterate I spent the better half of Evening in the Palace of Reason referring to the glossary. To eek out the marrow of this novel you need to be able to read sheet music, which I cannot, but despite my musical ineptitude I was able to appreciate the message of Bach's musical brilliance and the shocking lack of adulation he received during his lifetime. The convergence and paralleling between Bach's life and Frederick the Great's was interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed learning a ...more
I found this one in a wonderful independent book store in the quaint little downtown of Davis, California while exploring the downtown with my daughters Dagny and Emmy. It appealed to me for two reasons: I have read about or casually studied "classical" music for years (and enjoy learning about the composers), and secondly, the more I research and look for my own family history, the more I want to learn about German history. I am half German, my father being fully German from immigrants to Frank ...more
Wow--what a book. Bach, Frederick the Great, the Enlightenment, the metaphysical underpinnings of Baroque music, and the Musical Offering. It's the kind of unbelievable history that seems more like something we wish might have happened but never did: Frederick the Great, a rock star of the Enlightenment, orders JS Bach, the Fifth Evangelist and the last of the Baroque contrapunctal masters, to visit him at his palace. He then attempts to humiliate the old man by demanding an improvised three-par ...more
Though I enjoyed this book very much, it turned out to be a bit lighter than I'd anticipated--a great introduction to the history of the period and the biographies of Bach and Frederick the Great, but I was hoping for more of the musical theory behind Bach's composition for Frederick. Nonetheless, Gaines offers some stirring commentary on the background to certain pieces that really opened them up for me (especially Cantata 106, the "Actus Tragicus", one of the most beautiful compositions I have ...more
Robin Damgaard
Jan 27, 2008 Robin Damgaard rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who like stuff
Recommended to Robin by: Aaron
An interesting, sometimes quite amusing book about the very separate worlds of Frederick and JS Bach and the brief occasion they met. Really, the book is more about the Age of Faith versus the Age of Enlightenment. The author's insights aren't terribly profound and his style is sometimes surprisingly flippant, but then some of the figures he writes about are a bit difficult to take seriously. (Did you know that King Augustus II had one legitimate heir and 350+ illegitimate ones, sometimes father ...more
This seemed very promising from the first few pages. The book, as the title suggests, deals with the meeting of two 17th century German geniuses: Johann Sebastian Bach, arguably the greatest composer in history and the controversial Fredrick the Great, one of the first Enlightenment monarchs.
Gaines opens with the meeting of the two at the Prussian King's palace, in which Frederick -possibly maliciously- asks Bach to perform a 6 voice fugue of a complex melody (The Royal Theme), in front of an au
Gaines lovingly portrays Bach as having deep and simple roots in music and townslife and sympathetically portrays Frederick as burdened by his family's military and royal occupations. Through these two well defined personalities we get an engaging overview of the Romantic Era as represented by Bach is seen as giving way to the Enlightenment as represented by Frederick the Great.

The text is light, at some points it's like the author is having coffee with you. At other points there is analysis of

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
The other John
The thing I love about history is that it's like an onion. Or a cake. Or an onion cake. No, scratch that last one. What I mean is that it has layers. You can get learn the basic outline of a historical period--the names, dates and places--and go on your merry way. Later you can return and get some more details in the story, learn about the people and cultures behind the basic facts. And if the era really grabs you, you can dig deeper and deeper into the events, examining how the the various peop ...more
A. J. McMahon
This book is well written and researched, but its major fault is that Gaines fails in the end to get to the point of what it was all about in the end. What was the real difference between Bach and Frederick? The key to Bach seems to have been his almost esoteric approach to music and this is what Gaines fails to bring into his story. If he had succeeded in this, his book would be a five star classic for the ages.
I knew very little about the life of either of these men, and had no idea they had converged. Gaines' style is enjoyable, and I thought he had some interesting insights into the changing philosophical posture of that time, and how Frederick the Great and Bach represented the two sides of the widening divide. Some of the commentary on Bach's music was far too technical for me to grasp it, but that didn't really impair my ability to grasp his point about how those technical intricacies gave a glim ...more
This was a breezy, but not skimpy, read on history. This is a book that takes storytelling and applies it to historical narrative and Gaines does a fine job. If you are interested in the intersection between the clash of worldviews around the time of the Enlightenment, then this book would serve you well, or if you are interested in Bach or Frederick the Great, pick it up and enjoy.
David Koerner
A great read - brings simultaneous bios of Bach and Frederick vividly to life at time in which the enlightenment was barely beginning to take hold in Germany. Bach in a fist fight with his trumpeter. Frederick watching from jail as his closest companion (gay lover?) was beheaded. Drama interwoven with changes in musical style that attended the beginning of the age of reason.
Charles Freeman
I could easily understand why some would find the book wanting. It can seem shallow or trivial at times, and attempts to discuss music are often groan-worthy. Still, it manages to make its thesis seem relatively plausible, although JS Bach's son CPE could likely sue for slander were he still living.
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James R. Gaines is an American journalist, author, and international publishing consultant who is best known as a magazine editor. He was the chief editor of Time, Life, and People magazines between 1987 and 1996 and subsequently the corporate editor of Time Inc.

Gaines is a graduate of the McBurney School in New York City and the University of Michigan. His career in magazine journalism started at
More about James R. Gaines...
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