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Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment

4.04  ·  Rating Details ·  623 Ratings  ·  98 Reviews
In one corner, a godless young warrior, Voltaire’s heralded ‘philosopher-king’, the It Boy of the Enlightenment. In the other, a devout if bad-tempered old composer of ‘outdated’ music, a scorned genius in his last years. The sparks from their brief conflict illuminate a turbulent age.

Behind the pomp and flash, Prussia's Frederick the Great was a tormented man, son of an a
Published February 26th 2010 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)
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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
This is a beautifully written book that will take you through the Age of Enlightenment in the time of Frederic the Great and J.S. Bach. Evening in the Palace of Reason is one of the best history books I have read. James R. Gaines focuses on these two historical figures and how they came to meet each other. Bach was asked to write a fugue for Frederic the Great. This book focuses on he lives of Bach and Frederic the Great with vivid descriptions of the time period and historical figures. I love t ...more
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
Apr 05, 2010 Betsy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Saif Ali
Mar 08, 2015 Saif Ali rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting work of popular history. Much of the music theory was lost on me save what I remembered from high school Academic Decathlon, but it is the constant juxtaposition that defines this book's worth. Gaines compares Bach and Frederick both as individuals and as representatives of the collision of their respective eras, living contradictions in a time when faith and reason - or as Gaines says, sensus and ratio - are beginning to battle one another.
Philip Tadros
Jun 07, 2016 Philip Tadros rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading this book was a journey that started off slowly. But soon the pace picked up, and my excitement along with it. I had never listened to Bach’s music before, but Gaines’ description of the musical motifs and the theology behind “Actus Tragicus” (BMV 106) begged me to stop reading and start listening. I don’t regret doing that! Bach is obviously some kind of musical genius, but he is also theologically wise and astute, a lover of the Bible, an heir of Luther. His music is rich and deep. As ...more
John Gardner
Jun 02, 2012 John Gardner rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 15, 2015 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 27, 2016 Jesse rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: education, history, music, art
I read this in preparation for teaching Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. The book is a wonderful and engaging look at Bach’s life, giving the context and historical background surrounding the time when Bach meets Frederick the Great. This is a work that is written for the popular audience so Gaines keeps it moving and engaging. Some readers have criticized Gaines for oversimplifying the material but anyone going into this book should already know that this is a simplified work. Gaines is attempting ...more
Gaines does a lot in this book, and does it in a very engaging style.

His story turns around the meeting between Frederick the Great, noted flautist and tyrant, and "Old Bach," musical genius, in 1747, a meeting that led to Bach's writing the Musical Offering. As others have pointed out, Gaines uses that meeting to compare and contrast Bach's old-fashioned contrapuntal musical language with Frederick's fashionable, galant tunes. He does that well, and in language that is accessible even to people
Gustav Dinsdag
Apr 11, 2015 Gustav Dinsdag rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: muziek
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 it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
May 27, 2014 Christy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 14, 2014 Douglas Dalrymple rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 29, 2015 Patrick Tai rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 07, 2014 Katrina Zartman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
" 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
Nov 05, 2009 Jason rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 09, 2013 Mrs.soule rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jul 15, 2010 Laurie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 03, 2011 Tracey rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jun 07, 2010 Clytee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 18, 2013 Suzannah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 11, 2010 Nick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 21, 2013 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 18, 2012 ladydusk rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
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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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