If you enjoy history you will love James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason. I picked this up on the advice of Gene Veith, who said that you should put down whatever it is you are doing and read this book. I happened to be grading papers at the time, so I did.
This book isn’t quite what I expected. Veith’s comments led me to believe that I was going to read an epic showdown between Johann Sebastian Bach, representing classical Christian orthodoxy, and Frederick the Great, presenting for Enlightenment rationalism. This is roughly true, though Gaines’ treatment of Bach’s visit to Frederick’s palace is more subtle than the classic confrontation implied in Veith’s review. I think that this is for the good, as Gaines’ understated approach lends authenticity to his story.
Gaines begins Evening in the Palace of Reason by describing how Frederick the Great, who had always loved music, called an elderly Bach to his court to embarrass him with an impossibly difficult musical assignment. The bulk of the book then retreats into the lives of Bach and Frederick, and in alternating chapters, explains what led them to their fateful encounter. Along the way you’ll learn a lot about life in the 17th and 18th century German lands and the finer points of Bach’s musical compositions.
Most significant for me was Gaines’ explanation of what Bach was doing in the various movements of his music. I hadn’t realized that Bach was a musical scholar, communicating through his music much like authors speak through their books. I will never listen to his music the same way again. Gaines observes that the depth of Bach’s music makes even Mozart’s work seem light by comparison, and you don’t want to know the implications for Yanni.
If you love history you probably have already read this book. If you read this book you will fall in love with history.