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Bach Books

Evening in the Palace of Reason
By James R. Gaines

B-1

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

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Author: James R. Gaines

Language: English; ISBN-10: 0007156618; ISBN-13: 978-0007156610

Harper Perennial

2006

PB / 368 pp

Buy this book at: Amazon.com

Cantatas] Re: Book on JSB and Fred II

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 2, 2007):
Paul T. McCain wrote:
< Wanted to add ... I'm going to be receiving soon, "Bach in the Palace of Reason" and I'm looking forward to whatever new light it might shed on the life and times of J.S.B. >
Just in case someone on the list has missed this book, Paul is referring to Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James Gaines. It's a dual intellectual / musical / political history of Prussia's evil genuius Frederick the Great and JSB. Gaines, a former journalist and editor but fine historian, juggles a lot of balls and probably doesn't catch them all, the book is a blast. Definite thumbs up. Toes up too if you share my love of Musical Offering (BWV 1079) easily my favorite Bach instrumental work. (And to think I squandered brain cells during the late 60s and early 70s listening to White Rabbit and such works in "mentally enhanced stereo" when JSB counterpoint was just sitting there waiting to be explored. I might have written the great American novel or been elected President if I'd known Musical Offering (BWV 1079) then.)

Peter Smaill wrote (January 2, 2007):
[To Eric Bergerud] Certainly "Evening in the Palace of Reason" is a great read but not I fear great or original scholarship, though written as if by an expert. James Gaines is careful enough, however, to acknowledge that neither David Yearsley and Michael Marissen, who saw the drafts "would agree entirely with what I have written." Gaines explains his approach thus :

"Albert Schweitzer, among others, has been accused of finding somewhat more meanings in Bach's music than there are . My prejudice has been that, on balance and within sensible limits, this was the right mistake to make, since finding too little meaning in his work risked a greater disservice to his command as a composer than finding too much."

Of all the observations culled from the many previous studies of the Musical Offering (BWV 1079), the suggestion that C.P.E. Bach actually created the royal theme in order to be virtually incapable of contrapuntal elaboration, was not accepted as having any evidential basis by the Bach scholar Arthur Mendel. Gaines describes the idea as "plausible speculation." He also happily uses the expressions "passus duriusculus" and "passus saltus."

Nevertheless-enjoy!

Julian Mincham wrote (January 2, 2007):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< Just in case someone on the list has missed this book, Paul is referring to Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James Gaines. It's a dual intellectual / musical / political history of Prussia's evil genuius Frederick the Great and JSB. Gaines, a former journalist and editor but fine historian, juggles a lot of balls and probably doesn't catch them all, the book is a blast. Definite thumbs up. >
Agreed an excellent read, highly recommended. It throws new light on the King's motives for providing such a theme and Bach's motives for his (rapid) musical response.

Julian Mincham wrote (January 2, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< Of all the observations culled from the many previous studies of the Musical Offering (BWV 1079), the suggestion that C.P.E. Bach actually created the royal theme in order to be virtually incapable of contrapuntal elaboration, was not accepted as having any evidential basis by the Bach scholar Arthur Mendel. Gaines describes the idea as "plausible speculation.des >
I agree. Nevertheless there is a point of particular musical interest about the fugal theme which remains no matter who composed it. It is that with its considerable chromaticism it would seem to be constructed (as suggested in the book) to as to be the very antithesis of a typical fugue subject of the time. It contains all the notes of the chromatic scale (excepting only Bb) and the rhythmic structure of the descending scale (tie-ing the Eb over the bar) makes imitation and stretto more problematic.

There seems little doubt that the theme was designed as the ultimate challenge although whether simply to 'test' the master or to humiliate him remains a matter of speculation.

But whether the King composed the theme himself or commissioned it from someone else, the high level of challenge remains.

There are vfw similar fugue subjects in the Bach repertoire, the one with most similarities being that of the B minor fugue from the WTC (no 24) This too contains all the notes of the scale but one, but is more focussed and precise in its repeated motivic structure i.e the six falling motivic minor seconds enclosed by three note arpeggios on B and F sharp minor.

The way in which Bach rose so magnificently to the challenge is yet another tribute to his awsome musical skills.

One further point of interest about the three part ricercare. It is often stated that this was the later written version of the fugue Bach improvised on the occasion. One is bound to wonder just how accurately he might have
remembered every note and whether the version we have is a 'tidied up' and 'improved' version of the original i.e. how authentic is it really as an example of Bach's formidable improvisatory skills?

In this regard I bring to mind the great jazz pianist Art Tatum, also a formidable improviser. I read some years ago that his recall of what he had played at any time was total. If someone asked him to play, say 'tea for two' as on the recording he had made, possibly years before, he could reproduce, note for note, that particular version (originally extemporised). However he could also produce an entirely different version, at the moment, if he so wished.

The point simply being that it seems that some people have this phenomenal gift of detailed, permanent and instant musical memory and it is quite possible that Bach had it too. In which case the ricercare may well be an authentic improvisation in every detail.

 

"An Evening in the Palace of Reason"

Neil Halliday wrote (January 2, 2007):
One of the most moving sections of the book (pp. 169-176) recounts the sometimes-pathetic little notes Bach wrote to himself in the margins of his Cavlov Bible: "For yourself you must show no anger, no matter how severe the offence has been. However, where it concerns your office, you must show anger." and "Those who want to assist. and help faithfully are thanked as the world is accustomed: it kicks them and wipes its shoes on them...above all learn and know that the world is ungrateful."

Troubles with the Town Council began soon after his arrival in Leipzig. Gaines writes: "The next year he got into another ridiculously petty feud with St. Thomas's subdeacon over his right to choose hymns for the service, which became the subject of another argument in a letter to the council, which was beginning to get more than a little tired of its cantor. (Gaines shows us that Bach would not back down where his office - music - was concerned).

Gaines continues: "One would think the performance of his first version of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) the following Easter might have quieted them a bit.. Clearly, however, his superiors and parishioners were not particularly grateful for the technical and aesthetic achievement (of the SMP (BWV 244)), because the only recorded reviin Bach's lifetime was from an aged widow in the congregation: "God help us! It's an opera-comedy!" "

Later, according to Gaines, Bach contributed three new cantatas performed over three days for the bicentennial of the Augsburg Confession, in 1730, which was followed in a few weeks with a town council meeting in which Bach's failure to teach his regular classes (trying to make musicians out of numbskulls, in Bach's view) was discussed. one councillor said he showed "little inclination to work", another said "he did nothing. A break would have to come sometime", a third called Bach "incorrigible" and wanted him fired.

Gaines sees the falling out with the council and church authorities as being a blessing in disguise: "In truth, although he understandably could not see it that way, his rejection by the church (authorities) was a liberation. In the years that followed he became ever more inventive and self-confident about going his own way musically."

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 2, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Later, according to Gaines, Bach contributed three new cantatas performed over three days for the bicentennial of the Augsburg Confession, in 1730, which was followed in a few weeks with a town council meeting in which Bach's failure to teach his regular classes (trying to make musicians out of numbskulls, in Bach's view) was discussed. one councillor said he showed "little inclination to work", another said "he did nothing. A break would have to come sometime", a third called Bach "incorrigible" and wanted him fired.
Gaines sees the falling out with the council and church authorities as being a blessing in disguise: "In truth, although he understandably could not see it that way, his rejection by the church (authorities) was a liberation. In the years that followed he became ever more inventive and self-confident about going his own way musically." >
As Doug Cowling has reminded the list, it's not a good idea to buy completely the "oppressed" Bach version of his musical tenure at Leipzig. It may well be that it was the nature of that still oral age that a complaint might have been written down, while periods of tranquility went unremarked upon. The fact of the matter (for sure) is that Bach stayed at Leipzig until he died - that means he neither quit nor was fired. That tells me that both sides found life tolerable. Let's not forget how close to the edge people lived in the 18th century. Handel was at one time or another probably the richest composer in Europe and the wolf knocked on his door more than once. Vivaldi died a pauper. (I know Mozart's problems were largely of his own making, but it's safe to say his genius was not fully appreciated and he lived in a time when artists were beginning to gain genuine "celebrity.") One could find many other tales of woe. Bach did pretty well all things considered. If Wolff is to be believed, Bach had established a reputation of the highest level among his peers (no small thing) and some of his choral works were played at Leipzig long after his death. And, perhaps best of all, his latest works, although few in number, are some of his best showing clearly that the artistic flame burned until the end: no small gift for an artist who lived a full life.

Paul T. McCain wrote (January 2, 2007):
[To Eric Bergerud] Good thoughts, thanks.

My speculations on this point of whether or not Bach was accurately depicting his situation is this. Bach was a typical musician. In my experience, without exception, passionate musicians tend to be pains to work with, they are demanding and insistent that it is their way, or the highway. They are perfectionists and also generally have a healthy sense of self-worth aka big egos! They can be pugnacious and difficult to get along with. I see all of this in Bach.

Also, I know very well how stubborn old German Lutherans can be so, I can well imagine that the town council in Leipzig was quite a group to deal with as well!

I would concur with Eric that Bach did a lot of grumbling, but he stayed put because he wanted to and finally reached some kind of "understanding" with the powers that be. Of course, he was also very shrewd and hence this explains why his seeking, and receiving, the title of "Court Composer" was very smart on his part.

Isn't it fun to speculate? Using the available evidence there is no harm in and if done responsibly and in moderation it encourages the discussion. Flights of fancy however, as we have seen here recently in regard to Bach's faith or what Prince of Peace means, or doesn't mean, are not, in my view, helpful.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 3, 2007):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< The fact of the matter (for sure) is that Bach stayed atLeipzig until he died - that means he neither quit nor was fired. That tells me that both sides found life tolerable. >
Or that Bach sought but did not achieve other opportunities?

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 3, 2007):
Paul T. McCain wrote:
< In my experience, without exception, passionate musicians tend to be pains to work with, they are demanding and insistent that it is their way, or the highway. They are perfectionists and also generally have a healthy sense of self-worth aka big egos! They can be pugnacious and difficult to get along with. >
Perhaps you have been associating with the wrong musicians? Too many sopranos?

Continue of ths discussion, see: Musical Offering BWV 1079 - General Discussionse [Instrumental Works]

 


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