Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines

Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment is a book about history, about culture, about those who thought they were great and those who really were. It begins by reconstructing a meeting between Johann Sebastian Bach at age sixty-two and Frederick the Great, who was basking in the expansion of his kingdom after just a few years on the throne. Each chapter thereafter, traces the family history and lives of these two men bringing it back to the crux of their meeting in 1747. In an attempt to mock Bach's command of counterpoint and improvisation, Frederick challenged him to compose a three-part fugue on a nearly impossible theme, that is, it was nearly impossible to use this theme in the structured forms of composition for which Bach was known. Bach delivered this request on the spot, causing Frederick to set the bar even higher with a request for a six-part fugue. Bach declined the second challenge, but played a six-part fugue on another theme. In the matter of only two weeks, however, Bach completed his Musical Offering, a sixteen-movement work for piano that is considered a work of genius by all who have studied it.

Around these historical details, Gaines demonstrates that this musical challenge was really a duel between two competing worldviews: the principles of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. They "met at the tipping point between ancient and modern culture, and what flowed from their meeting would be a more than musical expression of that historical moment" (8).

Bach's life and work were informed by his faith. He accumulated a significant theological library for his time and carefully read and marked the text and commentary of his 1681 Lutheran Bible and Luther's collected works (169). His music was founded upon the firm principles of faith and belief in a universe ordered and governed by a sovereign God, so whether the subject was sacred or secular it could be marked S.D.G., soli deo gloria, to the glory of God alone. In contrast, "the 'enlightened' composer wrote for one reason and one only: to please the audience" (220).

I do not know the beliefs or religious background of the author, James Gaines. His accounts of the Reformation and Bach's high esteem of Luther occasionally hint at skepticism, but there is a touch of sarcasm in his treatment of the Enlightenment's optimism and hope in human reason, too. At any rate, his detached journalism does not prevent him from posing the following thesis - "Bach's Musical Offering leaves us, among other things, a compelling case for the following proposition: that a world without a sense of the transcendent and mysterious, a universe ultimately discoverable through reason alone, can only be a barren place; and that the music sounding forth from such a world might be very pretty, but it can never be beautiful" (12) - or from concluding with the late 18th century irony that "those who continued to claim their trust in reason did so more in hope than confidence, almost as an article of faith (of all things)" (259).

I didn't need to be convinced that Bach was a great composer, but it was intriguing to learn more of his personal history and his music (though I must admit that the music theory behind counterpoint is a little beyond me). I'm ready to start building a music library of his complete works, beginning with Bach: The Art of Fugue; Musical Offering! Karl Barth might have had portraits of Calvin and Mozart at equal heights in his study*, but if I were one to hang portraits of theologians and composers, I would have to choose Bach over Mozart. Calvin, of course, could stay!

*An interesting quote from an article by Theodore A. Gill in Theology Today from Princeton Theological Seminary:
"And with a now not so secret delight, I remember noting as I left Barth's study on a first visit those portraits of Calvin and of Mozart hanging over the adjacent doors. He has written of them: 'There are probably very few theological study rooms in which pictures of Calvin and Mozart are to be seen hanging next to each other and at the same height.' What he does not write is what he said when he noticed how taken I was with the juxtaposition. 'My special revelation,' he smiled, looking at Calvin. 'And my general revelation,' he said, as he beamed at Mozart. Was he smiling because it was a joke? Or because he knew something we didn't?"

No comments: