In my freshman year our first course in history began with the fall of Rome in the fifth century and ended with the death of Bach in the eighteenth. While I had some understanding of the selection of the first date and gained an increasing awareness of how what was actually the Age of Faith was in no way a Dark Age it took me a good deal longer to understand how Bach was the appropriate milestone for the end of this age and how the Enlightenment was actually the beginning of the truly Dark Ages.
In the History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, Samuel Johnson has the astronomer tell Imlac, I have possessed for five years the regulation of weather, and the distribution of the seasons: the sun has listened to my dictates, and passed from tropick to tropick by my direction; the clouds, at my call, have poured their waters, and the Nile has overflowed at my command; I have restrained the rage of the dog-star, and mitigated the fervours of the crab. The winds alone, of all the elemental powers, have hitherto refused my authority, and multitudes have perished by equinoctial tempests which I found myself unable to prohibit or restrain. I have administered this great office with exact justice, and made to the different nations of the earth an impartial dividend of rain and sunshine. What must have been the misery of half the globe, if I had limited the clouds to particular regions, or confined the sun to either side of the equator?
We know of no better summation of the so-called enlightenment and the wisdom [sic] that its scientific successors have visited upon mankind. Imlac’s response that, to mock the heaviest of human afflictions is neither charitable nor wise. Few can attain this man’s knowledge, and few practise his virtues; but all may suffer his calamity… Such, says Imlac, are the effects of visionary schemes: when we first form them we know them to be absurd, but familiarise them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly…
The Age of Faith required, just as a life of Faith today requires, that the location of true happiness is not the immediate gratification gained by the application of knowledge of our physical universe – AND that we be willing to admit the limits of our knowledge, our actions and our authority. The attempt to create Heaven on earth has created more little Hells than anything else in the history of mankind. While Fredrick was busy building the rational state that would end in Hitler’s ovens Bach, even in his last years, was composing harmonies that echoed the Sermon on the Mount. Gaines book is a wonderful realization of that difference.
Evening in the Palace of Reason : Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment James Gaines London ; New York : Fourth Estate, 2005 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. 336 p. ; 21 cm. Includes bibliographical references, discography, and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
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 abusive king who forced him to watch as his best friend was beheaded. In what may have been one of history’s crueler practical jokes, Frederick challenged ‘old Bach’ to a musical duel, asking him to improvise a six-part fugue based on an impossibly intricate theme (possibly devised for him by Bach’s own son).
Bach left the court fuming, but in a fever of composition, he used the language of counterpoint to write ‘A Musical Offering’ in response. A stirring declaration of faith, it represented ‘as stark a rebuke of his beliefs and world view as an absolute monarch has ever received,’ Gaines writes. It is also one of the great works of art in the history of music.
Set at the tipping point between the ancient and the modern world, the triumphant story of Bach’s victory expands to take in the tumult of the eighteenth century: the legacy of the Reformation, wars and conquest, the birth of the so called Enlightenment. Brimming with originality and wit, ‘Evening in the Palace of Reason’ is history of the best kind – intimate in scale and broad in its vision.