Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Book Report

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Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Harper Perennial, James Gaines), 2006.

Gaines' book discusses two of history's greatest men, each of whom became great for a different reason. One was a political leader and statesman the other a musician. The biography of each could not have been more different. Both had tough lives and both fought against enormous stakes but one lived in a palace and the other travelled from place to place living in some at most only 3 years. One sampled jail and the other saw his partner killed and was saved by being sent to the military. One was homosexual and the other happily married in love. Bach's love in contradistinction to that of Frederick was more serene and meaningful. His music absorbed him and made him happy. He was focused; his life purely devoted to cantatas and organ music. His character, possibly formed by his music, was placid and thoughtful. Frederick the Great, on the other hand, was tempestuous and troublesome. His difficult childhood forced him to be great despite trauma that would have unsettled almost anyone else. Bach too persevered, persisting at a craft that was onerous and lonely and took him a while to develop. Their differences, in short, were extreme. Their commonalities? Perhaps, that both attained greatness through different means.

Gaines' book is a fascinating narrative of their different odysseys to greatness. This essay will analyze the roots of the greatness of each personality.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st l685, the son of Johann Ambrosius, court trumpeter for the Duke of Eisenach and director of the musicians of the town of Eisenach in Thuringia. Bach's family had long held positions as organists, town instrumentalists, or Cantors in the town of Thuringia, and the family name Bach was synonymous with music.

When nine, Bach lost his sister, brother and both parents and his brother, Johann Christoph, took him and his younger brother into his home where he taught Bach organ and harpsichord.

In 1700, Bach joined the 'Mettenchor' (Mattins Choir) in the North-German musical center of Luneburg where he first became impacted by French instrumental music, and then with Italian instrumental music in Weimer. Three years later he was employed as organist by the Arnstadt Town Council where he stayed until 1707.

It was in Arnstaadt that Bach's method first changed. He had become acquainted with the great organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, but the conservative old gentlemen of the hamlet were none too happy with the change. They saw it as "surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation." In 1707, therefore, Bach moved to Muhlhausen where he married his cousin Maria Barbara from Arnstadt and created his first cantata 'Gott ist mein Konig' (BWV 71).

In 1714, Bach became Court Organist in Weimer and accrued a reputation as one of the greatest German composers. The tyranny of Bach's employer however landed Bach in jail in 1771 when he accepted the post of Capellmeister in the Court of Anhalt-Cothen. Typically, Bach used this period to produce his Orgelbuchlein', a cycle of organ chorale preludes for the whole year.

In Cothen, Bach devoted himself totally to his music and it was during this period that he produced much of his chamber music; violin concertos, sonatas, keyboard music, and so forth. Here too Bach remarried one of his singers, Anna Magdalena who helped him care for his 13 children. In 1722, Bach left for Leipzig where he was to spend the remaining 27 years of his life living and working as Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis - Director of Choir and Music.

Here, he produced his most inspiring statements of baroque musical form including his last great work which no composer has yet been able to surpass: 'Die Kunst der Fuge' ('The Art of the Fugue', BWV 1080).
Strain on his eyes led to Bach becoming blind and he spent his last months in a darkened room, revising his great chorale fantasias (BWV 651-668) with the help of his son-in-law. His last chorale fantasia was fittingly based on the chorale "Before Thy Throne O. Lord I Stand." Another fugue featuring the subject B-A-C-H was left incomplete whilst the last great Triple Fugue of the Art (Contrapunctus XI) may also have been written during his final days. On the morning of the 28th of July, 1750, Bach awoke with restored eyesight and died that same evening following a stroke ("after a quarter to nine, in the sixty-fifth year of his life, yielding up his blessed soul to his saviour (p. 158)').

It was on 1714 that the story which opens Gaines' book occurred. Bach had stopped at Potsdam after two days of traveling and had been invited to attend at the Royal Palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, where his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel was also employed as Court Harpsichordist. Frederick was about to begin his evening concert, in which he himself played the flute with the orchestra, when he took a look at the list of attendees and remarked to his orchestra, 'Gentlemen, old Bach is here'. Frederick cancelled his evening concert and gave Bach a theme on which to improvise. Bach rose to the occasion, developed the King's theme into a sequence of complex contrapuntal movements, added a sonata for violin and flute, entitled the whole 'A Musical Offering' and sent it to the Court with a letter of dedication.

Frederick, Gaines writes, intended to befuddle Bach, whom he saw as relic of an archaic outdated age.

Bach had achieved greatness due to his focus and perseverance. Frederick too received greatness of a different kind and through different means. His childhood and life had been almost totally distinct to that of Bach.

Frederick the Great

Frederick the great's biography is equally inspiring but of a different kind. Frederick the Great was born in 1712 to a tempestuous father who flung around dishes and crashed them at the walls whilst his shuddering servants looked on. Frederick was routinely beaten. At age 18, Frederick attempted to flee with his boyfriend. He was caught, his boyfriend imprisoned and killed before his eyes. Frederick never forgot his. He was later forcibly married to a queen whom he detested and he separated from her in 1733 and showed no further interest in women. Frederic likely was homosexual.

In 1741, Prussia consisted only of a few territories. In the succeeding years, Frederick tried to and tried over and again to add to her borders but failed as soon as he succeeded. In 1756, Austria, backed by France and Russia, tried to regain control of Silesia. Frederick struck preemptively, invading Saxony, and with his ally Great Britain started the Seven Years War. In 1760, Austro-Russian forces occupied Berlin, and Frederick considered suicide. However, a fortuitous ensuing treaty allowed him to retain Silesia and made Frederick popular throughout the many German-speaking territories aside from which Prussia become great.

Frederick received a reputation for reforming the military and government becoming an "enlightened despot" where he fused Enlighten teachings with dictatorship. Frederick established religious toleration and granted freedom of press, aside from which he also established the first German code of law. Frederick increased Prussia's territories and military power. He died in 1786.

Born to loveless parents and emotionally starved as well as severely abused, Frederick II grew up to become Frederick the Great. Although emotionally impacted by his past, he succeeded in making long-lasting and influential changes on his kingdom and reversing years of tyranny for democracy (or for an "enlightened dictatorship).

Contrast between Johann Bach and Frederick the Great

Both personalities experienced hardship in their lives although Bach it seemed had a.....

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