04 August 2006

A Novel Suggestion

If you want to read a novel that is educational, entertaining, and that may make you feel a little more cultured, try reading Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment.

The author, James R Gaines, has a way of bringing to life the tension between Johann Sebastian Bach's morals, beliefs and practices and the incoming 'age of enlightenment,' as typified by Frederick the Great, Prussia's young king.

The following excerpt from the first chapter exemplifies the tension that begins to unravel between these differing worldviews:
One Sunday evening in the spring of his seventh year as king, as his musicians were gathering for the evening concert, a courtier brought Frederick his usual list of arrivals at the town gate. As he looked down the list of names, he gave a start.
"Gentlemen, " he said, '"old Bach is here." Those who heard him said there was " a kind of agitation" in his voice. (p.5)...

Nowhere were they more different, though, than in their attitudes toward music. Bach represents the "learned counterpoint" of canon and fugue, a centuries-old craft that by now had developed such esoteric theories and procedures that some of its practitioners saw themselves as the custodians of a quasi-divine art, even as weavers of the cosmic tapestry itself. Frederick and his generation were having none of that. They denigrated counterpoint as the vestige of an outworn aesthetic, extolling instead the "natural and delightful" in music, by which they meant the easier pleasure of song, the harmonic ornamentation of a single line of melody. For Bach this new, so-called galant style, with all its lovely figures and stylish grace, was full of emptiness. Bach's cosmos was one in which the planets themselves played the ultimate harmony, a tenet that had been unquestioned since the "sacred science" of Pythagoras; composing and performing music was for him and his musical ancestors a deeply spiritual enterprise whose sole purpose, as his works were inscribed, was "“for the glory of God."” For Frederick the goal of music was simply to be "agreeable,"” and entertainment and a diversion, easy work for performer and audience alike. He despised music that, as he put it, "smells of the church" and called Bach's chorales specifically "dumb stuff." Cosmic notions like the "music of the spheres" were for him so much dark-age mumbo jumbo. (p.7-8)

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