Book Review: Evening in the Palace of Reason by James Gaines


As a musician I am often interested in reading about different musicians and composers so recently I read the book Evening in the Palace of Reason by James Gaines and loved it. This book contains essentially two biographies following Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great culminating in their famous meeting. 

This book describes the juxtaposition of Fredrick the Great and J.S. Bach. The author alternates chapters following Bach for one chapter Frederick for the next. This gives us an overview of each of their lives. Though the two only met once, during their meeting Frederick gave Bach a challenge that produced a musical masterpiece. Through these two titanic figures Gaines compares the different time periods and traits that these figures represent. (Bach the Baroque musical period and Fredrick the Enlightenment and the Classical period.) He also compares religion and quality of life for the separate classes that they were in. It was often not quite what you would expect, Frederick was horribly abused and because his father was the king nobody could step in to help.

The author does a good job of describing the differences between the music that the two played and composed (Although, Frederick had some help with his compositions). Bach was looked at as a composer of past by Frederick and many of his peers including his sons. His music was complex and many of his compositions contained canons and fugues. Frederick’s musical tastes leaned towards future and the new music of the Classical period. Frederick’s preferred music tended to be simpler, it lacked the polyphony (two or more independent lines moving together) and complex harmonies of the past. This made the music of the classical period more melody driven. The author does a good job of explaining the difference between the music of Frederick and the music of Bach. Although, I do think he makes it quite clear that he prefers the music of the Baroque period more than the music of the Classical period. Gaines’ explanations for the musical theory are fairly insightful and are not full of technical jargon which makes the book a pretty fast read.

The author also makes a interesting comparison of the creation of canons with that of alchemy, that both were treated with the same amount of reverence and respect. Bach perhaps thought more highly of the music he was creating than Frederick did of the music he was creating. This could be due to Bach’s affiliation with the church or because Bach thought he was creating music for God while for Frederick was creating his for the escapism and for rebelling against his father. Ultimately the author argues that music of the classical period was meant to pleasant to listen to while the music of the Baroque Period was meant to have a deeper meaning.

Overall I thought this book was extremely thought provoking and interesting. The author describes how music played a role in both of their lives (obviously for Bach and less obviously for Frederick the Great) and how they contributed to the music of their generation. This book was well written and the challenge at the beginning was certainly interesting to read about. You can certainly feel the enthusiasm that the author has for Bach and his music. The chapters describing Bach and his life were truly amazing. I felt a deep sense of regret that Bach’s music wouldn’t truly be rediscovered by the public until Mendelson had it performed. However, and this might just be because I find Bach extremely interesting and bought the book specifically for the Bach portion, I thought that the chapters on Frederick the Great were good but that they were not quite as interesting as the chapters on Bach. The Bach that shines through Gaines’ text is not the Bach we often imagine. Gaines’ Bach was a man who created works that were truly amazing but the composer was ultimately human and made several mistakes in his lifetiime. (I would definitely include the fight with the bassoonist as one of mistakes). Bach was passionate about his work but stubborn, which made him hard to work with (this also led to the fight with the bassoonist). He fought with others but was a father who took pride in his children (He did have 20 of them). Gaines’ constantly makes you want to stop and listen to the pieces of music he describing (which you should do Bach’s music is amazing) and he is clearly passionate about the man and his music and his passion is contagious after reading this book all I wanted to do was listen to Bach’s music. I gave this book 5/5 stars.

For your convience:

Purchase the book:

The Musical Offering (The piece Bach wrote based on Frederick’s requirements)
The Musical Offering (This particular one plays the Royal Theme at the beginning)

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Evening in the Palace of Reason by James Gaines

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