Flotsam from “The Palace of Reason”

Like most great artists, Johann Sebastian Bach created his immortal works amidst uncertain times and an unusual amount of philosophical and cultural upheaval.  One could sense a perceptible shift away from theology as “queen of the sciences” towards the dominance of abstract reason and scientific methodology.  James Gaines chronicles one particular episode in Bach’s life representative of this shift in his Evening in the Palace of Reason.  Bach, the great Baroque composer, received an invitation to visit Frederick the Great of Prussia, the great Enlightment monarch.  Their brief meeting led to Bach composing “A Musical Offering,” considered by some to be his greatest instrumental work, and a definitive statement of his theological and musical convictions.

Gaines’ book is serviceable, if unremarkable.  It certainly is more accessible than other works on Bach I’ve attempted.  On the other hand, Gaines’ background is in magazine editing, so as one might expect, the books lacks expertise and depth. Life presents us with many such trade-offs.

Reading the work did spur on a few thoughts and questions in my mind . . .

To best understand Bach and the shift in the sciences taking place during his life, Gaines briefly describes the cosmological beliefs Bach inherited from his contemporaries.  Gaines has a difficult job with this material.  On the one hand, his book seeks a more conventional and conversational tone and such information bogs down modern readers in a mass of unfamiliar material.  But Gaines needs to cover the material to properly understand Bach. Unfortunately Gaines gives a dismissive rendering of the information, interspersed with parenthetical comments such as, “This will be over soon,” and “There will not a quiz on the forgoing.”  Gaines seems to find the pre-modern scientific beliefs absurd and embarrassing, despite his frank admission that such beliefs had a direct connection to music of the period. As one contemporary of Bach commented, “. . . an individual is both inwardly and outwardly, spiritually and physically, a divinely created harmonic being,” (emphasis mine) reflecting the divine harmony of the cosmos itself.

Some regard Bach as perhaps the greatest composer Western civilization has produced. Everyone agrees that at bare minimum he’s one of the all-time greats.  Is it possible then, that such great music could come from theological and scientific foundations (in Bach’s day these two naturally went together) utterly removed from the truth? Bad trees produce bad fruit, but the scientific tree of the Baroque era gave us something else entirely (for an extended look at the transition between Galileo and the past, please enjoy my friend Bill Carey’s post here).

Asking this question leads one into the deep waters of the nature of scientific truth, waters too deep for me. The real problem, I think, is that the modern view of truth (in science or elsewhere, but perhaps especially in science) has very little to do with poetry. Or to take a different approach, the scientific tree of the baroque period produced fantastic music, but less than able surgeons. Can science do both equally at once?  This is a question science must answer.

With the transition to the Enlightenment, Bach’s music and convictions fell out of favor. People no longer sought complex harmony, they wanted more “pleasing” — and easier — melodies.  The purpose of music and art shifted from lifting us up to the divine to meeting our needs here and now.  This was not merely a matter of taste. These different ideas about music arose from a shift in cosmology and theology.

When we think of the solar system, we probably think in a horizontal rather than vertical fashion.  We also likely think of each planet “doing it’s own thing” floating around in space.  Space between planets is empty and cold. In the medieval conception of the universe the planets descended hierarchically, with the movement between the planets forming a glorious celestial harmony — the “music of the spheres” — which in turn reflected the eternal “perichoresis” (the Greek word used by early church fathers meaning “circle dance”) of the Trinity.

Whichever we prefer, we should note that modern and medieval choices in regard to the cosmos are theological and poetic in nature, not strictly scientific.

This theological and poetic shift impacted musical opinions of Bach’s later years.  His critics believed that emphasizing harmony (as Bach did) made the music too difficult.  What’s more, harmony itself was “artificial” and “unnatural.”  Music should instead focus on singable, “natural” melodies, which we can “perform” as individuals.

Baroque harmony and counterpoint, then, came from a theological perspective that emphasized the importance of the trinitarian community, and scientific perspective that emphasized the “community” of planets.  So we might only think of harmony as “artificial” if we believe that either

  • The spheres have no music, or
  • If they did, it would be irrelevant as it would not be part of our daily experience.

Of course the medievals believed both that the spheres make music, and that their motion had an impact, however indirect, on our lives.  Thus, celestial harmony for them occupied a very real place in creation and could hardly be called artificial.

So once again we see the intersection of science, poetry and theology in musical theory, and we see the stark difference the Enlightenment brought to many aspects of our life and thought.  The legion of trickle-down effects on poetry, music, church architecture and like are everywhere present.