Evening in the Palace of Reason

Libby Larsen
Composed 2007

Libby Larsen
Photo by Ann Marsden

A reflection and a tribute, this piece has been commissioned in honor of Lowell Noteboom (former chair of the SPCO’s board of directors) by the partners of his law firm, and was written with admiration by a composer who knows and respects him. Artistic patronage is not always so warm and positive a process — as you discover the moment you examine the back-story to this piece. Larsen’s starting point was very specific:

In considering Mr. Noteboom’s zest for life and love of reason, I was struck with the idea to compose a musical portrait of Lowell Noteboom considering J.S. Bach. As I often do, I began my thinking by reading.

James R. Gaines’ book Evening in the Palace of Reason gave Larsen the germ of an idea. His account of the famous meeting of Frederick the Great and Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 examines power, politics, court life, ideology, family and music in an age of transition. Musically, it was a pivotal time — as Larsen writes, “the crossroads of music that values reason and prefers discipline, order and control and music that values feeling and prefers passion, individuality and spontaneity.”

Bach family relations were symbolic of that change. By the 1740s, poor old J.S. was considered a bit of a fossil, and references to “the great Bach” usually meant his sons J.C., C.P.E. or even W.F. Bach. In Gaines’ book, Frederick the Great gives the senior Bach a theme and challenges him to improvise a six-voice fugue on it. The theme is cunningly composed to defy such treatment — so cunningly, in fact, that Gaines speculates that the real composer may not have been Frederick, but his court composer C.P.E. Bach. Poor Bach duly fails to live up to the challenge and departs. He has the last word, though, when he subsequently uses that irksome theme as the basis for his magisterial Musical Offering.

In creating her musical portrait, Larsen makes several allusions to Bach’s work. From the SPCO strings, she singles out the first-chair players to form a quartet. They interact with the string orchestra much as a group of solo players (concertino) interacts with the main group (ripieno) in Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. She also uses forms and titles for her movements that echo those Bach used in the Musical Offering and elsewhere. Above all, she takes Frederick’s theme as her inspiration:

I’ve woven the famous and dastardly theme into the fabric of the entire piece, sometimes in ways that are evident, sometimes in very subtle ways. I want to pay homage to J.S. Bach while placing both his and Frederick the Great’s musical language preferences in the ever-morphing continuum of pitch, harmony and texture. And so, within the context of my own musical ear, I explore counterpoint, fantasy, monophonic and polyphonic texture, and, in general, music governed by reason versus music governed by emotion.

Svend-Einar Brown ©2007
Larsen composed Evening in the Palace of Reason in 2007 for the SPCO. It is scored for strings and solo string quartet.