This year’s tricentenary of Frederick the Great’s birth (1712-1786) is an opportunity to celebrate the musical legacy of one of the first enlightened absolutist monarchs to sit upon a throne in Europe.  Despite the tomes of letters he wrote and the many successful military campaigns he led during his reign, the Prussian King remains a somewhat elusive personality.  He has been worshipped as “the Great, the Only” by his supporters and denounced as “one of the most obnoxious figures in the history of the world” by his detractors.  This polarity of opinion aside, his devotion to and love of music throughout his entire life cannot be disputed.  He gathered a formidable set of composers and players at his court, creating one of the most stimulating musical environments in eighteenth-century Germany.  He also established an Académie des savants, based on the philosophical ideals of Voltaire, with whom he regularly corresponded and invited to Potsdam.  The funding for cultural outlets in Berlin, which his tyrannical father had diverted into building a mighty military was resurrected by the crown prince, or Le Philosophe de Sans-Souci, as he signed his letters, once he ascended the throne in 1740.

The abusive and strained relationship between the sensitive son and oppressive “Soldier-King” father is well documented.  One such traumatic example recounts Frederick’s attempt to run away from his domineering father’s iron rule with a childhood friend, Lieutenant Katte.  After they were found out and captured en route to England, Frederick was forced by his father to watch the young lad’s decapitation.  Educated by French tutors, Frederick escaped the clutches of military duty in his youth by secretly reading volumes of poetry, Greek and Roman classics, French philosophy, and, most importantly, devoting himself to the flute.  The Principessa, as he affectionately called it, remained a vital means of expression and diversion, even on the battlefield, where he requested flutes to be delivered to him that he might play them for a few hours.

His love of music, and of the Querflöte in particular, added extra fodder to his father’s disdain and hostile outbursts.  However, Frederick’s delight in hearing the virtuoso flutist Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) perform in Dresden in 1728 persuaded his mother to secretly invite the master to give her son instruction twice a year.  Quantz had travelled extensively throughout Europe to hear and observe other national styles of music.  He studied counterpoint in Vienna with Zelenka and Fux, had lessons on oboe in Dresden and Warsaw and studied flute with the French star, Buffardin.  In 1724-1727 he ventured to Italy to meet and hear eminent musicians and composers such as Farinelli, A. Scarlatti and Hasse, and he spent a short sojourn in London to experience the international roster of musicians who flocked there.

Quantz entered the King in Prussia’s service once he was released from his duties in Dresden’s flourishing musical court of the King of Poland and Saxony, Augustus II, in 1741.  He joined the court of musicians the Crown Prince Frederick had assembled for the Kapelle he had formed for his residence at Schloß Rheinsberg in 1732.  Amongst them, Carl Heinrich Graun (1701-1759) maintained an especially highly influential role in Frederick’s inner circle of musicians as Kapellmeister, his duties primarily were centred on composing operas and cantatas.  The premiere of his opera, Cesar e Cleopatra (1742), was cause for celebration as it marked the revival of opera at the Berlin court.  During Frederick’s father’s artistically barren reign not one opera performance took place.

Graun’s brother, Johann Gottlieb (1703-1771) was also invited to join the court as concertmaster.  He composed many works for violin (he taught violin to JS Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann), as well as wrote numerous concerti for the court’s gamba virtuoso, Christian Ludwig Hesse (1716-1772).  CPE Bach likewise wrote his viola da gamba sonatas Wq 136 and Wq 137 for Hesse.  This evening the ardent yet fiendishly difficult Sonata in D major Wq 137 is arranged for five-string violoncello piccolo. (CPE’s only Cello Sonata Wq 138 has been lost.)  Other string players who contributed to the extremely high level of playing were the two Benda brothers, Franz and Joseph, who hailed from Bohemia.  Franz, or Frantisek (1709-1786), studied composition with JG Graun and succeeded him as concertmaster at the opera, where his performances of Adagios were especially praised.  With the appointment of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (1714-1788) as harpsichordist and court composer in 1738, Frederick had indeed convened a wealth of talented musicians.  Although CPE Bach served nearly thirty years for Frederick II, the king’s musical tastes remained a bit old-fashioned, even conservative, and disparate from CPE’s forward-looking empfindsamer style.  His works for keyboard and instrumental sonatas were major influences in the burgeoning classical style; Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven attribute their early compositional endeavours to the keyboard sonatas of Carl Philipp.

Quantz, who was esteemed greatly by the monarch, was entrusted with all tasks concerning the flute.  He was expected to construct these instruments for Frederick, compose pieces exclusively for it as well as teach him the arts of composition and flute playing.  His compositional output includes some three hundred flute concertos and two hundred chamber works for flute, which he was not allowed to publish without Frederick’s express permission!  Perhaps his most lasting contribution to music has been his influential treatise On Playing the Flute, which he penned in Berlin in 1756.  It became not only an instruction manual for flutists, but for all students of music, in which he offered pearls of wisdom on the execution of different national styles, how to gain a sense of correct and appropriate affects, helpful exercises for improvising and recommendations for playing in ensembles.

The evenings at Sans-Souci (the summer palace Frederick designed himself, based on Versailles) were strictly devoted to playing chamber music.  Without exception the evening fare included a flute concerto by Quantz (each of the three hundred in rotation!) performed by “Old Fritz” with his band of seventeen instrumentalists.  CPE Bach must have occasionally grumbled to himself about his sovereign’s playing; he was recorded on one occasion as muttering “what rhythms!” when an invited guest gushed about the monarch’s precise tempi.  Franz Benda, on the other hand, remembered proudly in his autobiography how he accompanied the king “at least ten thousand times” during his career.  Frederick, who wrote some one hundred twenty pieces for the flute, modelled his own compositions upon the older Italianate style typical of Quantz and CH Graun.  The financial rewards he showered on these two is reflected in the annual salaries from the 1744/45 season, perhaps giving greater cause for CPE’s complaints towards his employer:

JJ Quantz 2000 Thalers
CH Graun 2000 Thalers
JG Graun 1200 Thalers
Franz Benda 800 Thalers
Joseph Benda 800 Thalers
CPE Bach 300 Thalers

Johann Sebastian Bach’s visit in 1747 left an indelible stamp on the historical significance of Frederick the Great’s musical soirées.  His son had tried to arrange this appointment several times, as Frederick hoped to get the elder Bach’s opinion on the newly constructed Silbermann fortepianos he had procured.  When handed the guest list for that particular evening’s flute concerto in May 1747, the majesty turning to the band, said, “with an agitation of pleasure, ‘Gentlemen, old Bach is come!'”  The 62-year-old was hastily brought forward, asked to play some of his own works, after which he requested the king to give him a subject for a fugue.  Frederick did not like overtly complicated music, yet challenged the venerable Kapellmeister with a densely chromatic theme.  With deft ability, Bach executed the royal theme with extraordinary means of improvisation, including an extemporaneous rendition of the theme with three obbligato parts.  The King marvelled greatly at the consummate mastery of Bach, and recalled the visit as “one of the most unforgettable and richest experiences of his life.”  Bach felt he could improve upon the improvisation on the royal theme he had performed, and subsequently created one of the most sublime works for keyboard, the Ricercar à 6, which he called the “Prussian fugue.”  Upon his return to Leipzig, he also developed the theme into the expanded form of a four-movement Trio Sonata for flute, violin and basso continuo.  The instrumentation is in deference to Frederick’s passion for the flute, but perhaps with a twinge of irony, he chose the awkward key of C minor in exchange for the monarch’s ungainly chromatic theme.  In addition, Bach eschews the linear melodic line of the fashionable galant style for something much more complex in texture.  The entire Musical Offering of Ricercar à 3, à 6, ten Canons and Trio Sonata was engraved in copper and dedicated to His Royal Majesty, the King of Prussia two months later in July.

Tonight’s concert is a reflection of a typical chamber music evening in the chambers of the Prussian King.  We return to pieces by Frederick the Great, Quantz, F Benda and CPE Bach as an offering of lighter fare with galant and Italianate affects, to contrast with the depth and profundity of JS Bach’s Ricercare and Trio Sonata from the Musical Offering.  The varying combinations of instruments, in this case flute, violin, viola d’amore, violoncello piccolo, ‘cello and harpsichord provide a taste of the sound world that would have been featured at the enlightened king’s residence.

Jennifer Morsches 2012

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