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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Music for Frederick the Great

One of the 18th century’s most famous flute players wrote this:

The strictest care and the most unremitting attention are required of commanding officers in the formation of my troops. The most exact discipline is ever to be maintained, and the greatest regard paid to their welfare; they ought also to be better fed than almost any troops in Europe.

Our regiments are composed of half our own people and half foreigners who enlist for money: the latter only wait for a favourable opportunity to quit a service to which they have no particular attachment. The prevention of desertion therefore becomes an object of importance.

And one of the 18th century’s finest military strategists wrote this: [listen]

Of course, the flautist and the military strategist are one and the same: King Friedrich (or Frederick) II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great. He was born in 1712 and acceded to the Prussian throne in 1740. He died, aged 74, in 1786.

Graff: Frederick the Great (1780s)

Frederick the Great holds a special place in European music history, as well in European political history. His life coincides with a period of enormous social and political change in Europe, the so-called “Age of Enlightenment”. The power of the church – both Catholic and Protestant – was lessened, and the elevation of the mind of man and the cult of nature began to take its place. People began to think freely and individually, or at least those high enough in the social scale who had the freedom to think freely did so, but it was an important shift even so. This period saw the rise of a middle class, those between the poor working masses and the privileged nobility. It became possible to rise socially through effort and enterprise, and in many areas the reign of Frederick the Great coincided with this societal shift for a large proportion of the population of Europe.

Frederick was king of Prussia. At the height of his reign, Prussia consisted of modern-day eastern Germany, northern Poland and a small part of western Russia; its capital was the modern German capital, Berlin. It became the largest and most powerful of the German states, and its power and influence stretched back for a century or more. Frederick the Great’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm I, was alarmed at his son’s interests in music and the arts in preference to military and religious matters. Despite his father’s threats and punishments, Frederick managed to read books his father had forbidden him, dress in the French style, and to play the flute. He even played flute duets with one of his servants. He studied music theory from the age of seven, and his mother and sister supported him in these pursuits.

As a teenager, Frederick met the famous flute virtuoso and composer Johann Joachim Quantz, who was employed at the court of Dresden. Dresden was a major centre of musical activity in the first half of the 18th century, with most of the greatest composers, instrumentalists and singers of Europe either working in or at last passing through the city. One of the major composers there was Johann Adolf Hasse, an important figure in opera whose music is sometimes cited as an important influence on the young Frederick. His opera Cleofide premiered in Dresden in 1731. [listen]

Denner: Johann Adolf Hasse (1740)

The effect of JJ Quantz on Frederick was far greater than that of Hasse, however. Frederick’s first encounter with Quantz took place when a group of musicians from the Dresden court visited to Berlin. Frederick was still not king and therefore couldn’t offer Quantz a permanent position, but Quantz’s autobiography suggests he was in no hurry to leave the security of his position in Dresden for a tenuous future in Berlin anyway. He did however visit Berlin twice a year to give the prince flute lessons.

The big change occurred when Frederick finally became king on his father’s death in 1740. After more than a decade of commuting from Dresden to Berlin to give lessons, Quantz was made an offer by the new King Frederick which he couldn’t refuse: a permanent post in Berlin at the staggering salary of 2000 thalers a year. Compared with the 800 thalers he was receiving in Dresden, this was a huge increase. Quantz took up the offer in 1741, an offer made more attractive by the fact that Frederick exempted him from the requirement to play in the opera orchestra, and by stipulating that Quantz was answerable only to Frederick himself.

Gerhard: Johann Joachim Quantz (1735)

Perhaps Quantz’s most important legacy is his treatise, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen, dating from 1752. Known in English simply as “On Playing the Flute”, only five of the work’s 18 chapters deal exclusively with flute playing. The rest of the book covers topics relating to proper performance more generally, which makes it an invaluable reference for us today on how music was performed in Germany in the middle of the 18th century.

Once appointed to the Berlin court, Quantz remained in Frederick’s service for the remainder of his life, that is, for more than 30 years. In addition to more than 230 flute sonatas, and dozens of trio sonatas which include the flute, he wrote more than 300 flute concertos, in nearly all of which the solo part was designed for Frederick to play. They are unremarkable, pleasant and lightweight works which must have been the focus of the king’s private evening concerts. [listen]

Of course Quantz wasn’t the only composer at the Berlin court, not by a long shot. Even before he acceded to the throne, Frederick was arranging for musicians to be appointed to the court, one of the most important of whom was Carl Heinrich Graun. Graun was a singer and composer who had had links with the court in Dresden as well as other German states, and in 1735 he was appointed to the Prussian court as general court musician. When Frederick became king in 1740 Graun was promoted to Kappellmeister at the huge salary of 2000 thalers a year, the same amount Quantz would be offered the following year. Within two months of his accession, Frederick was taking steps to establish an opera company in Berlin, and Graun was sent off to Italy to engage singers for the company. The vast majority of Graun’s more than 30 operas were written for Frederick’s court opera. (Graun’s brother, Johann Gottlieb Graun, was also appointed to Frederick’s court as Konzertmeister, with responsibilities for instrumental music.)

Preissler: Carl Heinrich Graun (1752)

The opening in 1742 of the new opera house which Frederick had built in Berlin was a glittering occasion, literally so with thousands of candles illuminating the theatre, at a cost 2,771 thalers per performance. The fact that, due to Frederick’s impatience, the theatre wasn’t finished was relatively unimportant. The scaffolding was still up, the facade hadn’t even been started, and the unpainted ceiling was covered with cloth. The audience, who were seated on wooden benches, heard a magnificent work by Graun, his opera Cleopatra and Ceasar, the story of which has more than a few elements in common with Handel’s opera Julius Caesar in Egypt written nearly 20 years before. Graun’s music though, while in the same sort of operatic form as Handel’s operas (what we now call opera seria), displays more modern features which remind us of CPE Bach or early Haydn. There is still florid display for the singer to negotiate but the energy and directness of the music is of an age later than Handel, a style of which Handel kept himself well-informed and which he used in some of his own later operas. This aria from Graun’s Cleopatra and Caesar is a good example. There’s a bouncy accompaniment which changes harmony less frequently, setting up a cushion of sound enabling the voice to soar. There are also cadenza points which are harmonically the same as those in a Mozart piano concerto. Bear in mind that this music was written in the year after Handel wrote Messiah, fourteen years before Mozart was born. [listen]

Frederick’s reign as king of Prussia lasted for 46 years. During this period he was responsible for social and political reforms, military conquests and huge developments in Prussian arts and culture. The cultural establishment he set up in Berlin should be seen in parallel with his military victories, his social reforms and his well-rounded demonstration of modern kingship. As well as keeping some of the finest composers and performers of the day in his court, Frederick also engaged the services of people such as Voltaire, who was one of the king’s established confidants and correspondents. His reach was wide, his interests broad.

Among the other composers and performers on Frederick’s payroll was Franz Benda, a member of an illustrious family of Bohemian musicians. Benda was a violinist and developed a huge reputation as a brilliant and expressive performer. He was, earlier in his career, also renowned as a singer, and he is known to have studied various aspects of composition with both of the Graun brothers. Like Graun, Benda had a brother who also worked at the Berlin court, Johann Georg Benda, but it was Franz who became the backbone of the court orchestra, and who eventually took over the post of Konzertmeister in 1771 at the age of 62.

Schuster: Franz Benda (1756)

Benda played in the ensemble that accompanied Frederick the Great’s concerto performances, and he himself estimated that he played in 10,000 such concerto performances with Frederick as soloist. The king esteemed him highly, and his salary was nearly as high as Graun’s. The 18th century music historian Charles Burney described Benda as one of the prominent musicians at the court in Berlin, one who had “acquired a great reputation in his profession, not only by his expressive manner of playing the violin, but by his graceful and affecting compositions for that instrument”. Dozens of sonatas, concertos and other works by Benda, nearly all which feature the violin, survive. [listen]

A 19th century imagining (by Menzel) of Frederick the Great playing concertos in his palace of Sans Souci in Berlin.

A performer and composer who had a tough time working in Frederick’s establishment was Johann Friedrich Agricola. Regarded as one of the finest organists, and the finest singing teacher, of his day, Agricola was appointed a court composer to Frederick in 1751. He was primarily a composer of vocal music, producing operas, oratorios and songs, as well as some instrumental music. He incurred Frederick’s wrath in the year he was appointed to the court, however, because he married Benedetta Emilia Molteni, one of the singers at the court opera. This broke one of the King’s rules, namely that all singers on the payroll at the opera must remain single. The couple were punished by being put on a combined salary of 1000 thalers. Molteni had been on 1500 thalers a year when she was single, so this was a big salary drop for them both. Over the following years Frederick severely criticised Agricola’s operas, often demanding complete rewrites. It was not a happy arrangement.

Despite this, Agricola did manage to establish an international reputation as a singer, teacher and composer, and his works show him to be a superb craftsman with a special skill for melody. [listen]

One of the great ironies of Frederick’s musical endeavours was the fact the had on his staff the greatest composer of his day – Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – and yet Frederick never recognised Bach’s greatness. As Burney said in his history of music: “The Prince had certainly great professors in his service, though he was never partial to Emanuel Bach, the greatest of them all.”

Löhr: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

CPE Bach joined Frederick’s court as first harpsichordist in 1740. He became the central figure in the development of a new style of writing, called in German the empfindsamer Stil, the “highly sensitive style”. This was a style in which the clear and direct transmission of emotion was all-important, with the consequence that music was at times daring, even bizarre. If one sees the music Frederick loved, like the polite, non boat-rocking music of Quantz, it’s not hard to see why CPE Bach’s music was not to his taste.

Bach was not paid anywhere near the salaries of Graun or Quantz, but at 300 thalers per year his salary would have been in those days an acceptable, average musician’s wages. Bach never won full titular recognition as a court composer from Frederick – he was employed as a keyboard player – but with the employment of a second harpsichordist at the court around 1742, his duties were considerably reduced, with no reduction in his salary. He became widely recognised as one of the finest keyboard teachers of his day, and this work led to his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments) which was published in two parts in 1753 and 1762. It ranks with Quantz’s book on flute-playing as one of the most important sources for those wishing to understand mid-18th century German performance practice. Like Quantz’s book, it goes beyond the dictates of its title, covering a wide range of topics, not just keyboard technique. In those days a performer – whether instrumental or vocal – was required to well-versed in a wide range of disciplines.

Agricola also wrote, in 1757, an important treatise, titled Anleitung der Singkunst (An Introduction to the Art of Singing). Along with Leopold Mozart’s Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing), published in 1756, the treatises by Agricola, CPE Bach and Quantz make up the great quartet of 18th century music manuals which are still vital to our understanding of the performance practices of the period.

In May 1747 (that is, seven years after CPE Bach’s appointment to Frederick’s court), his father, the great Johann Sebastian Bach, visited Frederick the Great in Potsdam. This was 3 years before JS Bach’s death; he was aged 62. Frederick invented a theme and played it on his flute: [listen]

He then asked Bach to improvise on it. He improvised a three-part fugue which caused great amazement. On his return to Leipzig later that month he wrote down the fugue he had improvised and proceeded to develop a much larger work in several movements dedicated to the King called The Musical Offering. This was printed by the end of September 1747. The King’s theme serves as the basis for all the movements (two fugues, in three and six parts, for keyboard; a trio sonata for flute, violin and continuo; and various canons for flute, violin and continuo with harpsichord obbligato). Frederick must have been stunned when the mail arrived with that little package!

Here is Bach’s transcription of the original fugue he improvised: [listen]

Despite his admiration for JS Bach, Frederick did not as a result of this famous meeting change in any way his attitude to CPE Bach. Instrumental music at the Prussian court stagnated after the Seven Years War, which ended in 1763, and CPE Bach made several efforts to find employment elsewhere; he eventually left Frederick’s service in 1767. It seems that the daring and inventive nature of works such as this harpsichord sonata weren’t appreciated in Berlin: [listen]

The court of Frederick the Great provided a working hothouse for some of the greatest composers, singers, instrumentalists and theoreticians of the mid- to late-18th century. It’s a pity the fruits of Frederick’s efforts aren’t better known, especially the music of Benda, the Graun brothers, and Agricola. These men were giants in their day and were recognised as such. And despite his fame today, CPE Bach’s music can hardly be said to be widely-known, either. There’s a lot of music out there to explore!

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2003.

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