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Frederick the Great

January 23, 2012

Prussia's most famous king is regarded as an enlightened monarch and disciplined soldier. The multitalented man had a love of music that went well beyond the practical value music held for his public image.

A statue of Frederick the Great
Even in battle, Frederick didn't neglect his flute practiceImage: Fotolia/ArTo
The concert room in Frederick's palace
The king's palace housed an impressive collection of instrumentsImage: SPSG/Leo Seidel

Frederick II (1712-1786) wrote a history of Prussia, prose, poems, plays and opera libretti. He had a keen interest in the Enlightenment in France, entertaining a friendship with the writer and philosopher Voltaire. The cosmopolitan ruler - affectionately nicknamed Frederick the Great by his subjects - seldom spoke German. Instead, he preferred to speak and write in French, but was also versed in English, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Arguably his favorite language of all, though, was music.

Flute and feather

As a child, Frederick had to take music lessons in secret because his father thought little of his musical interests. Shortly after ascending the Prussian throne, Frederick II commissioned the construction of the State Opera Unter den Linden in Berlin, bringing prominent musicians to his court like his former flute teacher Johann Joachim Quantz as well as Carl Heinrich Graun, the brothers Franz and Georg Anton Benda and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His residences in Berlin and nearby Potsdam became centers of German musical life.

Frederick was also an avid composer, producing 121 sonatas for flute, four flute concertos, a symphony and various arias - all written in a consistently gallant and melodious style. Kings who wrote music weren't uncommon. The English rulers Richard the Lion Hearted and Henry VIII as well as many from the Habsburg dynasty shared the avocation. Frederick's sisters Wilhelmine and Anna Amalie were also artistically gifted.

Quantz composed 296 concertos for the flute-playing king. And the composer even accompanied his patron during military ventures, allowing Frederick to improve his technique even when battle called. An 1852 painting titled "Flute Concert in Sanssouci" by Adolph von Menzel offers an impression of musical life at Frederick II's court. The ruler's playing ability was regarded as respectable, and he earned particular praise for his interpretations of slower movements and his improvisational skill.

The composer king and the king of composers

The works written by the king and his favorite composer, Quantz, tended to be rather conventional. The monarch wasn't interested in the modern music of his time, including that of Mozart and Haydn.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach spent 30 years at the Prussian court, his gifts largely unacknowledged by Frederick. But Bach's famous father, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, earned royal esteem.

On May 7, 1747, the king invited the elder Bach to Sanssouci Palace. A number of weeklies reported in great detail about their meeting.

Aware that a musical luminary stood before him, the ruler didn't pass up the chance to subject Bach's skills to a royal test. Frederick played a theme on which Bach was to improvise a three-voiced fugue. The origin of the king's complex musical motif is a subject of dispute among scholars.

"It's unclear whether Frederick really thought it up himself - perhaps one of the court's musicians dictated it to his quill," said researcher Michael Maul of the Bach Archive in Leipzig.

Courtly PR

The elder Bach perhaps hoped his visit with the not quite so "Old" Fritz, as the king was later nicknamed, would result in a new job appointment. Bach had grown tired of his post as cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Upon returning there, Bach dedicated a collection to the King titled "A Musical Offering," in which each of the pieces are based on the "royal" theme from their meeting. Frederick was said to have approvingly looked over the scores, maybe even admired them, but they didn't lead to a new post for Bach.

More than just a hobby by today's standards, Frederick the Great's musical activities were part of the monarch's finely-honed public image. Through his nightly concerts and even the encounter with Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederick was able to present himself as an enlightened ruler with artistic leanings - a counterbalance to his image as an unscrupulous military commander. Supporting music as part of a clever PR campaign is just one of the many respects in which the Prussian king was well ahead of his time.

Authors: Claus Fischer, Rick Fulker
Editor: Greg Wiser

One of Frederick II's flutes
A true original: one of Frederick II's flutesImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Composer Johann Sebastian Bach
Composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)Image: picture-alliance/dpa
A painting titled "Flute Concert in Sanssouci" by Adolph von Menzel
"Flute Concert in Sanssouci" (1852) by Adolph von Menzel shows Frederick the Great