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Frederick II, King of Prussia [Friedrich II; Frederick the Great]

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Frederick II, King of Prussia [Friedrich II; Frederick the Great]

(b Berlin, 24 Jan 1712; d Potsdam, 17 Aug 1786). German monarch, patron of the arts, flautist and composer. His father, Friedrich Wilhelm I, was alarmed at his son’s early preference for intellectual and artistic pursuits over the military and religious. In spite of being supervised day and night and in the face of his father’s rages and corporal punishments, Frederick managed, partly through the complicity of his mother and his older sister Wilhelmina, to read forbidden books, to affect French dress and manners and to play flute duets with his servant. As a seven-year-old he was permitted to study thoroughbass and four-part composition with the cathedral organist Gottlieb Hayne. Wilhelmina, also musically talented, joined him in impromptu concerts. On a visit to Dresden in 1728 the prince was overwhelmed at hearing his first opera, Hasse’s Cleofide; there he also first heard the playing of the flautist J.J. Quantz, who soon thereafter began making occasional visits to Berlin to give Frederick flute lessons. The king tolerated such amusements for a while, but by 1730 his disapproval had hardened to prohibition.

On 4 August 1730, in his 18th year, Frederick attempted to escape to England. The result was his imprisonment and the beheading of one of his ‘accomplices’ in his presence. Instead of breaking, the prince became more sober and orthodox. In 1733 he reluctantly married the bride chosen for him, Elisabeth Christina of Brunswick. He took command of a regiment and immersed himself so thoroughly in statecraft that he eventually won the confidence of even his father. But he had no intention of giving up his interests: at his residence in Ruppin he maintained a small group of instrumentalists; the occasional lessons with Quantz continued; he appointed C.H. Graun as general court musician in 1735; and in 1736, when he moved to Rheinsberg, 17 musicians moved with him, including C.H. and J.G. Graun, Franz and Johann Benda, Christoph Schaffrath and J.G. Janitsch. Among his visitors were Algarotti, Maupertius, Fontenelle, Lord Baltimore, Gravesande and Voltaire.

When Frederick finally acceded to the throne on 31 May 1740 he plunged into social and political reforms, military conquest and the rehabilitation of Prussian arts and letters, all at once. Hardly two months after his accession he took the first steps towards establishing the Berlin Opera: C.H. Graun, now in the official capacity of Kapellmeister at the handsome salary of 2000 thalers a year, was dispatched to Italy to employ singers for the Prussian court, and the royal architect G.W. von Knobelsdorf, having been unofficially commissioned during the Rheinsberg years, was commanded to begin work on a monumental opera house. In the meantime opera flourished in a temporary theatre. Other agents, such as Voltaire and Algarotti (both of whom were Frederick’s established confidants and correspondents), were commissioned to engage actors and dancers in Paris and more singers from Italy, along with machinists, costumiers and librettists. Amid this ferment, when the Emperor Charles of Austria died on 20 October, Frederick immediately began plans which culminated in his invasion of Silesia, the first of the many military campaigns through which he transformed Prussia into a great modern state. When Graun returned to Berlin with his Italian troupe of singers in March 1741, Frederick was on the battlefield. Indeed, in the first years of his reign Frederick enlarged both Prussia’s geographical and cultural boundaries, with equal verve.

C.P.E. Bach, having already performed regularly at Rheinsberg, joined the court orchestra officially in 1740 as first cembalist; Quantz, released from his position in Dresden, was appointed in 1741 at the remarkable salary (for an instrumental musician) of 2000 thalers yearly (his Dresden salary had been 250 thalers). Christoph Nichelmann was retained in 1744 as second cembalist. In 1754 some 50 musicians, excluding singers for court intermezzos and members of the opera chorus, were in Frederick’s employ: about 40 instrumentalists and eight solo singers, in addition to C.H. Graun as Kapellmeister and chief composer for the opera, and J.F. Agricola as court composer. Quantz was flautist, chamber composer and director of the instrumental soirées. Three of the solo singers in 1754 were castratos: Giovanni Carestini, Antonio Uberi (Porporino) and Paolo Bedeschi (Paulino). Benedetta Molteni, later Agricola’s wife, had been prima donna until 1748, when her position was usurped by Giovanna Astrua. (Astrua’s salary was 6000 thalers, higher than that of a cabinet minister; C.P.E. Bach, the most important musician that Frederick ever employed, drew a salary of 300 thalers during the same period.)

The new opera house on the avenue Unter den Linden, whose replica still stands in Berlin, was opened on 7 December 1742. From that date to the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, the standard season featured two new operas by Graun and an occasional work by Hasse, composers who were the foremost representatives of Italian opera in Germany. Most of the rest of the year was filled with intermezzos, Schäferspiele, pastorales or serenatas, all usually composed as pasticcios; throughout the year instrumental music was performed in the king’s chambers, usually by no more than eight or nine musicians. The soloist at these soirées was either Frederick or Quantz; the music consisted almost always of some concertos or sonatas for flute, with Frederick and Quantz again as favoured composers.

In the successful but bitter Seven Years War (1756–63) Frederick gradually became ‘der alte Fritz’, inflexible and reactionary. Instrumental music at the court stagnated: Nichelmann left in 1756, C.P.E. Bach – whose true importance Frederick never perceived – in 1767. From March 1756 to December 1764 no operas were produced at the Berlin Opera House; and from the end of the war to Frederick’s death in 1786 almost all the opera productions there were revivals of pre-war works. C.H. Graun died in 1759; his place was taken after the war by Agricola, but without the title of Kapellmeister. Agricola mounted three operas of his own, but these were mere imitations of Graun’s and were held in open contempt by Frederick. When Agricola died in 1774 the direction of the opera passed to the unwilling C.F.C. Fasch, again without the title of Kapellmeister; and in 1776 until Frederick’s death Fasch was replaced by J.F. Reichardt, the first person to receive the title of Kapellmeister since Graun’s death. The atmosphere of decay and rigidity was relieved briefly by the arrival in 1771 of Gertrud Elisabeth Mara as prima donna; it was she who broke down Frederick’s prejudice against German singers.

The quality and scope of Frederick’s patronage was fundamentally coloured by his own accomplishments as flautist, composer and librettist. A consideration of all extant criticism of his playing and a study of the music he played leads to the conclusion that he was far above average as a performer, especially in adagios. All his compositions date from before the Seven Years War; in some of the orchestral works he left the inner parts to be filled in by others. His model in flute sonatas and concertos was Quantz, and through him the sonatas of Tartini and solo concertos of Vivaldi. In his dramatic music Frederick followed the style of Graun. Frederick’s works are likely to surprise the listener with their assurance and charm. The exact number of his compositions is difficult to determine, owing to the difficulty of separating his work from that of the artists he employed. Though he intended his works to be performed only before himself, there have been many editions of them since his death.

Not surprisingly, Frederick also wrote, sketched and suggested librettos. He probably took part, at least as an adviser, in the preparation of most librettos which Graun set while in his service. His Montezuma (1755), written in French prose and translated into Italian verse by the court poet Giampietro Tagliazucchi, is probably the best libretto ever set by Graun. Frederick also wrote for Graun his Silla (1753) and parts of I fratelli nemici (1756) and Merope (1756), all of which Tagliazucchi translated, and he sketched the plots of Leopoldo de Villati’s Coriolano (Graun, 1749) and Tagliazucchi’s Il tempio d’amore (Agricola, 1755).

The most lasting musical accomplishments of Frederick’s court were those of the composers employed or influenced by him. In addition to the figures already mentioned, F.W. Marpurg and J.P. Kirnberger, Berlin musicians and theorists not directly in Frederick’s employ but certainly under his influence, might be considered musical spokesmen of Frederick’s rationalist philosophy. Frederick gave his views on music in his Lettres au public (Berlin, 1753). To Frederick is also owed the origin and stimulus of Bach’s sublime Musical Offering, based on a theme of the king’s invention on which Bach improvised while on a visit to Potsdam in 1747.

See also Berlin.


MSS are mostly in D-Bsb; for approximate dating, see Spitta edn and Helm, 42ff

Editions: Friedrichs des Grossen musikalische Werke, i–iii, ed. P. Spitta (Leipzig, 1889/R) [S]Friedrich der Grosse: Kompositionen, ed. G. Lenzewski (Berlin, 1925) [L]

Inst: 4 concs., fl, str, ed. in S, iii, 2 ed. in L; 121 sonatas (11 lost), fl, kbd, 6 in autograph, thematic index in S, i, 25 ed. in S, i–ii; Sinfonia, D, 1743 (Nuremberg, n.d.), used as ov. to Serenata, Charlottenburg, 4 Aug 1747 (later known as Il re pastore, see Helm, 40–44), ed. in NM, cx (1934), and in L; March, E, autograph; 2 marches, 1741, 1756; Solfeggien, fl, 4 vols., some by J.J. Quantz; Sinfonia, G, str, kbd, ed. in L, and Air des Houlans ou Marche du roi de Prusse: probably by Frederick

Vocal: 4 arias in operas by C.H. Graun: Demofoonte, 1746, D-W, Il giudizio di Paride, 1752; arias in pasticcios, collab. C.H. Graun and others: Il trionfo della fedeltà, 1753, ?Galatea ed Acide, 1748; 2 arias in Serenata, 1747, ed. in L; elaboration of aria in J.A. Hasse: Cleofide, for the castrato Porporino, facs. (Wiesbaden, 1991); arias (Digli ch’io son fedele, L’empio rigor) Dl; 3 secular cantatas, lost


Doubtful: Sinfonia, G, str, kbd, Dl (attrib. J.G. Graun), ed. in L; Sinfonia, A, ed. in L; Hohenfriedberger Marsch: dances, kbd; aria in C.H. Graun: Coriolano, 1749




J.D.E. Preuss, ed.: Oeuvres de Frédéric le Grand (Berlin, 1846–57)

W. Kothe: Friedrich der Grosse als Musiker (Braunsberg, 1869)

P. Spitta: ‘Vorwort’, Friedrichs des Grossen musikalische Werke (Leipzig, 1889/R)

G. Thouret: Friedrich der Grosse als Musikfreund und Musiker (Leipzig, 1898)

G. Müller: Friedrich der Grosse: seine Flöten und sein Flötenspiel (Berlin, 1932)

H. Osthoff: ‘Friedrich der Grosse als Komponist’, ZfM, Jg.103 (1936), 917–20

A. Yorke-Long: Music at Court (London, 1954)

E.E. Helm: Music at the Court of Frederick the Great (Norman, OK, 1960)

N. Mitford: Frederick the Great (New York, 1970)

C. Hogwood: Music at Court (London, 1977)

H. Becker: ‘Friedrich der Grosse und die Musik’, Preussens grosser König, ed. W. Treue (Freiburg, 1986), 150–61

H. Klüppelholz: ‘Die Eroberung Mexikos aus preussischer Sicht, zum Libretto der Oper “Montezuma” von Friedrich dem Grossen’, Oper als text: romantische Beiträge zur Libretto-Forschung, ed. A. Gier (Heidelberg, 1986), 65–94

D. McCulloch: Aristocratic Composers in the 18th Century (diss., U of Surrey, 1990

D. McCulloch: ‘A lesson on the King of Prussia: a New Look at the Compositions of Frederick the Great’, German Life and Letters, xlviii (1995), 1–11


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