Wednesday 18 April 2012

The King in Prussia: Frederick the Great and Opera

As many readers will doubtless be aware, Frederick II of Prussia turned 300 this year. I was asked to write a piece on his relationship to opera for OPERA magazine. The article appeared in its 'Festivals' edition and is reproduced below.

24 January 2012 marked the three-hundredth birthday of Frederick II, ‘the Great’, Elector of Brandenburg and King in and, from 1772, of Prussia. Those amongst us who are sticklers for detail like to correct those employing the wrong preposition: not merely out of dry pedantry, but because, as with the ‘und’ of Tristan und Isolde, there will often prove to be a wealth of meaning in but a single, small word. The Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I , had acknowledged the coronation of Elector Frederick III as Frederick I, King in Prussia (Rex in Borussia), in return for support during the War of the Spanish Succession, but only because the erstwhile Duchy of Prussia, as opposed to Brandenburg, lay without the Empire – and also, falsely, as it would turn out, reassuring the Poles as to claims upon their territory. (Various other formulations had been considered, the most outlandish being ‘King of the Vandals,’ perhaps not the most promising title for an æsthete such as Frederick the Great to inherit.) It would be thirty-two years after his accession, following the First Partition of Poland, before Frederick II would alter the preposition. Why, the reader might ask, is that of any relevance to an article concerning Frederick the Great and opera? Apart from the not entirely insignificant matter of bestowing the correct title, it reminds us of the monarch’s complicated relationship with German culture, for all the admiration felt for ‘der alte Fritz’ by later nationalists. Frederick’s statue may stand proudly on Berlin’s Unter den Linden, close to the opera house he commissioned shortly after succeeding to the throne; yet not only should he be considered more Prussian than German, he remained for the most part aloof from the rise in cultural German nationalism that characterised the eighteenth century just as well as the nineteenth.

For though, in the same year that Frederick adopted the second of his regal prepositions, his fellow Prussian Johann Gottfried Herder wrote his Treatise on the Origin of Language, a landmark for the history of cultural nationalism in general and German nationalism in particular, Frederick continued not only to write in French, but to disparage the German language. It was, he wrote in his 1780 De la littérature allemande, a semi-barbaric language (‘à demi-barbare’). His model rather was the French of Voltaire, just as his model for courtly life had been that of Versailles (minus the women). Indeed, in 1775 – as Tim Blanning has pointed out, only one year before the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther – Frederick wrote to Voltaire that Germany’s level of cultural attainment lagged about two-and-a-half centuries behind that of France. German opera was even worse than that German literature, the Shakespeare-admiring Goethe included (Götz von Berlichingen an ‘abominable imitation’ of the Englishman), disdained by our Classically-inclined monarch. He declared that he would rather listen to the neighing of his horse than to a German soprano, though the example in the 1770s of Gertrud Elisabeth Mara seems somewhat to have softened his attitude. If so many of his intellectual influences – which is not necessarily to say his militaristic practice as a ruler – were to be found in the French Enlightenment, the King looked to Italy in matters operatic, a prejudice, be it noted, as common amongst singers as amongst singers. Gottlob Stephanie, libretto reviser for Die Entführung, and who had himself been conscripted into Frederick’s army during the Seven Years’ War, would bewail even in 1792, in a preface to his collected Singspiel texts, that not only were there too few original German operas but that singers were far readier to sing texts written in the Romance (‘welsch’, a word featuring in Hans Sachs’s Meistersinger peroration) tongues of French and Italian.

During the difficult period awaiting accession to the throne, the flute-playing Frederick was bullied and imprisoned by his frankly philistine, Calvinist father, Frederick William I, who for good measure also had one of his son’s friends (possibly his lover) executed in front of him. Frederick nevertheless managed to maintain his musical interests alongside the military preparations that eventually won the approval of Frederick William. Johann Joachim Quantz acted as flute teacher, whilst Frederick in 1735 lured from Dresden Carl Heinrich Graun as chief of his musicians in Ruppin. On moving residence to Rheinsberg, near Potsdam, the following year, the Crown Prince was accompanied not only by Graun, but also his brother, Johann Gottlieb, another alumnus of the Kreuzschule, as well as musicians such as Franz and Johann Benda. Johann Gottlieb would be made first concertmaster of the Berlin Opera, whilst Carl Heinrich – hereafter ‘Graun’ – became King Frederick’s first Kapellmeister. In addition to Voltaire, visitors to Rheinsberg included French men of letters such as Fontenelle and Maupertuis, as well as Francesco Algarotti, philosopher, art critic, friend to Tiepolo, and soon-to-be Count and Chamberlain under the new, Frederician regime. (Algarotti’s 1755 Essay on the Opera would prove an important influence upon the reforms of Gluck and Calzabigi.)

Siegfried Matthus, himself born in Rheinsberg, sets his eighty-minute chamber opera, Kronprinz Friedrich (1998-9), revived at this year’s Schloss Rheinsberg Festival, during Frederick’s period as heir to the throne. Frederick William would doubtless have been by turn reassured and horrified by the gender implications of presenting him as a baritone and as mezzos both the eighteen-year-old Frederick and his executed flautist friend, Hans Hermann von Katte, attempting to flee grim Prussia for Hanoverian England. Hans Werner Henze’s more celebrated Der Prinz von Homburg – its hero another, earlier Prince Frederick – is not the only twentieth-century opera to deal with high-political conflict between love and duty in Brandenburg-Prussia. In 1744, Frederick granted the palace to his brother, Henry, who built an open-air ‘hedge theatre’ (Heckentheater), which provides the setting for this year’s performance. An 1880 guide by Andrew Hamilton, Rheinsberg: Memorials of Frederick the Great and Prince Henry of Prussia, would draw upon a 1778 work by Henry’s Court Surveyor, Karl Wilhelm Hennert, thus: ‘There is the natural Theatre in which everything is hedge-orchestra, pro-scenium, stage, dressing-rooms, all of live hedges of various heights. Hard by that is the Chinese garden, full of pagodas, and mandarins, and apes, and cages of gilt wire holding birds of brilliant plumage.’ In the summer of 2012, then, that eighteenth-century world of opera and chinoiserie will find itself partly brought back to life at Rheinsberg – though the events in question took place in 1730, before Frederick had moved there. Katte, whom Frederick would rarely so much as mention after emerging from a period of grief, will receive a resurrection, or at least reacknowledgement, of sorts.

Back, or rather forward, to Berlin, to Frederick’s accession on 31 May 1740. Within two months, and thus a good few months before the invasion of Silesia, often described as his first major political deed, Frederick commissioned Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff – who would also design the great summer palace Sanssouci, at Potsdam – to build the Hofoper. (It is now the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, temporarily in exile at Charlottenburg’s Schillertheater, whilst renovation work is conducted). Kapellmeister Graun was sent to Italy, to offer employment at the Prussian court to Italian singers. Johann Mattheson, composer and critic, arguably the first German musical journalist, lamented from the safety of his position as Kapellmeister to the Duke of Holstein: ‘When will we give up our blind worship of foreigners and learn to judge our own countrymen fairly?!’ Graun’s first trawl, recruited during an eight-month tour, failed to satisfy Frederick, but by 1743, a starry ensemble including notable artists such as the prima donna Giovanna Gasparini, the castrati Felice Salembini and Antonio Uber (Porporino), and the tenor, Antonio Romani, had been engaged. Voltaire and Algarotti assisted, both in the recruitment of singers and in that of Parisian actors and dancers for Frederick’s French theatre and ballet. CPE Bach and Quantz joined the orchestra as harpsichordist and flautist, the latter’s salary increasing from 250 thalers in Dresden to 2000 in Berlin. Singers commanded salaries higher than those of cabinet ministers. By 1754, some forty instrumentalists alone were in the King’s pay. This was a rather more serious commitment and investment than ‘Cool Britannia’. Moreover, Frederick was of course not only a musical patron, but a librettist and composer himself.

Graun’s Rodelinda had been performed in December 1741 on a temporary stage in the King’s Berlin palace, but it was with the composer’s Cesare e Cleopatre that the Hofoper opened, a year later, on 7 December 1742. The following year saw a performance of the Saxon Johann Adolf Hasse’s La clemenza di Tito (composed in 1735 to Metastasio’s libretto, and heard by Mozart in Cremona, in 1770, twenty-one years before his own setting). The musical shadow of Italianate Dresden which had first made itself felt upon Frederick on hearing Hasse’s Cleofide there in 1728, would continue to be keenly felt; Prussia had a great deal of cultural catching up to pursue. (Primacy of Italian opera in Dresden would persist until Weber.)

Even when not acting as librettist, Frederick took a great interest in the plots set by Graun, who composed almost all of the new works performed in Berlin, often two per season. Moreover, Frederick often suggested the plot outlines in the first instance. He would criticise Graun’s work and have new arias composed to replace those that failed to meet with his approval. Frederick’s œuvre as librettist (in French) includes Silla (1753) and some parts of I fratelli nemici (1756) and Merope (1756, shortly before the Seven Years’ War had the opera closed), translated into Italian by the court poet, Giampietro Tagliazucchi.

Another such work was Montezuma, the twenty-fourth (!) of Graun’s Berlin operas, premiered on 6 January 1755, and generally considered to possess the finest of Graun’s libretti. Having been performed in concert by the Staatsoper earlier this year, it will be staged at Sanssouci as part of this year’s Postdam Festival. Frederick himself was involved in the 1755 staging, and it was revived in 1771, though a subsequent performance does not seem to have taken place until that in Saarbrücken (ironically, in German) in 1936. Montezuma, a just sovereign, meets his death at the hands of the conquering, fanatical Cortes, who also lusts after the Aztec leader’s beloved, Euparofice. The Voltairean Frederick had never paid more than lip-service, if that, to Christianity, once even going so far as to declare his willingness to build a mosque in Berlin, should it attract useful citizens. If the Spaniards considered the indigenous inhabitants of Mexico barbarians, their avaricious, murderous conduct suggested that Christian ‘civilisation’ might well prove a misnomer. It was, as Frederick well knew, a classic Enlightenment – and specifically French Enlightenment – tactic to evade the censor by implicit criticism: Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes and Voltaire’s Lettres anglaises both provided shining examples of works which, through lavish praise of other societies, be they Persian or on the other side of La Manche, cast doubt upon the achievements of their own. If the librettist were the King, of course, criticism might no longer have any need to remain implicit. What Frederick and many other Enlightenment writers certainly held in common was the appreciation, in the wake of the Voyages of Discovery, that other, non-European civilisations had survived and indeed prospered in (blissful?) ignorance of the Christian faith. Interest in China – even at the level of Rheinsberg’s chinoiserie – was not entirely unconnected with that ideological impetus.

Whilst the critical jury, even on those occasions when it cares to assemble in the first place, seems still to be out on Graun’s compositions – Charles Burney was an early detractor, accusing Graun of old-fashioned writing and a lack of originality – we can certainly say that they offer, from our musico-historical perspective, a number of ‘forward-looking’ aspects. Da capo arias are often replaced with two-section cavatinas – in Montezuma and a number of other cases, it seems, expressly at Frederick’s command. Moreover, ensembles prove sometimes to further the action in a fashion that might tempt us to think of Mozart. Christoph Henzel implicitly counsels against such an interpretation, when he points out that ‘the aim was to find a structure – one with short, concise scenes and as much lyrical music (and as little recitative) as possible – that would stress the visual rather than the psychological impact of the drama for an audience with scant knowledge of Italian language and literature.’ We might nevertheless, if so inclined, respond that motivation and influence may differ. Gluck was certainly not the sole influence on Mozart’s operatic developments, and Algarotti’s influential Essay specifically cited Montezuma as a model work in which the requirements of singers were subordinated to a properly coherent poetic idea.

By the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, it is probably fair to say that the King’s musical interests had become set in stone. Whereas many other German states showed themselves supportive of new musical developments – the courts in Mannheim, Munich, and of course Vienna are but a few celebrated instances – Frederick remained loyal to Hasse and Graun. Though Emanuel Bach was employed as harpsichordist, the King evinced little or no interest in his music, whilst Haydn’s music was dismissed as ‘a shindy that flays the ears’. Whereas the new Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, vigorously supported the promotion of German culture, even at the cost of outright revolt in his non-German lands, Frederick’s tastes had barely changed, if at all, since his time at Rheinsberg. Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock, purveyor of patriotic odes, complained, ‘The Emperor loves his fatherland – but Frederick does not!’ Whatever the truths concerning Joseph’s treatment of Mozart, and the record is more mixed than many allow, it seems that the Prussian King had never even heard of him. Moreover, Frederick’s interest in music tout court, as E. Eugene Helm noted in his study, Music at the Court of Frederick the Great, waned in tandem with the deterioration of his flute technique and thus his activity as a performer. The music-lover, then, will be more likely to speak of the King in Prussia.