Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great


• 1712 1786


Though royalty and the aristocracy played important parts as patrons of the arts in eighteenth-century Europe, few were as directly involved as Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who was not only a patron of music and musicians, but also an accomplished performer and composer in his own right.

From his accession to the throne in 1740 until his death, Frederick was closely involved with musical affairs, and pursued them with military efficiency. After establishing the Berlin Opera he surrounded himself with some of the finest musical talent of the time, including J.H. Graun, C.P.E. Bach, and J.J. Quantz, a famous flautist, composer and author of an important treatise on the flute. Quantz had every reason to be proud of his royal pupil for, in addition to the hundreds of sonatas and concertos he wrote for him, the King himself produced a creditable list of compositions, including some 121 flute sonatas and four flute concertos.

Frederick's palace, Sans Souci near Potsdam, became a focus of high-quality music making. Carl Heinrich Graun, the Royal Kapellmeister, recruited singers for the Berlin Opera, and Frederick wrote arias and libretti for several of Graun's operas, including one of his biggest successes, Montezuma. It is possible that C.P.E. Bach, the King's official accompanist, was seeking to engineer his father's acceptance into this charmed circle, for when J.S. Bach visited Sans Souci in 1747 he brought with him his Musical Offering based on a theme by Frederick.

King Frederick's compositions (almost all for flute) are far from being the works of a dilettante. Predictably, they are modeled on Quantz's compositions, but possess an individuality and gentle charm at odds with the conventional image of a Prussian monarch. None were published during the King's lifetime, but his concertos and a few of the sonatas are occasionally heard in present-day concerts and recitals.

During the Seven Years War between Prussia and France (1756 - 1763), Court music declined, but Frederick's legacy is a telling reminder of the grace and influence of the North German Baroque.