Probably no one sitting in the House of Representatives chamber last Tuesday night for Barack Obama’s State of the Union address knew that January 24 also marked the 300th birthday of Frederick the Great. Poster boy for Enlightened Despotism, the Prussian King shares a host of contradictions with the current American president. Like Frederick before him, Obama commands the high-minded rhetoric of Reason belied by a politics founded on the relentless pursuit of war and the obsessive policing of the citizenry.
The rehabilitation of Frederick the Great in Germany, which the current birth-year commemorations are attempting to crown, glance in the direction of his wars, but then quickly turn to his supposedly towering cultural achievements: his fostering of the arts, and especially music. His many palaces and gardens in Potsdam—once far outside of Berlin, but now abutting the German capital’s westward sprawl—are busily being restored. In their reclaimed glory, these will reflect the tranquil nobility of the monarch’s aesthetical and philosophical interests. The musical establishment Frederick built up produced operas, concertos, and chamber works that—at least so much is implied by the tricentenary labors of commemoration—have far outlasted the miseries wrought by his wars, and the still more devastating afterlife of the Prussian militarism he fostered.
Proof of his cultural victories on the field of music was offered on Tuesday night in a 300th birthday concert in the sold-out Philharmonie. On stage were two Berlin baroque ensembles: the one, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, playing on the kinds of historic instruments known to Frederick and his court musicians; the other, the Berliner Barock Solisten, using a mixture of equipment—old-style bows on mostly modern violins and unapologetically modern winds. Refereeing this battle of the bands were two of the greatest German actors, Burghart Klaußner and Armin Mueller-Stahl. The former is perhaps best known to American audiences as the sadistic pastor in Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning film, The White Ribbon; in his even longer career, Mueller-Stahl, now eighty-three, has gone from being the East German version of James Bond in the Cold War to diverse roles in both Europe and Hollywood, even appearing as the Israeli ambassador in The West Wing. On Tuesday evening in the Philharmonie, Mueller-Stahl played Frederick the Great to Klaußner’s Voltaire, the French philosophe who spent two well-paid years at the Prussian court, before the two fell out. But even after this rupture, the pair pursued an intense correspondence yielding more than two hundred letters written over several decades. These letters along with invented dialogue and other historic materials formed the script from which the actors read while seated armchairs at the front of the stage, the respective bands on either flank.
The lure of experiencing something of Frederick’s musical tastes and talents might have been enough to pack the Philharmonie, but the actors were the main draw: imagine Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper playing John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The format of reasonable dialogue between the two figures was itself a bit suspect, since Frederick suffered from logorrhea; he talked non-stop at gatherings of the intellectual assembled at his court, and this was one of the main reasons that his thinkers-for-hire, Voltaire among them, were so frustrated. The conceit adopted for Tuesday dialogue was that monarch and his philosopher were both long dead and now mused on their distant lives and works as if from the Elysian Fields. The posthumous Frederick is apparently less of a conversational bore than the live one. He and Voltaire had a few exchanges about the contradictions between Frederick’s thoughts and deeds, with longer colloquies allowing Frederick space to complain about the burdens of monarchic responsibility, the absolute necessity of obeying laws even when they are bad (another notion that resonates ever more strongly in our time), the ephemeral nature of fame and heroic deeds. Frederick huskily dismissed Voltaire’s rhetorical flattery, such modesty making the king come off us a down-to-earth German rather than a francophone aesthete-warrior with a talent for galant music and a taste for louche genre painting. There were also sly comments pointing out the differences between Prussia rising to European power under Frederick and the present-day German shrunken in the aftermath of disastrous 20th-century wars.
The six musical pieces on the program—three delivered by each group—were divided by five of these conversations, with the King calling for music when there had been enough talk.
With royal permission granted, the Akadmie für Alte Musik started off with a ripping D-Major Sinfonia in four movements by the Prussian court’s first violinist, Johann Gottlieb Graun. In this festive work the always-energetic strings, flutes, oboes, and harpsichord of the Akademie were joined by two horns, three trumpets, and kettledrums. Graun’s music is bright, optimistic, eschews complexity; it’s like dry leaves to be ignited by the sparking energy of this fiery band. The Akademie’s Allegros are brisk, their slow movements are poised and graceful, their dynamics are always varied—from brash axioms to doubting whispers. The brass glints in Graun’s bright musical optimism—the prevailing mood of the Berlin style before the retrenchments and gloom of the Seven Year Wars set in. Indeed the horns were the heroes of the Graun and the last of the Akademie’s three contributions, another Sinfonia in D major, this one by Frederick himself. Frederick commandeers the favorite, not to say hackneyed, gestures of the Berlin style, and animates them with a military charge. He was a competent and, given his crushing workload as head of state, quite prolific composer, not bad at producing insouciant allegros and sulking adagios. Just before the intermission, the Akademie’s principal flutist, Christoph Huntgeburth gave an electrifying rendition of a demanding concerto in E minor by Frederick’s flute master Johann Joachim Quantz.
This is music several ranks above Frederick’s efforts: fabulously virtuosic, with rapid runs, arpeggios, and long-held trills; occasionally contrapuntal treatment of motive; and abrupt reversals of harmonic, melodic, and emotional direction. Where one enjoys the gentle warmth of the sunny superficiality of Frederick’s music, Quantz’s music is guttering candles and flickering shadows, heated pronouncements and melancholic regrets. Quantz wrote some three hundred flute concertos as the private property of Frederick. The king played one of these in the private royal concerts that took place every evening at one of his palaces, most often at his favorite residence in Potsdam, Sanssouci. His musicians complained among themselves about the monarch’s wavering tempos, especially in his later years, but that Frederick could make an even half-respectable go at a piece as demanding as this concerto is a testament to his musical accomplishment and ambition.
Huntgeburth answered all Quantz’s challenges flawlessly; playing a wooden flute like Frederick would have had, one with only finger holes and a single key for the pinky of the right hand. It is an unforgivingly difficult instrument, but when played with this degree of command gives back unmatched expressive riches even in a hall such as the Philharmonie, which is a hundred times bigger than the music room at Sanssouci. Looking on from his arm chair, Mueller-Stahl’s Frederick could only marvel at this performance: more than the display of skill, what impressed was Huntgeburth’s courage and sensibility in bringing more than two-thousand listeners into his instrument’s intimate sound-world. Mere brilliance was transformed into profundity.
The more modern Berlin Barock Solisten have a flair for the fast and furious; although often faster, the group nonetheless cannot match the furtive energy of the Akademie. The Solisten’s adagios also make the right moves—the feints towards pianissimo, the urgent sighs, and momentary silences—but these too lack emotional urgency. The modern winds were blatantly out of place in this courtly music: instead of candlelight, the horns were 100-watt halogen that left the audience squinting in the glare. The oboe was gleaming turtle wax on bright red paint instead of the rich, mysterious glow of French polish on walnut burl.
The concluding piece on the program was another flute concerto, this one in D minor and written by Frederick’s sometime harpsichordist, Carl Emanuel Bach. Here was another example of the Berlin style at its most elevated and animated: this work matches the difficulty and complexity of that of Quantz. The soloist, Jacques Zoon played a hybrid flute of black wood, but equipped with the full-keyed action of the modern instrument, whose technological “advance” over its forbear sacrifices expressive intimacy for exact intonation in all keys. Kitted out with this his souped-up faux-antique, Zoon and the Solisten raced through the final movement at top Autobahn speed, overtaking Frederick himself plodding along in his VW Bugs as if he were standing still, the musical scenery all a blur. Seduced by the flashy, the Philharmonie audience rewarded Zoon and Solisten with the loudest applause of the night.
In forsaking nuance of the musical past for the present-day prerogatives of speed, accuracy and volume, Zoon’s performance unwittingly cleansed the evening of the distortions that now recast Frederick the Great as a gruff but big-hearted bachelor uncle with a big record collection and an appreciation for fine art. With a super-flute like Zoon’s, the enlightened despot would have mowed down all detractors and enemies in his path.