The Role of Royalty in Music of the Mid-Eighteenth Century

The Role of Royalty in Music of the Mid-Eighteenth Century

Throughout the many centuries when Europe was dominated by hereditary rulers, one of their most important responsibilities was to patronize the arts. Some showed more interest in this role than others, but overall the artistic involvement of kings, dukes, and the like is a consistently significant aspect of pre-twentieth-century music history. The eighteenth century was a particularly splendid time for musical patronage. Some rulers merely encouraged an atmosphere conducive to musical achievement; others were far more actively involved. Five courts which reflect this variety of approaches are those of Great Britain, Parma, Württemberg, Saxony, and Prussia.

The Hanoverian dynasty, which ruled Britain from 1714 to 1901, was not known for enthusiasm for all the arts; King George II (1683-1760) apparently "hated all poets and painters." However, both he and his grandson and successor King George III (1738-1820) were far fonder of music, the works of Handel occupying a special place in their affections. Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), who due to his premature death never made it to the throne, played the cello; his son George III told Fanny Burney, daughter of the great musicologist Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814), that he was as mystified by those who did not appreciate music as by those who could not talk.1 The king was so impressed by Burney’s writings on music that he happily disregarded conventional royal protocol in his conversations with the musicologist, understanding "the ardour of a brother musical enthusiast" as Burney "started every topic that occurred to him, whether the King was ready for another or not."2

A contemporary of George III whose personal musical role was similarly limited but whose government had a greater influence on music was Duke Philip of Parma (1720-1765). When ruled by its native Farnese dynasty, the Italian duchy had been known for opera during the Baroque era, but unfortunately fell into a period of decline with the extinction of the family in 1731 and the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s. Culture inevitably suffered, but was revived with the cooperation of the Spanish-born Duke Philip (granted the duchy in 1748) and his talented Minister, Guillaume Du Tillot (1711-1774). Philip was not a brilliant statesman, but he was dedicated to improving Parma’s cultural life and sensible enough to leave the details to Du Tillot.3

Du Tillot, originally Minister of Finance and then Minister of State, was Parma’s chief political leader, but maintained a personal involvement in the duchy’s cultural scene to a degree that seems astonishing today. He established the Academy of Fine Arts, brought in French architects to beautify the city, and chose the poets and composers whose works would be performed. The first operas produced by Du Tillot in Parma were not particularly innovative, but with performances in 1757 of Francoeur’s Zélindor, Roi des Sylphes and Rameau’s Gl’Inca del Perú, he introduced the Italian audiences to French light music and opéra-ballet, respectively.4

These French imports paved the way for the court-sponsored achievements of an Italian, Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779), who became Duke Philip’s Maestro di Cappella in 1758 and remained in that post for seven years. In this capacity he produced sixteen operas, including Ippolito ed Aricia (1759), I Tintaridi (1760), and Sofonisha (1762), in which he brilliantly effected a new compromise between the extremes of French and Italian operatic styles.5

One of the advantages of monarchy is the opportunity it provides for splendid state occasions, which often had important ramifications for composers. Such was the case with the wedding in 1760 of Philip’s daughter Isabella to the future Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790). Traetta’s tribute to the marriage, Le Feste d’Meneo, so impressed Archduke Joseph that he arranged for the hitherto little-known composer to compose an opera (Armida) for Vienna, where Traetta met the more famous Gluck. Another musically significant royal wedding was that of Philip’s daughter Maria Louisa to the heir to the Spanish throne in 1765, for which Ippolito ed Aricia6 was revived. Unfortunately, Duke Philip died suddenly in the same year; his son and successor, Ferdinando, was more interested in religion than music. Du Tillot was dismissed in 1771 and Parma’s musical prominence gradually subsided.

Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg (1728-1793), who inherited the throne as a boy in 1737, proved to be a more vigorous musical patron than his counterpart in Parma. In the early years of his reign he gradually increased the quantity and quality of musicians in his employ until Stuttgart was ready for opera. The composer he found to realize his dreams was the Italian Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774), appointed Ober-Kapellmeister in 1753 and immediately given a lavish salary and residence. He composed seventeen opere serie, eight serenatas, three comic operas, and church music while employed by the Duke. Some of the most accomplished violinists in Europe were hired into the orchestra, which gained attention for its virtuosi.7

Duke Karl Eugen, a handsome and intelligent young man, maintained a close involvement in his court’s cultural life. He accompanied the singers on the harpsichord, sought out the finest costumes and singers, and chose the libretti for Jommelli’s grand operas. The Duke’s relationship to the ballet was even more personal; Casanova observed that "‘all the danseuses were pretty, and all boasted of having made their gracious lord happy at least once.’"8

Perhaps predictably, the ambitious Duke was not satisfied with Württemberg’s pre-existing cultural structures, and so in 1764 he ordered the construction of a new opera house at Ludwigsburg which when completed was one of the largest in Germany. Projects such as this, and the cost of paying all the musicians, drove the Duke into debt and angered his subjects as he increased taxes to try to cover the expense. Public opinion turned against him, and from 1767 Karl Eugen began to scale back his cultural expenditures. Salaries decreased as the Duke abandoned lavishness for economy; relations with Jommelli soured and the composer resigned in 1770.9

Nevertheless, music remained an important part of Württemberg court life. In 1769 Karl Eugen founded a school of music and dancing, which eventually he combined with his Military Academy to form the Carlsschule, an educational investment for which he would be fondly remembered.10 The last years of Karl Eugen’s life and reign were tranquil, as regular but unremarkable musical activities continued. Some years after the Duke’s death, Goethe found that "‘[t]he brilliant days of Duke Charles, when Jommelli directed the opera, are still felt by the older people, who retain their lively love for Italian music. ... All speak with enthusiasm of those brilliant times, when their taste was first formed, and they loathe German music and singing.’"11 So while Duke Karl Eugen’s enthusiasm for music may have been controversial at the time, the controversy was apparently forgotten as happier memories of the Duke’s contributions lingered on.

While modern notions of sexual equality had not yet taken hold in the mid-1700s, musical influence was hardly limited to men. One of the century’s most celebrated royal patrons was Princess Maria Antonia of Bavaria (1724-1780), daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Karl VII (1697-1745) and husband of Elector Friedrich Christian of Saxony (1722-1763). A talented child, she mastered French, Latin, and Italian in addition to her native German and became a competent harpsichordist and singer. Bored in Bavaria, she was happy to marry into the royal family of Saxony in 1747, for the Saxon capital of Dresden was musically the leading European court.12

Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783), Dresden’s Kapellmeister from 1731 to 1763, was the dominant composer in Saxony. Maria Antonia’s father-in-law, Elector Friedrich August (1696-1763), who was also the King of Poland, cared little for economy and was happy to lavishly subsidize Hasse’s musical productions. His wife, Electress Maria Josepha (1699-1757), shared her husband’s enthusiasm, regularly sponsoring concerts in her apartment.13 So the young princess’s adopted family was quite suitable for her, even if eventually a muted rivalry developed between her and her in-laws. For Maria Antonia, like Württemberg’s Karl Eugen, went beyond the normal royal involvement. She studied composition with Hasse and wrote texts for his cantatas, continued her singing lessons, and learned to play the lute. The celebrated librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) praised her writing extravagantly, saying that "I should never have been able to imagine that a young Princess should be able to write, and in a foreign tongue, such excellent poetry."14

Having achieved some success as a librettist, Maria Antonia wrote music as well. Her opera Il Trionfo della Fedeltà was performed to widespread acclaim in 1754, with the royal composer singing the lead role. Unfortunately, the Seven Years War (1756-63) made it impossible to continue the lavish cultural scene to which Dresden was accustomed, and the death of her husband shortly thereafter diminished Maria Antonia’s influence. It must be admitted that Maria Antonia’s estimation of her musical abilities was probably somewhat inflated, in contrast to her brother Elector Maximilian III Joseph (1727-1777), who while also an enthusiastic composer was far more modest about it. (He played the violin, cello, and gamba, and composed church music which is still occasionally performed. Mozart’s La finta giardiniera was premiered at his court in 1775.15) Nevertheless, her achievements as a patron and teacher were admirable: she founded the Saxon Academy of Arts and did a great deal to nourish the careers of the composers Porpora, J. G. Naumann (1741-1801) (whom she taught), Schuster, and Seydelmann, as well as singers Concialini, Guadagni, Mingotti and Gertrude Schmehling. For this alone she deserves to be remembered.16

Laudable as they may have been, the achievements of royal patrons such as Duke Karl Eugen and Electress Maria Antonia pale in comparison with those of the ruler who towered over European politics and culture for nearly half a century, King Friedrich II ("the Great") of Prussia (1712-1786). Friedrich inherited the throne of the relatively young kingdom (established in 1701) on the death of his autocratic and abusive father, King Friedrich Wilhelm I (1688-1740). The militaristic Friedrich Wilhelm had no sympathy for his son’s artistic leanings, which he considered effeminate, and the young Friedrich had to study music in secret. However, in 1728 Friedrich Wilhelm did send his son and heir on a visit to the musically renowned court at Dresden, where the teenaged prince first encountered the playing of the great flutist Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773), who would become his flute teacher and court composer.17

Following his marriage to Princess Elisabeth of Brunswick (1715-1797) in 1733, the Crown Prince was granted a certain amount of independence from his father, and was able to pursue his musical interests openly. He maintained an orchestra at Ruppin, which quickly became highly regarded, while continuing his studies with Quantz.18 His father’s death in 1740 gave Friedrich complete freedom to shape the political and cultural destinies of Prussia according to his own desires.

Friedrich began his reign with a series of liberal and enlightened edicts applauded by philosophers such as Voltaire. Simultaneously, the new king ordered the construction of the Berlin Opera, which began on the day of his accession. Throughout his long reign, the king’s favorite method of relaxation was to play the flute, and he was apparently very good at it. Dr. Burney (who visited the Berlin court in 1772) lavishly praised the monarch’s playing:

The concert began by a German flute concerto, in which his majesty executed the solo parts with great precision; his embouchure was clear and even, his finger brilliant, and his taste pure and simple. I was much pleased, and even surprised with the neatness of his execution in the allegros, as well as by his expression and feeling in the adagio; in short, his performance surpassed, in many particulars, any thing I had ever heard among Dilettanti, or even professors. His majesty played three long and difficult concertos successively, and all with equal perfection.19
Other observers felt similarly, one writing that the king played adagios "‘with a simplicity and intimate feeling (innere Empfindung)’ which many virtuosi lacked."20

As a composer, Friedrich’s most significant contribution was probably the theme for Johann Sebastian Bach’s A Musical Offering. However, he also wrote 121 flute sonatas, four flute concerti, various exercises, short orchestral pieces, and arias. While the king’s compositions have never been considered great works of music, they reveal a level of musical knowledge far greater than that of the usual amateur.21

Friedrich II’s personal musical taste was conservative. His favorite composers were Quantz, Hasse, and his Kapellmeister, Karl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759), and he apparently did not fully appreciate the achievements of his more innovative court harpsichordist, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788).22 Nevertheless, the King bequeathed a significant influence on music. The atmosphere he created as Europe’s most cultured king stimulated much useful musical discourse, and the composers he patronized proved significant to the development of classical music. Graun and Hasse helped pave the way for the use of a unifying theme as an integral part of symphonic form.23 Quantz, the only musician allowed to critique the King’s flute playing honestly, was responsible for major improvements to the flute and essential treatises on performance practice. The solo flute repertoire practically originated with him.24 The king’s patronage was not limited to composers. He endorsed the theoretical writings of scholars such as Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718-1795), and supported the technical innovations of piano builder Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753), effectively encouraging acceptance of the new keyboard instrument in Germany.25 By generously sponsoring and presiding over the environment which allowed these musicians to flourish, King Friedrich II deserves some of the credit for their enduring accomplishments.

London, Parma, Stuttgart, Dresden, and Berlin were by no means the only courts significantly involved in music of this period. The relationships Mozart enjoyed with Vienna’s Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) and her son Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) are well known. But hopefully these portraits of some of Europe’s less famous musically inclined rulers, as well as the essential figure of King Frederick the Great, provide an insight into the valuable role which European royalty played in nurturing the music of the eighteenth century.