This recording is devoted exclusively to composers active in Central Germany in the mid 18th century associated with the Prussian court of Frederick II. The legendary «old Fritz» was an enthusiast of the arts and sciences, a music lover and a keen amateur flautist. His court orchestra, which performed almost daily at the Berlin Stadtschloss and from 1747 in Sanssouci, the residence Frederick had built in Potsdam, attracted important musical figures including several notable composers such as the Graun brothers, Benda brothers, Johann Joachim Quantz and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In much of their work, these composers represented a particular style known as Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity), a movement primarily directed against the rational aesthetic of the Enlightenment. Feelings and sentiment gained a new importance and sensitivity was expected of both performer and listener. Accordingly, a good composer was one whose music directly evoked the emotions; by the same token, a good musician was one able arouse these musically innate feelings in the listener. The art of counterpoint took second place to expressive melody as the primary conveyor of emotions. The fashionable flute reached its apogee within Germany’s musical circles during this age of sensitivity and even the Prussian Crown Prince was caught up in the wave of enthusiasm for the baroque flute which swept from France over Germany.
King Frederick’s flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quantz, was a leading light in the fashion for the flute and at the same time a central figure of musical life at the Prussian court. Coming from a family of civic musicians, he travelled throughout Europe during his apprentice years, assimilating both French and Italian styles at first hand from his teachers Buffardin, Gasparini, Zelenka and Fux as well as from his great hero Antonio Vivaldi. Like Telemann, he found his ideal in the mixing of national styles, the so-called «mixed taste». He worked as a virtuoso flautist in the famous Polish-Saxon court orchestra together with such stars as the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, the brothers Franz and Georg Benda (both violinists and eminent composers), the double bass player and resident composer of sacred music Jan Dismas Zelenka and the lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Quantz had already met the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick in his Dresden years and became his flute teacher, much against the will of Frederick’s father, the «soldier King» Frederick Wilhelm I, who brought up his son with an iron hand and quashed all artistic ambitions as best he could. Soon after acceding to the throne, Frederick summoned his teacher to the Berlin court, offering him virtually ideal conditions for the development of diverse musical activities. Quantz’s pedagogical work culminated with the publication of his «Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen», an epochal flute method that goes far beyond being a mere teaching manual and in fact represents a unique compendium of musical aesthetics and performance practice in the mid 18th century. Although the «Art of playing the Flute» has long been required reading for anyone involved in historical performance practice, it is remarkable how few of the meticulous instructions it contains (illustrated with numerous musical examples) are actually observed in practice today. The C major Adagio from the «Art of playing the flute» on this recording reflects as nearly as possible the author’s intentions – the result is altogether surprising and does not always conform to the expectations of today’s listeners.
Quantz was not the only composer from Dresden to follow Frederick’s summons to the Prussian court. Franz Benda, born near Prague in 1709, had arrived in Dresden as a choirboy on account of his beautiful voice. The English music essayist Charles Burney reported on his interesting career at length after visiting him in 1722: «After losing his voice, he had no other means of turning his musical talents to account, than by playing dances about the country with a company of strolling Jews; in which, however, there was a blind Hebrew, of the name of Löbel …» Benda finally managed to find employment amongst the nobility before being appointed chamber musician in the Polish-Saxon court orchestra in Dresden in 1732. Soon, however, he met the Prussian crown prince whom he served thereafter. Frederick had very clear ideas of how music should be written: he disliked overly sad or dramatic affects, preferring the charming and flattering; contrapuntal elaboration was to be confined to sacred works.
Whereas Quantz and Benda seemed to approach this ideal closely, another musician at the Prussian court, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was less willing to conform. As Burney reports in the reminiscences of his musical journey:
«Of all the musicians which have been in the service of Prussia, for more than thirty years, C. P. E. Bach and Francis Benda, have, perhaps, been the only two, who dared to have a style of their own; the rest are imitators.»
Frederick found the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, employed as a harpsichordist at the Prussian court, too «original», too extravagant, even though in his youth the third of J. S. Bach’s sons was one of the most respected harpsichord virtuosos of his day. C. P. E. Bach already wrote for the flute during his studies in Frankfurt/Oder; further outstanding compositions in the genre such as the A minor sonata Wq 128 and the D major sonata Wq 131 were written in Berlin. The Berlin sonatas show a clear affinity with Quantz’s compositions, clearly reflecting the taste of the Berlin court, even though Bach cannot entirely renounce his own highly individual style, surprising the listener with unexpected modulations time and again.
Just as Johann Joachim Quantz gained a permanent reputation as a theorist with his «Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen», so did Carl Philip Emanuel Bach with his «Versuch über die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen», the first part of which was published three years later.
Johann Philipp Kirnberger assured himself a place in the annals of history more as a theorist than composer: whether or not he actually had lessons from Johann Sebastian Bach (no evidence survives), the great organist of St. Thomas remained an authority for him in the «Kunst des reinen Satzes» (The Art of Strict Composition in Music), his most important treatise. Kirnberger published a wide variety of theoretical writings, on subjects such as musical temperament (on tuning systems), the art of singing and on harmony. Although his compositions were largely overshadowed by his theoretical writings a few are worth discovering, such as the G major sonata, comparable not only in form to works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz.