The day Bach and Frederick the Great met.

In May 1747, two of the great figures of the 18th century came face to face. The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick II, King of Prussia.

Frederick II of Prussia was then 35 years old. He had ascended the throne seven years before, and one of his great passions was music. Although he was primarily a competent flutist, he was very curious about the newly invented piano.

Until then, keyboard parts were played with the harpsichord, an instrument that did not allow for nuance and forced all notes to sound the same. The piano, then called pianoforte, technically simpler than the modern piano but also based on the mechanism of striking the strings with a hammer, did allow the notes to sound strong or weak at the will of the player.

The king’s fascination with the Pianoforte was so great that he decided to buy one. And not “anyone” one  from the most famous manufacturers of the time, Silbermann. In fact, he collected fifteen of these instruments in his palace at Sanssouci, in Potsdam.

J. Sebastian Bach was 62 years old. At that time he lived in Leipzig, a city very distant from the court of Berlin. Most of his numerous children had devoted themselves, like their father, to music, which made him known as “old Bach.” In fact, one of them worked as the King’s KapellMeister (Master of Chapel). Bach was known as a composer, but most of all for his amazing improvisational ability as an organist.

Friedrich had expressed several times the wish that Bach could test his pianos and show his skill of improvisation. Finally, this meeting took place. This is how Johann Nikolaus Forkel, one of Bach’s biographers, recounts the historic meeting:

One night, when Friedrich was preparing his flute and his musicians were ready to begin, an official brought him the list of foreigners who had arrived that day. With his flute in hand, he took a look at the list, and suddenly, addressing the musicians gathered there, he said to them with agitation: «Gentlemen. Old Bach is here! ». Then he put his flute aside and without further delay dispatched someone to invite the great musician …

Friedrich himself provided a complicated theme, which he played on the flute, to test Bach’s ability as an improviser. It is said that, although he appeared to improvise it at the time, he had been preparing it for days making it more and more difficult. Bach was so fascinated by this theme that he later composed a set of pieces based on it, mainly canons and fugues, which he dedicated to the King under the name “Musical Offering”.

The video clip I include describes that encounter. It belongs to an old series broadcasted on East German television in the 1980s. From this fragment we can deduce many things: the relationships of the musicians with the royal power, the composition of the chamber orchestras, what the chamber concerts of the 18th century were like …

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