article 85: Wilhelmine, Markgräfin von Bayreuth: Found in Translation

A passing reference to the “famous memoirs” of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, beloved sister of Frederick the Great, made me realize I had neglected to read them. Bayreuth is about 90 minutes by car from us, and the many architectural wonders of the place – among which I do not include Wagner’s Festspielhaus – were her legacy. The composer of the Ring actually came there to see whether the baroque gem of an opera house she had built would suit his vast purposes. It didn’t, but he liked the location. A hundred years previously Voltaire had loved the place so much that he wrote, “Bayreuth is a delightful town where one can enjoy the amenities of a court without the annoyances of the great world.”

Wilhelmine was a creditable composer of harpsichord music and opera. When you visit the music room in the town palace the background music is one of her concertos. Hence I was hoping for a great deal of music in her book, but in that, I have been disappointed until now. I am presently about halfway through, having just switched from German to French. Not knowing that the latter was the original, I had purchased a cheap 1927 edition of what turned out to be the first complete translation (1810).

The French edition arrived after we returned from Japan, and it answered a question raised by the German. There were a few references there to “mein Clavier”. In 1810 that could have been pretty much any stringed keyboard instrument, even a fortepiano, which would of course have been anachronistic for Berlin in the early decades of the 18th century. If Wilhelmine had written the word in German, it would most likely have meant “clavichord”, but the harpsichord family would not have been excluded. In fact, she wrote the unambiguous clavecin. Was her instrument one of the splendid Mietkes now at Charlottenburg, used by her musical grandmother Sophie Charlotte? The scenes described don’t take place there, but instruments were moved around, and her father was so miserly that it seems unlikely he would have commissioned new instruments.

The cruelty of that monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm I, and his Hanoverian wife as described by their unhappy daughter surpasses belief. Their children were abused in ways and to a degree that would have landed them both in prison many times over nowadays. How Wilhelmine turned out so well-balanced and kind is a miracle, largely due to the humane qualities of her governess, who often defended her charge with her life against the king’s cane. One of the clavecin passages relates how Wilhelmine fled to her apartment to escape paternal wrath, sat down at the instrument and “pretended to compose”.

The only really interesting musical bit is a sidelight to a 1728 visit to Berlin and Potsdam by August “the Strong”, the Elector of Saxony who had turned Catholic in order to purchase the worthless crown of Poland, just so he could call himself “king”. He had brought along some of his best musicians to play for the Prussian queen (the king wasn’t interested): Weiss, “who played the lute so wonderfully that he never had his equal, such that those who followed him only had the honor of imitating him” (Wilhelmine was also a lutenist); Buffardin, “famous for his beautiful embouchure on the flute” (who would soon use it to play the famously dotted solo in Domine Deus of Bach’s Hohe Messe); and Quantz, “who played the same instrument, was a great composer, and whose extraordinary taste and art found means to raise the flute to the level of the most beautiful voices” (and whose visit to Würzburg inspired court composter Platti to the most virtuosic of his sonatas).

The Markgräfin’s memoir, written in one of the rooms of her fabulous Hermitage in a park outside of the city, runs to 1742, 16 years before her death. I remember reading in Nancy Mitford’s biography of brother Frederick how he gasped, “Ma soeur de Bayreuth!” when the news arrived at Sanssouci. I will report any further items of musical interest.

Spring equinox, 2023

Postscript: The comment about the dotting in Domine Deus brought a query from a friend. The passage is a cause célèbre in performance practice. The first entrance of the theme in the solo flute is dotted, Lombard-fashion (short-long). All the other entrances, including the strings, are simply slurred two by two. So the question becomes: are later entrances to be dotted in the same way?

It is thought that Bach was sending a clin d’œil to Buffardin, first flute of the Dresden court orchestra, since he knew the French style of playing tended to lombardize such slurs. That superb ensemble, having heard the first entrance, would then know enough to imitate the dotting, and save the copyist Bach the trouble of writing out the 32nd-note-dotted-16th figure every time it rolled around. Fanatics extrapolated from this case to require all such slurs to be played thus, which is, of course, nonsense. It is a tendency in the French style (mentioned by Montéclair), nothing more.

This exact question was posed by the violins during the recording of the B-minor Mass under Gustav Leonhardt, where I was the organ continuo. The maestro’s instruction was: een beetje. A little bit. In other words, don’t make a big fuss about it. I thought that was rather brilliant.

- back -