Sunday 18 November 2018

The King, a composer, and a magic flute

Royal tune: Frederick the Great playing the flute
Royal tune: Frederick the Great playing the flute

George Hamilton

This summer of sport has taken me to the most wonderful of musical destinations and the latest of those is Berlin. Now, if asked does classical music have a capital city, most would plump for Vienna, which has Mozart, of course, but had Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven, too. And many more besides.

But Berlin deserves honourable mention. Its tradition is represented these days by no fewer than three opera houses, and the gold standard among the world's orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic.

Back in the day, Berlin would have been playing second fiddle, for Vienna was at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the opportunities for music-makers were huge.

But there was plenty going on in Berlin. Germany as we know it may be a creation of the 19th century, but what would become its capital had plenty to offer.

It was to Berlin that Johann Sebastian Bach came to equip himself with a new harpsichord. A local aristocrat heard him play and asked him for some new music that could be added to the repertoire of his little private orchestra.

Bach duly obliged, dipping into his treasure trove of original material and creating six separate pieces. It was the Margrave of Brandenburg who'd asked for the music. The scores would become known as The Brandenburg Concertos.

In 1740, Prussia got a new king. Frederick II loved music. He played the flute, and when he ascended the throne, he made sure that his court would enjoy the very best.

He hired Joachim Quantz, the top flautist around, to play in his house band. He also hired Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, to play the harpsichord.

It must have been some outfit. You had Quantz, CPE Bach, and the king himself playing, and composing the music as well.

Frederick the Great, as he was known, wrote a vast swathe of material for the flute, and there were symphonies, too. Amazing to think. They can be hard to find, but they're out there. As is the music of Quantz, who provided almost 300 concertos for his patron to play.

He also wrote the definitive work on the art of flute playing, which is something that is pretty central to music making in Berlin, for the seat of principal flute would be one of the most sought after in an orchestra.

In 1969, a self-assured soloist from the Shore Road in North Belfast secured himself that seat. James Galway wasn't yet 30 when he nailed down the most prestigious solo spot in the orchestral world.

He'd played hard to get, and he would play hard to handle, too. When he realised that life in an orchestra - even the best orchestra in the world - was getting in the way of his ambition to carve a career as a solo performer, he quit.

They said he was mad. He'd only been in Berlin for six seasons. There must have been a row with Herbert von Karajan, the legendary long-time director of the Berlin Phil.

But there was no "That's it Herbie, I'm off" moment, according to Galway himself. Von Karajan was supportive. "If you want it, and you don't try, you'll never know if it would have worked."

Worked it most certainly has. Galway's career has been a stellar success. His name is still associated with the orchestra, even though it's over 40 years since he was a fixture in Berlin.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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