The King, a com­poser, and a magic flute

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - & -

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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