Wilhelmine, Frederick, and Anna Amalia: Despite a cruel father, some beautiful music from the kids

December 4, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

The year 1740 was a red-letter year for the Hohenzollern kids. It was the year their father, King Frederick William I of Prussia, died. His death, far from provoking mourning, was an occasion of unremitting rejoicing among his many children, especially Wilhelmine, Frederick, and Anna Amalia.

The king was a vicious and cruel, almost beyond belief, especially to his children.

The oldest surviving child, Wilhelmine (born in 1709), was turned over to a governess who enjoyed beating the hell out of her. “Not a day passed that she [the governess] did not prove upon me the fearful power of her fists,” she later wrote of her childhood. Her mother turned a blind eye to these cruelties until it was pointed out to her that if they continued, the girl might not survive. The governess was replaced, but her father was still in place and had no problem with visiting physical abuse on his children himself.

Anna Amalia was the youngest surviving child (14 years younger than Wilhelmine), but she too often felt the wrath of her father. Incensed by something she did or said — or by just being in the same room with him — he would drag her across the room by her hair.

Neither of these girls suffered as much as Frederick, born in 1712. The cruelties that his father inflicted on him were both physical and mental, and they were unrelenting. Frederick was a sensitive child who loved art and music — two things his father hated — and preferred books to horses. He was also clearly homosexual, and at the age of 16, he tried to run away with his best friend Hans von Katte. They were betrayed by Katte’s brother, and both Frederick and Hans were arrested and imprisoned.

Both were accused of treason, and the king threatened to execute them. Executing his son would have cause political difficulties for the king, so he backed off of that. Von Katte was not so fortunate. His execution took place in 1730, and the king forced his son to be present.

What Frederick, Whilhelmine, and Anna Amalia shared besides a cruel father and a royal lineage was a love of music.

Each secretly pursued that love, gaining a musical education and developing their talents for playing various instrument out of sight of their father. When the king died in 1740, each as free to openly express their love and enjoyment of music.

Frederick succeeded his father to the throne and went on to become the much honored Frederick the Great of Prussia, known for his enlightened rule, his military genius, and his political deftness in uniting numerous territories into a great Prussian empire.

Wilhelmine was married to Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth in 1731, and initially the marriage was a happy one. They grew apart when Frederick had an affair with a woman whom he eventually brought to court as his mistress. Wilhelmine could do little but resolve herself to the situation. She and Frederick joined in a partnership and resolved to make Bayreuth a German version of Versailles. They built a number of beautiful buildings and encourage intellectual pursuits of all sorts.

Wilhelmine’s chief interest was in music. Her chief instrument was the lute, but like her brother and sister she composed, and her compositions show a discernible Bach influence. She also wrote an entertaining though not completely trustworthy memoir.

Anna Amalia got her first music lessons from her brother Frederick out of view of their father but with the courage and protection of their mother. She learned to play the harpsichord, flute, and violin and demonstrated a wide-ranging musical talent. Like her siblings, she became interested in composing, and she wrote mostly chamber works. She studied musical theory, and her music was played beyond her native land.

Being the female child in a royal family meant that Anna Amalia was a prime candidate for marriage into another royal family of Europe. There were talks with the royal family of Sweden, but these never came to fruition. In 1755, she became the Abbess of Quedlinburg, which made her wealthy and allowed her to pursue her first love: music.

In addition to her own music, Anna Amalia collected and preserved the work of many of her contemporaries such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Georg Philipp Telemann, among many others. That collection grew to more than 2,000 volumes and has made a valuable contribution to modern knowledge of music of that period.

As king, Frederick was not only an accomplished musician but also a great patron of the arts in his kingdom. He played the flute well enough to give concerts, and he wrote multiple works for the instrument, some in conjunction with his instructor Johann Joachim Quantz, who had been his tutor in his youth. In all he composed 121 sonatas for flute and continuo, four concertos for flute and strings, three military marches, and seven arias. He also wrote parts of operas that were regularly performed at the Berlin Opera House.

Frederick’s accomplishments extended far beyond his music, his military and political genius, and his general love of the arts. Indeed, he became one of the towering figures of the 18th century. His name and image became iconic to 19th century Germans.


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