When Bach met Frederick the Great on East German TV

When Bach met Frederick the Great on East German TV


norman lebrecht

November 10, 2019

A spot of Ostalgie for an anniversary morning.

1985 this was, and wonderfully stilted.

Who watched?


  • Not so stilted. They’re portraying the Prussian court, after all. It was probably a bit like that. Judging by this clip, the film is probably more authentic than almost all of the composer biopic films I’ve seen.

    It seems unlikely that Karl would have come up with such a tricky, sophisticated theme. Some think it was composed by Bach’s son Carl Phillip Emanuel who was a court musician in Karl’s court, in order to trap his father with an extremely difficult theme.

    I’ve also read that Bach, caught off guard, was disappointed and embarrassed by his improvisations on the theme and that he wrote the Music Offering to show what he could really do with it.

    The chromaticism foreshadowed developments in the 20th century. (It’s as if all of Western classical music is the evolution of some fundamental seed or principle. Inside of every masterwork is all of history before and after for those who know the continuities.) In 1935, Anton Webern set the Ricercar a 6 using the minimalist principles of Klangfarbenmelodie. He dedicated it to a producer at the BBC named Edward Clark. It’s a reminder of the close ties between the English and German-speaking worlds between the wars, and that WWII was a vulgar horror that did not have to happen, and should not have. All this history resonates in that theme like some sort of magical mirror where one sees so much history.

    • william osborne says:

      Karl should be Frederick in my comment. Apologies. Only off by a 1000 years. Sleepy headed Sunday. 🙂

    • Mathieu says:

      “Judging by this clip, the film is probably more authentic than almost all of the composer biopic films I’ve seen.”

      Have you seen Straub and Huillet’s “Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach” with Gustav Leonhardt? I cannot commend it enough…

      • John Borstlap says:

        But that film is terrible….. JS Bach is presented as a puritanical, orthodox early music fanatic insensitive to anything that resembles life, exactly like a certain trend in the early music movement which strove after intellectual purity and thought that baroque music was a sterile structuralist pre-Webern affair – in short, modernism disguised as early music.

        Meanwhile we know that JSB was a quite hot-blooded, emotional man, fathering an entire ‘music ensemble’ and struggling with a very limited church staff which interestingly much resembled the above-mentioned early music trend.

    • George says:

      Is it really possible that Bach’s improvisation could have been inferior? That seems hard to believe…

  • Brian says:

    I can’t help expecting Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson to burst in, livening things up a bit…

  • Anon says:

    I was hunting down the full version of this online a while ago & came across the 2003 Swiss film “My Name Is Bach” which is almost identical! They are so similar that it was confusing trying to match clips to watch the full film. I thought at first they changed actors mid-film!

    Even the scene where Bach is challenged to a fugue is the same. The later film switches it up slightly. I enjoyed both very much, but the similarities are remarkable. Here’s a clip from the 2003 Swiss one, “My Name Is Bach”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73Xb5zh3IuA

  • I’ll note that there is a pretty good book, “Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great” by James R. Gaines, that covers this event and how their lives led up to it.

  • Leporello says:

    Actually, Frederick the Great preferred to speak French and despised old things German – and things don’t get more ‘old German’ than ‘old Bach’ to use the king’s description of the composer.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed, Frederick was very much up to date and modern. And later-on it appeared that actually, it was JSB who was the more modern.

  • Gustavo says:

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  • Mike says:

    The wonderful Ulrich Thein plays JSBach, while his real-life wife plays Anna Magdalena.
    If you understand spoken German, I recommend watching it here:
    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gism1T5Rvuc
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_cfjyZFKsg
    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVwcxxhuDKE
    4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itcqClfkraU

    This series was promptly shown in the Eastern Bloc and I recall watching it with my family (as a kid), and every one of us still recalls it after 35 years for the gritty realism. Wait for the scene of Bach family eating dinner!

    Ulrich Thein was very much admired for this towering role. Any other series about Bach seemed frivolous afterwards.

    • Hilary says:

      It came as a revelation to me and many others that such programmes were made in the Eastern block . I imagined an overall greyness.

      • John Borstlap says:

        There is a political reason for this. Under communism, the arts were supposed to serve as a legitimizing factor to show the world that a communist nation was a civilized one, in spite of the rumours of murder and goulags, and that their artists were better than their collegues in the West. So, culture was heavily subsidized, as national sports were. East Germany was, in spite of the layer of communism laid over the postwar ruins, still Germany, so celebrating their icons went seamlessly from one dictatorship into the other. One is reminded of the superb performances of the BPO and the Bayreuth festival under such umbrella.

        • Hilary says:

          Aaaah, but the BPO was the former GDR?
          The Dresden Statskapelle would have been a different case. I wish I was old enough to have visited these places pre. 1989.

  • John B. says:

    This film makes Bach look so humble. It is Frederich who should be bowing to Bach as he IS the greatest composer of all time.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, but until Beethoven tried to change such relationships, composers were craftsmen in the service of church or nobility. Handel could only be a freelancer because of his operatic entrepeneur activities in London, and Mozart’s similar attempts did not end well in Vienna.

      • Novagerio says:

        John Borstlap makes a historic point; the arts were for at least 700 years patronized by the nobility and the church.
        In this case, both Händel and also Schubert were independent freelance composers.

        And John B, I have no idea how old you are, but Frederick the Great was not only King of Prussia, but also his times biggest concet flutist and composer, aswell as the biggest patron of the arts since the Renaissance.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Indeed. But I remember that Frederick’s entirely unprovoked and criminal invasion of Silesia created quite a stirr in Vienna where Maria Theresia climbed into the curtains of frustration and rage. (I particularly remember how cold it was that day in December 1740.)

          In Germany’s history, it has mostly been Prussia which created endless trouble with its military cult. It never belonged to the more civilized part of the German lands. So, Frederick’s artistic inclinations were probably motivated by the same intention that had to give communism a repectable face. He also invited Voltaire to his court, which was nonsensical since Frederick was not really interested in the Enlightement – where it impinged upon politics (the same with Catharina the Great of Russia).

  • There have been views, many and differing, about this meeting and what it tells us about each. Bach was in the last decade of his life, his sight would have been failing, yet there was still much to do putting his music ‘in order’ so to speak. He was a highly respected musician statesman, employed by the city fathers of Leipzig and therefore under their thumb to a degree. The King admired JSB, but their meeting at Potsdam was a delayed affair, mainly because of the Prussian King’s warlike behaviour. Leipzig was occupied by Frederick’s troops in December 1745, with the peace signed and troops withdrawn in January 1746. For Bach to have visited the King during this time would have been unthinkable. By May 1747 sufficient time had elapsed after the peace with Leipzig had been signed to have made it diplomatically expedient for Bach, citizen of Leipzig and a prominent musician, to make the journey (ostensibly to visit his son CPE)….but also as a sort of envoy of peace. The GDR would probably not have seen it that way! For this atheist regime, Bach was still useful for marketing and money-raising purposes, after all the places associated with him were all within their boundaries, Cöthen off limits. They simply turned a blind eye to his church music performed in churches, for example. Bach’s humilty and deference cannot surely be in doubt, but his determination to pursue his Art as he saw it undimmed. Just some thoughts.

  • Anon says:

    Posting here the link to the complete Swiss film “My Name is Bach”, made after the one Norman has posted. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulJGdZ-1BTU

    In the East German version, J.S. Bach is portrayed as a cowering court servant, which is almost painful to watch. In the later Swiss film, J.S. Bach is in control: powerful & defiant, and he definitely has the upper hand with Frederick. You can see his intelligence, glimpse his musical mastery and his fearlessness in speaking his mind, even to King Frederick. I also really liked how the Swiss film developed the characters of J.S. Bach’s sons, showing WF as a maverick!

    The fugue theme challenge begins in the Swiss film at about 11:00. It shows Frederick’s devious collaboration with his reluctant teacher Quantz to find a theme that will trip up old Bach. When he’s actually challenged, Bach refuses Frederick and gets up and walks out! Frederick, throughout this, appears to be a kind of petty, childish monarch eager to impress the great Bach.

    The 2 films, the East German one and the later Swiss film, show Bach and Frederick and their relationship in totally contrasting lights. Perhaps that reflects the cultures of the countries they were made in. Both are wonderful and I recommend seeing them back-to-back!