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E. Exner: The Sophies of Hanover and Royal Prussian Music

Kulturgeschichte Preußens - Colloquien 6 (2018)

Ellen Exner

The Sophies of Hanover and Royal Prussian Music


The history of royal Prussian music was shaped not only by its kings, but also by its queens. Although there were famously patterns of crisis and prosperity in the kingdom's eighteenth-century history, strands of continuity provided by Prussia's early Hanoverian queens often go unobserved and therefore undescribed. The first Prussian queen, Sophie Charlotte of Hanover, set a precedent for sophisticated music cultivation, which is apparent in Corelli's dedication to her of the Op. 5 violin sonatas—a collection of chamber pieces. Her legacy—and that of her homeland, Hanover—lived on through the private efforts of her daughter-in-law and successor, Sophie Dorothea, whose own legacy is evident in the musical activities of her children.


Kings are unquestionably important in the histories of kingdoms but queens also had roles to play in creating a reign's culture. Early in Prussia's royal history, two of its queens were the real forces behind music cultivation within the ruling family. Queens Sophie Charlotte (r. 1701 to 1705) and Sophie Dorothea (r. 1713 to 1740) both came originally to Prussia from Hanover and shared more than just their bloodline with the Prussian royal family: they also infused it with a discerning passion for music. Prussia's first queen, Sophie Charlotte, achieved a very high standard of elite music making, setting an impressive precedent for the royal family. Memory of her musicianship remained alive in her descendants, female as well as male. When Sophie Charlotte's own son, King Friedrich Wilhelm I (r. 1713 to 1740), proved a surprisingly destructive force to the cultural achievements of his parents' reign, it took the heroic efforts of her niece and daughter-in-law, Sophie Dorothea (also of Hanover), to secure a musical future for Prussia's royal children.


The Electorate of Hanover is perhaps best known today outside of Germany for having produced England's monarchs and for employing Georg Friedrich Handel (1685–1759), but he was only the most famous musician in what was one of Europe's most musically sophisticated courts. Sophie Charlotte had been brought up by her mother, the famous Electress Sophie of Hanover (b.1630–d.1714), to enjoy all the privileges of rank and fortune and was surrounded from birth by the highest caliber of music for church, chamber, and theater – French style for divertissements and Italian for opera. Due to internal conflicts within the family, Electress Sophie raised the future Prussian queen Sophie Dorothea, her granddaughter, as well. Thus, two queens of Prussia were brought up in remarkably similar circumstances. Hanover was a place of high culture. Because the Electorate married its daughters to successive kings of Prussia, Hanover's intellectual and artistic achievements became part of Prussian royal culture, too.


This article focuses on Sophie Charlotte's musical legacy in Prussia in the context of gifts received and gifts given: Corelli's dedication to her of the Op. 5 violin sonatas provides a new view of her as patron and political symbol at the time of Prussia's emergence as a kingdom. Memory of her provided an encouraging model for her royal grandchildren, who were otherwise pathologically deprived of musical opportunities by Sophie Charlotte's own son, King Friedrich Wilhelm I. It is entirely to the credit of his Hanoverian wife, Queen Sophie Dorothea, that the Prussian royal family nevertheless produced music connoisseurs such as Friedrich II ("The Great"), Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, and Princess Anna Amalia. Queen Sophie Dorothea's dedication to the musical education of her children (Sophie Charlotte's grandchildren) demonstrates the heroism of a mother. Even though both Sophies of Hanover enjoyed extraordinary social privilege, they were still women so they therefore acted from the sidelines of official power. Their efforts nevertheless had significant impact on Prussia's future. We will begin the story of musical patronage and power dynamics with Sophie Charlotte and Corelli's Op. 5. We will then turn to how the memory of her accomplishments lived on despite the intentional cultural crisis in Prussia that was the making of her son, Friedrich Wilhelm I.

Sophie Charlotte of Hanover, Electress of Brandenburg, Queen in Prussia


When in 1684 Sophie Charlotte of Hanover married Friedrich III, Elector of Brandenburg, she left her glittering homeland to preside over what she referred to as "the strangest court in the world".1 The Electorate of Brandenburg was as yet culturally provincial, but politically, it was on the brink of attaining real power: Elector Friedrich would crown himself King in Prussia in January 1701. The marriage of Sophie Charlotte to Friedrich was purely one of political convenience and there was little reciprocal affection. As we know, though, Friedrich soon gave Sophie Charlotte her own residence at Lietzenburg (now Charlottenburg), where she created a highly sophisticated intellectual and musical culture in which she, herself, participated.2 It was here that the works of international luminaries such as Attilio Ariosti, Giovanni Bononcini, Agostino Steffani, and Jean Baptiste Volumier were heard, often in the company of the composers themselves.3 The scale of music making was not Hanoverian, but the result must still have been enviable.


Even as Queen in then-remote Prussia, Sophie Charlotte's reputation as a remarkably accomplished musician continued to increase. Her talent attracted attention at the time, although (outside of Germany) her name is largely forgotten today even in discussions of noted historical female patrons. Music history remembers her only as the dedicatee of Corelli's explosively popular Op. 5 violin sonatas.4


Op. 5 was a collection of pieces by one of Europe's most famous composers and the fact that there is no known connection between the composer and the dedicatee piques the historian's curiosity. Corelli's gift is now generally viewed as a marker of Sophie Charlotte's extraordinary musicianship, and it was – but the evidence suggests that it was also a targeted political statement. Sophie Charlotte was likely selected as dedicatee more for what she was (daughter of Hanover, wife of Brandenburg-Prussia) than for who she was.

Arcangelo Corelli's Op. 5 and Sophie Charlotte


When in January 1700, Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) self-published his fifth opus and dedicated it to Sophie Charlotte, he was doing something he had never done before: choosing a patron outside of Rome. In the context of his previous dedications, the selection of Sophie Charlotte was therefore completely out of pattern:

Op. 1 (12 Trio Sonatas): Queen Christina of Sweden (Rome, 1683)
Op. 2 (12 Chamber Sonatas): Cardinal [Benedetto] Pamphilij (Rome, 1685)
Op. 3 (12 Trio Sonatas): Duke of Modena [Francesco II d'Este] (Rome, 1689)
Op. 4 (12 Trio Sonatas): Cardinal [Pietro] Ottoboni (Rome, 1694)
Op. 5 (12 Sonatas for Violin and Bass (cembalo)): Sophie Charlotte, Electress of
Brandenburg (Rome [1700] and Amsterdam, 1710ff)
Op. 6 (12 Concerti Grossi): Dedicated to the Elector Palatine [Johann Wilhelm] (Amsterdam, 1712; Printed 1713-14)


Corelli's connection to Sophie Charlotte has been a mystery for nearly three centuries. Although they had numerous shared acquaintances, we have no surviving evidence to link the composer and dedicatee directly – no letters, no record of interaction, no documents whatsoever. We do know from Op. 5's letter of dedication that when the collection was published, the two had never met: Corelli wrote there, "mi trovo in obligo di farmi conóscere" ("I feel the obligation to present myself [make myself known to you] through this music").5

Figure 1: Letter of dedication (Arcangelo Corelli, Sonate a Violino e Violone o Cimbalo, Op. 5 (Rome, 1700). IMSLP: out of copyright]


One feels certain that clues to Sophie Charlotte's relationship with Corelli await discovery somewhere, but they are not contained, for example, in the very few letters from Sophie Charlotte that survived her early death – at least, not unequivocally.6 In lieu of contemporary witnesses to her possible association with the Roman superstar Corelli, the task is to discover the ways in which his dedication of music to Sophie Charlotte of distant Brandenburg makes sense on its own terms.


We might generally acknowledge that Sophie Charlotte had a reputation for being highly musical but that alone would not place her in the company of Corelli's previous patrons, with whom he enjoyed long-standing relationships as well as geographic proximity. The pattern of dedications insists that there must be another explanation for the composer's choice in this case. Sophie Charlotte was indeed musical, but she must have represented other things to Corelli, too.


Op. 5's original print provides some clues because it transmits not only Corelli's music, but also the frontispiece, from which we can partially reconstruct something of Sophie Charlotte's public image, at least as far as Corelli and his engravers perceived it: