Discover A Pioneering Composer
Anna Amalia von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel was born into German nobility. Her mother was the younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and her father was Prince of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Upon her marriage, she became the Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, a small duchy in the Holy Roman Empire.
When her oldest son was eight months old and she was pregnant with her second, her husband died. She assumed the position of regent, ruling the duchy in her son’s place until he came of age. Her regency was noted for diplomacy and careful financial management, and when her son turned 18, he assumed the rule over a small but prosperous state.
A Leader Ahead of Her Time
Anna Amalia’s governance was unusually focused on the welfare of the people. Noting that modern advances in artillery and warfare made city walls ineffective defenses anyway, she scandalized the members of her court and military by ordering that the fortifications be dismantled and the materials used to build housing. In an attempt at socialized healthcare, Anna Amalia levied a “midwife penny tax” that funded a “birthing house” and midwife school — essentially an early obstetrics center — which provided services to all. The nobility considered this public discussion of childbirth to be distasteful, and Anna Amalia had to fight hard against her courtiers to bring the project to completion.
Dedicated to the Arts
In addition to tending carefully to the resources, industry, and foreign relations of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, the Duchess Anna Amalia was a passionate supporter of the arts. Dissatisfied with the fact that Weimar was something of an artistic backwater, she invested much of her personal wealth into patronage, and soon Weimar was home to some of the best German authors, musicians, theater companies, and poets. Most notably, Goethe (author of Faust) and Schiller (the poet behind Beethoven’s Ode to Joy) created much of their work here under her patronage. Once her son assumed his role as duke, she redoubled her artistic efforts, even working to engage commoners in the artistic life of the duchy.
Anna Amalia was a skilled musician in her own right, and — in a move that was unusual for a woman in the 18th century — she became an accomplished composer.
She also invested heavily in enlarging the ducal library, which later evolved into the Thuringian State Library and was renamed for her in 1991. To this day, it remains the legal depository for books published in Thuringia (like the Library of Congress in the United States). By the time of her death, her personal music collection in the library included more than 13,000 scores.
Skilled In Music
Anna Amalia was a skilled musician in her own right, and — in a move that was unusual for a woman in the 18th century — she became an accomplished composer. Much of her music was lost forever when the Thuringian State Library was destroyed by Allied bombing on February 9, 1945. However, one of the manuscripts that managed to survive was the score to Erwin und Elmire, a two-act opera she composed in the year after passing rule of the duchy to her son.
Without wanting to speculate too wildly, it’s not unreasonable to consider that Goethe gave us — and the Duchess — a glimpse into Anna Amalia’s own personal struggles.
The libretto to Erwin und Elmire was written by Goethe, who had become well acquainted with Anna Amalia due to the reading groups she hosted in Weimar. The opera's plot features a woman who struggles to balance her desire to express her love with the social pressure to remain cold and aloof. Without wanting to speculate too wildly, it’s not unreasonable to consider that Goethe gave us — and the Duchess — a glimpse into Anna Amalia’s own personal struggles.
The score is notable for its innovative and skilled fusion of several different operatic genres. It manages to blend opera buffa, opera seria, and even German folk music into a cohesive whole. It was also notable that Anna Amalia chose to compose the opera in German, which had not yet been fully embraced as a “serious” operatic language.” (Even Mozart labeled his German-language works as “Singspiels” — "song plays" — rather than operas.)
Anna Amalia was a distinctive and innovative voice whose works were nearly lost. But you have the rare opportunity to hear a live performance of the Four Military Marches when the Redlands Symphony performs Mozart, the Essence of Music on March 26.
We hope you enjoyed this article! It was made possible through the generosity of music lovers just like you. Please consider helping us continue to bring you great content, including concerts and more, by making a donation to the Redlands Symphony.