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8.555918 - DEVIENNE: Flute Concertos
English 

Francois Devienne (1759 - 1803)

Francois Devienne (1759 - 1803)

Flute Concertos Nos. 2 & 7

Symphonie Concertante for Flute and Bassoon

 

The instrumental music of the end of the later eighteenth century has attracted increasing attention in the last twenty years of musicological research. Every historical period includes a number of brilliant composers who upstage innumerable other composers in the eyes of modern audiences, while today there is, for the first time, a fuller awareness of the past and a truly critical attitude towards cultural history. In the so-called classical period, work by Mozart and Haydn represents the spirit of an age in which both the audience and the concert underwent changes: halls became larger to provide room for growing middle-class audiences, the pianoforte became established as the leading instrument on the eve of romanticism and the opera had become the most important form for a composer's social standing. The fact that the two central figures of the period wrote relatively little for wind instruments is in itself probably sufficient reason for musicians and researchers now to show more interest in work by their contemporaries. This work is fascinating in that, through instrumental analysis and considerations of national differences, new light is brought to bear on the development of the styles and personalities of the great virtuosi.

 

Among these last we must include Francois Devienne, who was born in 1759 in Joinville (Haute-Marne) and died in 1803, a most fascinating figure. Thanks to research by Emile Humblot at the beginning of the twentieth century1, we now have a fair amount of biographical information about him. He seems, at the early age often, to have been a member of the Regiment Royale des Cravates, a military band and therefore a usual school for brass or woodwind players at the time. He settled in Paris in 1779 and took up his first position as bassoonist with the Opera de Paris. At the same time, he was also studying the flute with Felix Rault. It seems that he entered the service of the Cardinal de Rohan as a chamber musician and was a member of the orchestra of the Loge Olympique. After a period with the Swiss Guard, in 1788 he joined the orchestra of the Theatre de Monsieur as second, later first bassoonist, and at the same time played with the Paris Garde Nationale, which was to be active in setting up the Paris Conservatoire in 1795, where Devienne would become one of the first flute teachers.

 

Devienne's compositions for flute, revived by Jean-Pierre Rampal in the 1960s, are now better known to flautists, but still not, unfortunately, to the public at large. As well as extensive educational work, including the well-known Methode of 1794, with its extremely interesting articles on technique and style of the time, his collected work also includes eight books of sonatas for flute or bassoon, a variety of chamber music and no less than seventeen concertos. The brilliant and melodic style of these last makes them perfect examples of the concertante classical genre, comparable only to work by the Viennese composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812), who himself wrote some 25 concertos for flute. Devienne's concertos, however, are, remarkably enough, frequently closer to the spirit of Mozart, who while in Paris had attended the Concerts spirituels. It was there that Devienne frequently, and with great success, played his compositions, which were brilliant reflections of the elegant tone of Paris at the time. Concerto No.2 in D major is an example of grace and balance, two characteristics to be found in the fine portrait of the composer by Jacques-Louis David2, qualities which are associated with Mozart, explaining why Devienne was called the French Mozart.

 

Of the seventeen concertos, only three are written in a minor key, including the seventh (1787/88), in which for the first time a new, deeper and more passionate awareness can be felt. This is expressed in some of the dramatic effects, like the tutti that opens the first movement and the opening flute motif of the second solo A minor passage. The second theme is nostalgic and dreamy, contrasting sharply with the above passages and the more brilliant passages. The Adagio has a very varied rhythm and a moving melody, while requiring great qualities of suppleness and sound. The finale is comparable in quality with the earlier movements and is full of ingenuity: after an opening first virtuoso passage, a new idea is quite deliberately introduced that runs counter to the suppleness and dialogue of the first section. This theme, introduced first in C major and then taken up in C minor, leads into a range of modulations and a partial return to E minor. This takes place in a long passage in semiquaver triplets, staccato and with rapid appoggiaturas, which leads back to the original theme. A passage that calls for technical brilliance from the flautist provides a virtuoso conclusion to what is probably the best French flute concerto of the late eighteenth century.

 

It was in Paris that Mozart wrote two masterpieces of the genre of sinfonia concertante, one for flute and harp and the other for four wind instruments. Oevienne wrote seven such works, including two for the same instruments as Mozart's KV297b, scored for flute, oboe, horn and bassoon. The remaining works are for various groups of two or three soloists, but are all written for wind instruments (two flutes, two clarinets, oboe and bassoon, and so on), a remarkable fact ensuring Devienne a special place in the history of music and of this particular form. Typical of Paris and Mannheim, this genre was particularly popular in France: about 150 such works were written between l770 and 1800. These are clearly concertos for several soloists, but the term "symphony" attracts particular attention, as reflecting the tendency towards greater sonority. If we couple these with the audience's fascination with virtuoso players, the pleasant and even entertaining aspects of the melodies or of the dialogues between soloists, the reason for the genre's great success is easy to grasp.

 

Jean-Baptiste Breval (1756-1825), a cello virtuoso, was a member of the Opera orchestra in Paris and became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. His work includes mainly music for the cello (sonatas and seven concertos), but also two concertante compositions for wind instruments, one, Opus 31, for oboe and horn and the other, Opus 38, for clarinet, horn and bassoon. The first of these in particular was very popular with the public, being found repeatedly in programmes of the time, in the Concerts Spirituels, the Concert de la Reine or the concerts given by the Loge Olympique. Devienne adapted this work for flute and bassoon, a task which will have been that much easier for him since he was an excellent player of both instruments. It is a happy piece, enriching an otherwise lean repertory for flute and bassoon with an occasional flash of humour, a quality that Devienne certainly possessed.

 

Denis Verroust

 

1 Emile Humblot: Francois Devienne, un musicienm joinvillois a l'epoque de la Revolution, Saint-Dizier-Bruillard, 1909, new edition Minkoff.

 

2 Brussels Museum collection.

 

 


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