About this Recording
8.570309 - FLUTE (THE ART OF THE)
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The Art of the Flute:
Mozart • Kuhlau • Françaix • Saint-Saëns • Poulenc

 

A Short History of the Flute

The flute has suffered all kinds of unfairness in the history of human music-making. Yet we, who are in its service, were we ever to fall out of fashion once again, could always point to the fact that we were the first. The oldest musical instrument found so far is 50,000 years old, with four holes, made from the bone of a bear and discovered in Divje Baba in Slovenia. The clarinet, on the other hand, which has replaced us in the favour of composers for more than a hundred years, first appeared in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The title and the dramatic instrumentation of The Magic Flute suggest the origin of the flute from the early mythology of mankind. Tamino's flute and Papageno's pan-pipes exemplify the mythological significance of the two instruments. On the one hand the flute is valued as a gift of the gods, as a pure, sacred, cult instrument par excellence. Ebony in heraldry is the material for the recorder and the transverse flute, the wood from which the throne of Pluto, god of the dead, was fashioned. Ivory was used for the throne of Solomon and symbolizes strength and purity (only Tamino's magic flute comes from the tree of the lecherous Jupiter, the oak). On the other hand the flute symbolized the most earthly of desires: the pan-pipe owed their existence to the predicament of the nymph Syrinx who, distressed by an impending sexual assault from the god Pan, turned into a reed. The monster cut the phallus-shaped plant and played music on it to stem his desire, without thereby noticeably reforming. The pan-pipes symbolize at the same time the virginity of the syrinx - while, conversely, the history of art is full of pornographic pictures featuring the recorder and transverse flute.

A second musical legend, incidentally, suggests the coarse, animal aspect: Midas, the King of the Phrygians, who declared the lecherous demi-god Pan a better musician than Apollo. The god punished this ridiculous hubris with the ears of an ass which the King hid under a voluminous cap. Only the King's barber knew of this and when he could no longer keep this spectacular fact to himself he dug a hole in the ground and shouted into it: 'King Midas has the ears of an ass!'. On that place, however, reeds grew up that, when they were disturbed by the wind, sang the barber's words.

So The Magic Flute is a study of the dual nature of the instrument, the sublime and the animal. At the same time, however, it brings out clearly the dilemma: the flute is present here as a symbol, but the orchestral tasks allotted to it are modest indeed. There is Tamino's aria, the flute motif itself, a bizarrely lustful outburst of the piccolo in the aria of the presumed eunuch Monostatos, the fire and water trials and, essentially, that is all there is.

There are flutes from the beginning of mankind in all cultures. In Europe this had been understood since the middle ages as the recorder. In the eighteenth century the first modern flutes were created on the model of an Asian prototype of 900 B.C. The so-called transverse flute - from 1750 with key mechanism - was made of wood. For this reason the whole instrumental group, although today made of metal, was counted as woodwind. The transverse flute enjoyed a short but glowing career as an instrument for virtuosi, orchestra and amateurs. It became the preferred instrument for aristocratic dilettanti, its most notable exponent Frederick the Great of Prussia, who devoted himself to it as a composer and talented amateur. So great was its popularity that instruments were also made out of ivory and crystal glass as well as in the form of a walking-stick. Bach's A minor Partita, BWV 1013, for solo flute is the first great masterpiece written for it. The aria ' Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben ' ('For love my Saviour was willing to die') from the St Matthew Passion in its peaceful serenity is accompanied by the flute - when stronger emotion is needed the oboe enters. The Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck's Orfeo shows the instrument as one from another world. Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel, Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Joachim Quantz, the last of whom wrote an important theoretical work on the transverse flute, created a rich repertoire for the instrument.

Real technical developments, however, remained denied to it, and so new composers inevitably discovered new worlds of sound, and bigger orchestras called for greater volumes of sound. And so Mozart, to be sure, wrote two flute concertos and a concerto for flute and harp, yet his heart was audibly drawn to other instruments. Friedrich Kuhlau was a very productive but unfortunately now forgotten defender of the instrument. With Beethoven there is only a solo for us in the Eroica Symphony and in the Leonora Overture. For Schubert, in spite of a transcription of the song Getrocknete Blumen from Die schöne Müllerin, the flute plays no great part. An attractive passage in the Scherzo of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a little in the First and Fourth Symphonies of Brahms, little or nothing in Wagner (and this little diminishing still further in his later work), and nothing in Bruckner. An attractive flute concerto by Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) is the most important thing the romantics have left us.

An exhibition piece like the accompaniment of the mad scene in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor can never lure me to the opera: it is a mere virtuoso accessory and in any case was originally written for glass-harmonica, which, with its vibrato-free sometimes hollow, sometimes shrill ghostly sounds, can really better suit the intended mood (a hint, too, to flautists who have this passage to play). I would rather adapt myself unobtrusively to the gentle flute sounds of La Bohème than wait idle half an hour in The Ring for a single almost unplayable A flat major passage in Götterdämmerung.

Yet at that time the flute was ready for higher things: the flautist and instrument-maker Theobald Böhm had in 1832 bestowed on the instrument an overdue reform, still effective today. He made a cylindrical body out of the conical, put holes according only to acoustic requirements and developed a system of keys that made these holes accessible. He experimented also with metal flutes. The instrument was ready for its impressive come-back in the twentieth century. Here Richard Strauss wrote solos that were distinguished by their unplayability. Thus he asked for a forte in Salome's dance that is impossible in the middle register of the instrument. Similar problems arise in the Sinfonia Domestica and in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Hindemith's Metamorphosen conceal extremely difficult passages that are not apparent to the listener. I doubt whether the composer could ever have heard the work as he conceived it. Khachaturian let the famous flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal transcribe his Violin Concerto for the flute. New flute music, however, comes quite simply from French impressionism: Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune, his Trio with its exciting instrumentation for harp, flute and viola, above all Syrinx for solo flute, the piece of all pieces that recalls the mythological birth of the flute and reveals all its bewitchment.

Nowadays we have Francis Poulenc, Luciano Berio, Edgar Varèse and Pierre Boulez, who have written for us. Their works demand that we learn the flute almost anew, yet once one is there, a new world has been created.

The instrument is more fragile than others: it can be seriously impaired through weather or climate. As to the actual playing of the flute, it is the same as for almost all other instruments: the nearer it comes to the human voice, and the more colours that can be brought to it, notwithstanding its somewhat limited possibilities, the more convincing the result. Yet it is, to be absolutely honest about it, of little importance whether one uses a silver flute bought for 7000 euros or, more for the myth, a gold flute which is five times more expensive. I myself play a gold flute weighing about 90 decagrams. I learned, however, on a silver flute. That is no different from colleagues on the violin: a real expert can play a modern violin in such a way that it cannot be distinguished from a Stradivarius.

What flutes are there?

Apart from the countless flutes from different ethnic groups and the old recorder there are the following flutes:

The concert flute in C with a range from c' to d''''
The piccolo in C, transposing an octave higher
The tierce flute in F, a fourth higher than the concert flute
The flauto d'amore (flûte d'amour) in B flat, a whole tone below the concert flute
The baroque flauto d'amore in A or A flat (a minor or major third below the concert flute)
The alto flute in G (formerly also F and E flat)
The tenor flute in A or B flat
The bass flute, an octave below the concert flute
The double-bass flute, an octave below the bass flute
The sub-double-bass flute, two octaves below the alto flute

How does the flute work?

The flute consists of three parts, the head, the middle joint and the foot joint. There is a cork stopper at the head end which can be used to regulate the exact tuning. The head has a mouth hole plate that is set over a rectangular opening, the so-called air-hole. It is blown from the side against the sharp angle of this hole. The player's lips and blowing angle control the intonation, sound and tone-quality. The instrument uses a system of finger plates as constructed in 1832 by Theobald Böhm, who gave the instrument its present cylindrical bore.

Wolfgang Schulz
English version by Keith Anderson

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The recording: Works by Mozart, Kuhlau, Françaix, Saint-Saëns and Poulenc

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791):
Sonata K. 448, arranged for two flutes and piano by Elisabeth Weinzierl and Edmund Wächter

In 1781 Mozart was summoned to Vienna by his employer, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. He had enjoyed success in Munich with his new opera Idomeneo, re di Creta, but the public acclaim and the financial rewards he might have received in Vienna were thwarted by the Archbishop. He had long been dissatisfied with Salzburg, where opportunities seemed so limited, and had made an earlier bid for freedom, which had come to nothing. In Vienna, however, he quarrelled with his employer and secured immediate dismissal, taking up lodgings with Frau Weber, a widow with one of whose daughters, Aloysia, now married, Mozart had flirted in Mannheim. He was to marry her younger sister, Konstanze, to his father's obvious disapproval.

Now independent, and obliged to earn a living, Mozart was able to gain immediate rewards for his performances as a pianist. At the same time he took pupils, among them the fat daughter of Herr von Auernhammer, Josepha, whose not inconsiderable musical talents do not seem to have been matched by any physical attraction, as she apparently admitted to Mozart. On 22 November 1781 Josepha von Auernhammer and Mozart played together at the Auernhammer's his Concerto for two pianos, K. 365, and a new work he had written for the occasion, probably the present Sonata in D major for two pianos, K. 448. The arrangement for two flutes and piano by the flautists Elisabeth Weinzierl and Edmund Wächter allows the melodic exchange between the two pianos to be transferred aptly to the flutes. The sonata-form exposition of the first movement presents the two themes to be briefly developed in the central section of the movement, before the return of the opening material in recapitulation. In the slow movement it is not long before flute enters in imitation of flute, with occasional octave transpositions for the second flute, when elements of the lower register of the keyboard can be included. The sonata ends with a lively sonata-rondo form movement.

Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832):
Trio in G major for two flutes and piano, Op. 119

Friedrich Kuhlau was born in Uelzen in Lower Saxony, son of an oboist, and moved with his family to Lüneburg, where Kuhlau lost an eye in an accident, and then, in 1802, to Hamburg, developing his musical interests and abilities before the approach of Napoleon's army forced a further move, this time to Copenhagen. Kuhlau gave his first concert there in 1811, initially earning a living as a free-lance piano teacher and composer. Early success brought him, in 1813, the title of Royal Chamber Musician, while his activity as a composer saw an increasingly large number of works for flute and piano. His first opera for the Royal Theatre was staged in 1814, followed at regular intervals by further works for the theatre, where he worked also as a singing teacher. In 1824 he won considerable success with his magic opera Lulu and continued to provide music both for operas and for other stage works, among them the still popular Elverhøj (Elf Mound) of 1828, incidental music for a play performed to mark the wedding of King Frederik IV's youngest daughter to the future King Frederik VII. Kuhlau undertook a series of concert tours abroad and in 1825 a journey to Baden, near Vienna, brought a friendly exchange with Beethoven, as the two composers competed in writing puzzle canons. His later life brought difficulties of various kinds. His parents, who had joined him in Copenhagen, died in 1830, and in 1831 a fire destroyed the house he rented and with it a number of his manuscripts. He had always had to work hard to supplement the relatively meagre stipends he received for his official court appointments and lacked money, while at the same time suffering ill health. He died in 1832 of tuberculosis.

Kuhlau's Grand Trio in G major for two flutes and piano, Op. 119, seems to have been published in London in 1831. It is a work that can claim clear descent from Mozart and Beethoven, suggesting, however, an affinity with Weber, his exact contemporary. The work starts with a sonata-form movement, its principal theme given first to the piano. It is the piano that introduces the second subject, that is immediately taken up by the first flute. The central development brings further pleasing interplay between the flutes, before the second flute embarks on the recapitulation. The E flat major Adagio patetico again allows the second flute to reintroduce the principal theme after a brief central excursion into C minor. The final rondo frames its contrasting episodes with a lively principal theme, providing a sparkling conclusion.

Jean Françaix (1912-1997):
Le Colloque des deux perruches, for flute and alto flute

The son of a singer and a father who was a composer and pianist and director of the Le Mans Conservatoire, the French composer Jean Françaix enjoyed, as a child, the most favourable circumstances for his musical development, writing his first composition at the age of six. He studied at the Le Mans Conservatoire and then at the Conservatoire in Paris with the pianist Isidore Philipp, taking a first prize in 1930. His development as a composer continued under Nadia Boulanger, who did much to further his career, and he also enjoyed the patronage of the Princesse Edmond de Polignac. He continued a prolific career as a composer, showing a characteristic command of writing for wind instruments, coupled with typically French elements of wit and facility. His earlier compositions included a very successful Piano Concertino in 1932, at the age of twenty. His first opera, Le Diable boiteux, a comic chamber opera, was given a private performance under the auspices of the Princesse de Polignac and further theatre works followed, notably scores for ballets staged by leading choreographers, including Massine, Lifar and Roland Petit.

Le Colloque des deux perruches (The Conversation of Two Parrots) was written in 1989 and is scored for flute and alto flute. In its six short contrasting movements Françaix handles the instruments with the expected facility, wit and skill, avoiding any parody in what, for the performers, is an exercise in complementary skills.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921):
Tarentelle, Op. 6

Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed remarkable precocity as a child. He coupled with his musical interests a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific, and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond the death of Debussy. He was born in Paris in 1835 and after his father's early death was brought up by his mother and a widowed great-aunt, who gave him his first piano lessons. Thereafter he studied with Camille Stamaty, a pupil of Kalkbrenner and of Mendelssohn, and appeared in public concerts as a child, having, by the age of ten, memorised all the Beethoven piano sonatas. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire, studying the organ with Benoist and composition with Halévy, and continuing to show his gifts as a pianist, organist and composer. His intellectual curiosity led him to espouse the cause of contemporary music, as well as the revival of music by earlier composers. Saint-Saëns taught briefly at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré, a musician with whom he established a close relationship. In 1871, after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its aim of propagating French music. By the time of his death in 1921, however, fashions in music had changed. Abroad, at least, he retained something of his earlier fame. Once known as the French Mendelssohn, he had written music that appealed to audiences in much the same way as his predecessor's for its clarity of texture and its attractive powers of invention, calculated to delight rather than to shock.

The Tarentelle in A minor for flute, clarinet and piano, Op. 6, was written in 1857, the year before Saint-Saëns was promoted to the position of organist at the Madeleine. It was heard at one of Rossini's Saturday evenings, when the identity of the young composer was concealed until after the performance. The work was thought to be by Rossini, who then revealed the truth, to the apparent consternation of those who had been too ready with their flattery of the old composer. It had its first public performance at a Pleyel-Wolff concert with the flautist Louis Dorus and the clarinettist René Leroy, and is a fine example of the composer's early skill.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963):
Sonata for flute and piano

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899, the son of Emile Poulenc, a director of the pharmaceutical firm Frères Poulenc. His musical tastes and gifts were drawn largely from his mother, an amateur pianist, who gave him his first piano lessons, when he was five, leading to study, three years later, with a niece of César Franck. By 1914 he had discovered the music of Schubert and of Stravinsky and now embarked on lessons with the pianist Ricardo Viñes, his teacher for the next three years. Through Viñes he met Erik Satie and Georges Auric, the first a strong influence on the early form of his composition and the second, his near contemporary, a friend and adviser for many years. After military service between 1918 and 1921, he took lessons from Charles Koechlin and found himself included by the critic Henri Collet as one of a group of six contemporary composers, Les six. The collaboration of the group became a practical one, with concerts and in compositions. While united socially and professionally as musicians, as composers their interests soon diverged. The following decade brought a marked change in Poulenc's life and in his music. In 1935 he met again the singer Pierre Bernac and gave the first recital with him. Their collaboration was to continue over the next 24 years. The war of 1939, during which he was again at first conscripted, brought inevitable difficulties, but afterwards he was able to return to an active career in partnership with Pierre Bernac in recitals and concert-tours, and in the recording studio. As a composer perhaps his most notable achievement at this time was his opera Les Dialogues des Carmélites, based on a play by Georges Bernanos. It was in the summer of 1956, after the Italian première of the opera, that he responded to a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation with a Sonata for flute and piano in memory of Mrs Coolidge, completed at Cannes the following year and first performed at the Strasbourg Festival by Jean-Pierre Rampal and the composer. The sonata is one further example of a French composer's skill in handling a wind instrument. The first movement, Allegro malinconico, allows contrast in the thematic material between the gentle melancholy of the first theme and other material. The second movement recalls in its harmony the music of Soeur Constance in the opera. The lively final movement provides a characteristic conclusion of wit and vivacious elegance.

Keith Anderson

 


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