From Bones to Boehms

prehistoricfluteWestern concert flutes today may look entirely different from the perforated bones played by our distant ancestors, but the technical principles are exactly the same. No matter how sophisticated the instrument has become over the years, we are still all basically blowing over a hole in a hollow tube to make a sound. Any composition pitting the flute against an orchestra has to take this into consideration, and if you listen to works by more recent masters such as Carl Nielsen (8.554189) you will frequently hear the volume drop and the instrumentation of the orchestra thin when the soloist has significant material to perform. Marcel Moyse famously said that “power is not in the character of the flute”, and that is something with which we all have to live no matter how our head-joints are cut.

transverse-baroque-fluteModern flute concertos didn’t spring into existence from nowhere of course. Looking at the Baroque period you can see quite a clear generational transition between J.S. Bach, who wrote little for flute and orchestra beyond pieces such as the Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 (8.557755-56) which use flutes as part of the ‘concertino’ section in a concerto grosso setting, and his son C.P.E. Bach, whose flute concertos (8.555715-16) come pretty much fully formed in the fast-slow-fast movement pattern used throughout the Classical and Romantic eras and can still be found in new works today. Composers of this period owed much to the example of Vivaldi who, although best known as a violin virtuoso, also made significant contributions to the flute concerto genre (8.553365 & 8.553101). This period of transition also saw interchange between use of the recorder and the transverse flute, and arguments still go on as to which has the best expressive potential and the greater stamp of authenticity in this kind of music.

jj-quantz1As we move on to the Classical period, very few advances were made in instrument design; but virtuoso players nevertheless emerged, such as Johann Joachim Quantz (8.573120). If you look at concertos of this era and earlier you will, however, find that they are inevitably composed in a handful of key signatures, the flute remaining basically a diatonic rather than a chromatic instrument. Quantz was lucky to have flute-fan and player Frederick II, ‘The Great’, King of Prussia as his patron; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s supposed dislike of the flute is now considered more likely to have derived from unsatisfactory dealings with amateur musicians—his concertos nevertheless remaining some of the instrument’s best loved masterpieces (Naxos 8.557011). Names such as Johann Stamitz (8.570150) and Francois Devienne (8.555918) are also significant in this period. More symphonic in scale, the flute concertos of Franz Anton Hoffmeister (8.572738 and 8.573040) retain a classical idiom while reaching out a hand towards Romantic ambitions of virtuosity and range.

boehm-flutesConcertos remained popular vehicles for instrumental music, and Saverio Mercadante is an example of a composeradapting an operatic style to create works full of lyrical expression and dramatic content (8.572731). The violin and piano were more prevalent as concerto soloists in the early 19th century, and recent adaptations, such as Marc Grauwels’ work with some of Mendelssohn’s early pieces (8.555698), show what might have happened if the flute had developed sooner. The tradition was upheld by composers such as Peter von Winter, and the ‘German Flute Concertos’ represented on Naxos 8.570593 elegantly embrace the transition through Theobald Boehm’s revolutionary key system, which by the mid-1800s had turned the flute into something almost as versatile as the violin had been for decades and even centuries before.

carl-nielsenThe Boehm flute paved the way for a new breed of virtuoso players, and the Doppler brothers Franz and Karl were kings not only of virtuoso concerto writing, but also well attuned to the trend for brilliant fantasies on famous themes of the day (8.570378). Romantic composers still favoured the violin and the piano for serious concerto writing, but there are fine examples for flute from the likes of Carl Reinecke (8.557404). Carl Nielsen stands more at the foothills of contemporary composition, his remarkably characterful flute concerto resisting a conventional three-movement pattern in its two-movement design, also setting the flute up as an instrument to be vanquished as well as cosseted by the symphonic orchestra in front of which it stands.

modern-quarter-tone-fluteThe virtuosity of performers today has encouraged composers to explore the extremes of the flute’s capabilities, but its character as a singing voice also invites imaginative fantasies such as those conveyed by Ned Rorem’s descriptive movement titles (8.559278). Using a single movement with contrasting sections, Krzysztof Penderecki sets the soloist in dialogues with different sections of a chamber orchestra, eloquently generating maximum effect from relatively compact means (8.572696). Sir Peter Maxwell Davies turns to the familiar three movement structure for his Strathclyde Concerto No. 6 (8.572354), also adapting his chamber orchestra for the greatest transparency of sound and differentiation between the soloist and the other players.

Even where a contemporary musical idiom demands a little fine-tuning from the ear for it to be appreciated, you will often find that the flute is used as one of the most direct and natural means of expression available to a composer. The sound of this instrument somehow opens our prehensile inner ear to worlds of the pastoral, the warmth of communal narrative and approachable musical interactions, and a chameleon-like ability to evoke exotic and distant landscapes. Whatever the environment and whichever the musical period, this is a characteristic of the flute which is never likely to change.

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