The Art of The Flute
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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