J.S.Bach: Sonata in G minor, for flute and obbligato harpsichord. In a famous remark about J.S.Bach, Beethoven said ‘he should be named Sea instead of Bach, because of his infinite, inexhaustible wealth in tone combinations and harmonies’. These virtues are also deployed in his flute sonatas, each with a unique melodic contour and character. Bach was often criticized for being abstruse and redundantly complex, but he was able to prove through his work that he was, and would remain, a great pioneer. The special importance of his chamber music, in which he demonstrated a deep knowledge of the typical idioms and performing techniques of each instrument, was recognized at a very early age.
Bach is generally described as a rather austere personality, but that may be the result of a lack of information complementing his character, deemed unfitting for archival storage.
The first use of the transverse flute in Bach’s works was in Cantata no 137a, performed in 1722, in Cöthen for the birthday of Prince Leopold, with whom Bach maintained very good relations. Many significant works, such as the first book of ‘the well-tempered Clavier’, cello suites and probably some of the flute sonatas (they are dated between 1720 and 1741), were also composed during the time he spent there, exploiting the qualities and extended experience attained at the Weimar court.
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It was a period when the transverse flute, technically more advanced, began gaining ground against its ‘rival’, the recorder, and when J.Quantz started making it widely famous. The flutists of that era seemed to manifest a particular dexterity, equivalent to that, required not only in the flute sonatas, but also in other flute parts of many of the composers works, such as the cantatas and passions. In one of Bach’s biographies, published in 1802, by Forkel, the latter states that the flute sonatas ‘even in our days…would be heard by connoisseurs with pleasure’.
This particular work raises a controversial issue about its ‘paternity’. Bach’s authority regarding the piece started to become questioned during the third decade of the 20th century. Scholars expressed certainty that Bach’s son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, is the composer of this sonata (the dominant consensus today), but until today, no assumption has been unquestionably proved and no explanation has been given as to why an aspiring composer like C.P.Emanuel would attribute this work to his father without any plausible reason. A recent study, by Keiichi Kubota, speculates that the g minor sonata is the result of a collaborative work between Bach and his son (the latter ascribing authority to his father).
The sonata is played today by both violinists and flutists, as it is believed that the piece may have been written initially for violin, as supported in many published articles. Its form is that of the Italian concerto, lively-slow-lively, which reminds the listener of the significant influence of Vivaldi and Italian music to Bach.
G.Fauré: Fantaisie pour flute et piano, op. 79
Flute has always been associated with France, a relation that is firmly built upon the particular interest of French composers and performers in this technically developed instrument, especially around the turn of the 19th century. Paris stood in the forefront of musical processes at the time, and served as an incubator for new composers and performers, who formed the new trends.
Gabriel Fauré, a composer, organist, pianist, choirmaster and teacher, is one of the most important French figures of the turn of the 20th century, characterized by Debussy as ‘the master of charms’. He was fortunate enough to be a student and later friend of Saint-Saëns, at the Ecole Niedermeyer, where he was sent, after his father realized the unique talent of his son.
His style, multi-faceted and resourceful, continued to evolve until the composer’s death, in 1924. For that reason, putting labels on Fauré’s music can never be precise. His artistic hallmark is regarded as the bridge between Romanticism and Modernism and at the time of his death the second Viennese School was beginning to emerge. He was always self-critical (to the extent of discarding some of his already composed work) and pursued unremitting productiveness. His harmonic and melodic creativeness paved the road for new musical trends and made his style an inextricable element of future teaching of harmony and composition.
Fauré composed the Fantaisie for flute and piano, in 1898, upon a commission from his friend and colleague, P.Taffanel, who was a professor at the Conservatoire of Paris, and to whom the piece is dedicated (later Fauré would be appointed director of the Conservatoire). This piece was to be used for the annual introductory exams (Concours). Fauré, being among the first composers to be commissioned for the ‘morceau de concours’, confessed to Saint-Saëns in a letter, that this piece constituted a real challenge for him. He sent it to Taffanel asking him to amend any parts that were not appropriate for the flute. Fauré incorporated the ‘Andante’ of the Fantaisie to his incidental music, performed in London for the Maeterlink’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande.
This piece, which is dedicated to Taffanel, sets out to explore flute’s full potential, by extending to all three registers, covering all of the ‘Romantic’ instrument’s range. The performer is required to demonstrate wealth and diversity in his expression and sound, in his effort to trace the unfolding melody. Observation of the piano part reveals the prominence of the instrument in Fauré’s mentality. It is perceived not merely as an accompanying instrument, but rather as an equal partner, contributing to the melodic and rhythmic development of the piece. Together with the flute they make use of an extensive expressional ‘quiver’, alternating staccatos with long legato phrases, as after a sicilienne-like introduction, an increasing complexity in the instruments’ parts is combined with sudden dynamic changes.
Fantasia also exists in an orchestral version. This was realized later, after the composer death, by Louis Aubert, in 1957, at the request of the prominent French flutist, Jean Pierre Rampal.
Paul Hindemith sonata for flute and piano (1936)
In Hindemith’s opera ‘Mathis der Mahler’, Grünewald, a painter, realizes that he should never have betrayed his art for the sake of political activism. Hindemith though, never betrayed his versatile artistic personality and established a prominent career both as a performer and composer, demonstrating a manifold expressiveness. He aspired to create a new mentality in music, but not as an end in itself. The term ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ (functional music) refers to his notion for music, which should be created to serve a purpose, because ‘the days of composing only for the sake of composing were perhaps gone forever’. By drawing on multiple styles and forms he explored all aspects of resourcefulness and complexity.
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His activity was not restricted only to the production of music, but he also took up a dynamic role as a tutor which is colligated with his series of simple works for children and amateurs. His theoretical treatise ‘Unterweisung im Tonsatz’, sets the basis for a new approach towards harmony and melodic shaping and the views expressed would influence the next generations of composers.
Hindemith lived in an era of political turmoil and his ‘revolutionary’ style could not have evaded Nazi’s attention, who deemed his music – as Göbbels put it – pure ‘noise-making’. Although Hindemith was naive enough to ignore (at the beginning at least) the Nazi threat, his sonata for flute and piano, composed in 1936, has incorporated this aspect, yielding a work that alludes to this sinister political environment and asserting the composer’s belief that an artist cannot remain untouched by the human suffering around him.
The flute sonata was composed at a time of an increasing awareness by Hindemith of the looming danger and the subsequent need to flee his country. His emotional disposition is adumbrated in the second movement which conveys a suffering through its recitativo-like melody of the flute. One cannot fail to notice the fine irony emanating from the sonata’s strict rhythmic form which dissolves into a ‘childish-like’ melody, projecting the image of a child imitating a soldier’s march. Hindemith, tried to capture the vanity of human arrogance in conjunction with the suffering and desperation.
The flutist is required to render a wide palette of colors and emotions, from triumphant marches to bleak moments of agony and melancholy, by extending to the full range of the instrument. The piano has an ’emancipated’ part in the sonata and continuously moves in a contrapuntal way against the flute, hence sometimes it’s preferred with its lid open.
The boundaries between minor and major chords and atonal parts become blurred, much as the boundaries between life and death at the time of the composition, the death which Hindemith eluded only by chance in multiple occasions.
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