On Playing the Flute: Chapter 11

On Playing the Flute, or Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen is an historical treatise written by Johann Joachim Quantz in 1752. Quantz was a first-rate composer, flutist, luthier, theorist, and teacher. He enjoyed an exalted and well-connected position at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia (think northern Germany), as Frederick himself was an avid musician and flute player. Quantz's treatise is not just for flutists - the majority of the work concerns musical taste and execution, and the flute-specific information is limited. It's entertaining reading, and just packed with useful tidbits, filtered through Quantz's clear voice. Here I'm recapping and discussing Chapter 11. I'm experimenting with a formatting scheme where

recaps look like this

and discussion / reaction looks like this. The section titles are mine. All recaps

Of Good Execution in General in Singing and Playing

Music can be compared with oration. The goal in both is for the performer to influence his listeners. The performance matters - as in public speaking, two different performers delivering the same material can produce very different effects.

I've heard the music = rhetoric connection before and have a feeling I'll hear it again, and again. Add Quantz to the "rhetoric" bandwagon.

How to do it

In oration, each word must be spoken with an appropriate inflection - loudness, tempo, and speed are constantly adjusted to produce the intended effect. Same thing goes in music. The performer is almost as important as the composer in the success of a piece of music.

I like Quantz's little "almost" in that last sentence - coming from a man who composed 500 concertos and sonatas, it's understandable that he'd subtly place the composer at the top of the totem poll. The point remains, though - the performer is essential.

Watch out

Don't crowd slow works with too many embellishments, and make sure, when embellishing a melody, to pay attention to the bass line. Don't play in such a way that only connoisseurs or professionals can understand - be intelligible to all.

I think it says something about Quantz's personality that this enthusiastically-written, but very negative passage comes so early in the chapter. I can just imagine that there's some young upstart at court ornamenting the hell out of slow movements, and receiving approval from the other musicians, while Quantz looks on from the side with a raised eyebrow thinking, "I can't wait to write about this idiot."


Almost everyone has an individual musical personality. Even after studying with the same teacher, different students will progress in different directions according to their personalities, some better than others.

This little digression into performers' personalities is kind of hilarious. Again, Quantz changes the whole mood of a passage with a single "almost." Pity the soul who somehow has no personality. And again, with the discussion of different students of a single teacher, my 21st-century sensibilities are blindsided by Quantz's postscript - this is not a man who believed everyone was a special snowflake. I'm a little scared of him at this point.

In this rather famous Adolph Menzel painting of Frederick II's court, Quantz is the character glowering in the right corner. One wonders if Frederick (playing the flute) was disappointing Quantz with an insufficient personality.

In this rather famous Adolph Menzel painting of Frederick II's court, Quantz is the character glowering in the right corner. One wonders if Frederick (playing the flute) was disappointing Quantz with an insufficient personality.

How to do it right

First priority - intonation! Then comes tone - as beautiful as possible. Next, articulation - watch out that you don't sound like a bagpipe with the notes glued together. Instead, articulate with a variety of strokes. Please separate different thoughts, but don't separate within a single thought. Play with correct rhythm and tempo - "Many players" don't do this.
Distinguish between important and unimportant notes. Play the quickest notes unequally, so that the first, third, and fifth notes are slightly longer than the second, fourth, and sixth notes. If the tempo is too fast to do this cleanly, stress only the first note of a group.
Match your execution with the affect of the composition. Allegros lively and not slurred or gentle, Adagios delicate and not too attacked. Performer should appear at ease and never grimace, but should experience the passions he wants to convey. Keep it varied - continually alternate between strong and weak. Do justice to the intentions of the composer. When embellishing, only seek to enhance the prevailing affect. When the affect changes frequently, the performer must imagine that their own temperament changes.

OK - there is a lot of info here, both explicit and between the lines. If "many players" don't play with what Quantz considers correct rhythm and tempo, shouldn't that become a potential element in rhetorical style, no matter how much our conservative Mr. Quantz might wag his finger? The second paragraph, according to a helpful footnote, is "probably related to notes inégales." I agree that Quantz's description seems to match modern execution of inégale pretty well:

These days, the jaunty inégale technique is used almost exclusively for French baroque repertoire. I find it interesting that Quantz makes no such specification. Certainly he was familiar with French style, but why would he describe this technique without specifying "French style" unless it was more generally-applicable than is currently accepted? Hmmm...

Two more quick observations: the thing about not grimacing hits home (I personally have trouble controlling my face when playing and have largely given up attempting to do so). Then again, Quantz played the flute, and a grimace on the face of a flutist is catastrophic to their technique in a way that isn't true on the violin, thank goodness! Finally, did you catch it? There's another "intention of the composer" moment. Bruce Haynes might call Quantz a Romantic!

How to tell the affect

First, major or minor. Major is gay, bold, serious, sublime. Minor is flattering, melancholy, and tender. Many exceptions, though. Close note intervals indicate flattery, melancholy, and tenderness (same list as minor). Wide intervals indicate gaiety and boldness (major mode characteristics). Relation between close intervals and connected, slurred stroke, and vice versa - wide intervals align with separated, accented strokes. Also, consider the number and types of dissonances. Finally, consider the tempo marking - if the composer took care with his indications, the words chosen reveal much about the character. It takes a lot of work and experience to be able to discern the affect from all of these clues.
When realizing an affect, take care to compensate for your natural temperament - a hot-tempered person must be careful not to let that character show in an Adagio, for example.

There's a lot of good stuff here, although I wonder if it's intelligible to a non-musician. Being a good Quantzian, I might try to put a little video demonstrating some of these ideas.

On performing

You must add graces (embellishments) to the music, but not too many - it becomes offensive to the ear. Take care not to use too much "shake" (vibrato!?) - some singers are "badly addicted" to it. Instrumentalists should imitate the cantabile of singers. Singers should imitate the lively fire of instrumentalists.

For the first time, the controversial question of vibrato rears its ugly head. I think I'll tiptoe past this one for now...

Poor execution

Probably disapproves of you.

Probably disapproves of you.

Avoid all the following: bad intonation, forced tone, indistinct articulation, indiscriminate slurs or attacks, incorrect tempo and rhythm. Avoid too many embellishments in Adagio, or graces that conflict with bass line. Avoid working too hard or blundering in the passagework - and avoid grimacing. Avoid unvaried dynamics, or performing without considering the passions, or without feeling those passions yourself. The listener to a performance with these characteristics "will be glad when it is over."

Oh my, what a way to end the chapter. Thanks for putting all of that negativity in my head, Quantz - now I'm really motivated to go out in the world and share my art! And again with the grimacing. I'm sorry, alright?

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Playing-Flute-Johann...