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...

The End of Early Music: Introduction

The End of Early Music is a 2007 book by the late great historical oboist Bruce Haynes. Subtitled "A Period Performer's History of Music for the Twenty-First Century," this book was in many ways the inspiration for Musicker. In this series of blog posts, I re-read the book, offering chapter-by-chapter recaps as well as some of my own thoughts and reactions. The subsection titles are Bruce Haynes's. This first offering covers the introduction. All Recaps


Universal literacy and the canonism and "text-fetishism" that came with it led to a separation of composing and performing. Musicians from the pre-Romantic era composed and performed as a matter of course, and improvisation formed a bridge between the activities. As a result, written music was intentionally "thin," or sparsely notated, to allow for the necessary (but changeable) final ingredients to be added by the performer.

Bruce Haynes

Bruce Haynes

I'm with you, Bruce, on the composition-improvisation-performance continuum in rhetorical music, and it makes sense that written music would be "thin" in that kind of environment. I wish, however, that you'd expanded on how and why exactly universal literacy led to canonism. It's the opener of your book, and understanding the origins of canonism would be really helpful. Perhaps you'll circle back to it later.

The Romantic Revolution:

Romanticism is the barrier separating contemporary musicians from Baroque. From 1789 (the French Revolution) through about 1840, major changes in instruments and approaches amounted to an abrupt break from the previous tradition.

Canonism and Classicism

The Romantics brought music into line with literature, architecture, and graphic arts, which all held models from Classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome) as ideal. However, since no actual Classical music, in the ancient sense, existed, a new canon was begun, and we've called it "classical music" ever since. Evidence includes the appearance of concert halls in the 19th century lined with busts of the "great" composers. Musicians were transformed from craftsmen into heroic artists. The "Classical Canon" today is pervasive, even in HIP circles - look at the number of Messiahs that take place every year - and is built around the idea of performing a small number of works over and over again. Even the concert dress and performance venues are straight out of the Romantic era.

I must quote Bruce's excellent list of the "basic assumptions of Classically oriented musicians:

  • great respect for composers, represented by the cults of genius and originality,
  • the almost scriptural awe of musical "works,"
  • an obsession with the original intentions of the composer,
  • the practice of listening to music as ritual,
  • the custom of repeated hearings of a limited number of works."

All of these tendencies are clearly derived from a Romantic-era urge for canonization, and particularly when applied to pre-Romantic music, are anachronistic. Which is not to say they are bad - I've found wonderful insights into all kinds of music in my career by approaching works in this way - but it is rather shocking to see myself so thoroughly called out.

Musical Rhetoric

The pre-Romantic system of making music was fundamentally different from that which we use today, and can be summed up in one word: rhetoric. Rhetoric, in the public speaking sense as well as the musical, is the way that a performer can move an audience, as well as himself, to experience specific emotions. Much like today's popular culture of movies, television, and music, rhetorical music was intended to be ephemeral - affecting and moving but not necessarily returned to again and again. Romanticism, by contrast, tends to dramatize intense personal moments experienced by the artist-composer, which are observed and appreciated by the musicians and the audiences.

"Scare Quotes" for Authenticity

The word "authentic" was a common one in the first decades of HIP (beginning in earnest in the 1960s) but after many insightful Richard Taruskin articles in the 1980s, it usually appears now in quotes, as if to acknowledge its futility. That a HIP ensemble, attempting to revive performance practices extinct for 200 years, should have higher claim to the word than a symphony orchestra which has been continually performing the same music for 200 years, is of course dubious. The difference, however, is in the attempt at authenticity - the results of various attempts have a chance of being truly serendipitous.

Haynes rejects Taruskin's objection to HIP's apparent moral high ground. Different music from different times requires different approaches and sometimes different instruments, in contrast to the mainstream contemporary approach of one style fitting all music. Is "one style fitting all music" a bit of a harsh verdict on contemporary music-making? Bach harpsichord concerti are performed and recorded regularly on concert grand pianos - is this any less ridiculous than performing a Brahms piano concerto on a harpsichord?

Serendipity - the surprising and delightful discovery of something that works - is they key. In HIP that chance at serendipity comes only from repeated attempts at something that seems impossible. That moment of realization - of going far enough away from one's comfort zone that things start to work again in an entirely new way - is as worthy a goal as any level of authenticity to a period.

The End of Early Music

It is silly that we qualify the instruments in HIP with modifying names - baroque flute, baroque bassoon, and particularly baroque violin. The instruments already existed and then evolved (or didn't, in the case of the violin). There really isn't anything "Early" about Early Music, so Haynes claims a more appropriate, more descriptive term for pre-Romantic music and performing style: Rhetorical Music.

I will be following Haynes's model and will refer to pre-Romantic music as "Rhetorical music." It's such a simple and clear and honest term; I hope it catches on to wider use.


Christopher Small coined the term "musicking" in 1998 as an activity that includes

all musical activity from composing to performing to listening to a Walkman to singing in the shower - even cleaning up after a concert is a kind of musicking.

Haynes finds the term particularly useful when considering Rhetorical music and the Rhetorical era, when performers were also composers and teachers and writers and theorists, and the same Rhetorical principles infused all of this musicking. I like the term enough to name this project after it.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Early-Music-...