Parallel Lives, Dohnányi & Bartók

Parallel Lives - The Introduction

by Szabolcs Szilágyi

Although the names of Dohnányi and Bartók might seem surprising in a flute and piano program, actually, the last piece in the former composer’s oeuvre, the Passacaglia, is a grandiose flute composition.

Why did Dohnányi wait until the end of his life before composing for the flute as a solo instrument and why did not Bartók do so at all? These are the questions I attempted to answer when creating the “Parallel Lives” program.

For this purpose, I wanted to examine why the flute, which until then had had a rather great solo repertoire was neglected by the musical giants of the 19th century. I also wondered whether this had influenced Dohnányi and Bartók.

When, having interrupted my studies in London, I was accepted to my orchestra, I did not really pay too much attention to the fact that instead of the works of Andersen, Fürstenau, Köhler, Devienne, Quantz, Stamitz and Reinecke, now I had those of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Stravinsky, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or actually Liszt, Dohnányi, Bartók or Kodály on my music stand, while J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, Debussy and Prokofiev were the rare exception. An orchestra musician devoted for years to learning the classical music repertoire does not even realise that the flute has actually two repertoires. One for orchestras, composed by geniuses, and another, rather extensive one, consisting of the pieces of minor composers, besides, of course numerous methodological publications. Therefore, it is indispensable for flutists to play in an orchestra (as well), otherwise they will have to accept that they will play the less significant repertoire of music literature throughout their life.

Concerning the composers, we can say that unfortunately those who wrote the bulk of the pieces in the symphonic repertoire did only rather rarely, if at all, compose either solo or chamber pieces for the flute. As these composers were mainly working in the Habsburg Empire, and then its successor, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and Germany and Russia, we can state that these pieces, without any exceptions, were composed for conical bore flutes or simple system flutes, as they are collectively called.

At the same time, this was also the period of the greatest reform in the history of flutes, which obviously contributed to the contradictory reputation of the flute as a solo instrument.

There is no need to introduce to flutists Theobald Böhm (1794-1881), the German goldsmith. His patent, which is the modern flute of our age, was registered in 1847. However, it had taken almost a century before it was fully accepted worldwide.

It is obvious that Böhm’s aim was to make flutists able to play a full chromatic scale, i.e. to produce gradual semitones. Böhm realized that it was indispensable to study and apply the laws of acoustics in order to achieve his aims. By this he also solved the complex problem of simple system instruments, i.e. the complicated fingering system used for the semitones and its inconvenient consequence, the highly uneven tone quality resulting from the complicated fingering. Moreover, the sound-producing capacity of flutes was extremely modest; e.g. they could not compete with violins regarding either the number of notes or virtuosity. Consider the musical instruction “flautando” often applied to string instruments, especially when performing orchestral pieces. This way of playing imitates the soft tone of (wooden) flutes and drastically changes the tone character of strings.

With his invention, Böhm not only wanted to introduce some way of standardisation and stop the impossible situation where practically the number of manufacturers was equal to the number of the types of flutes, but, more importantly, he was also driven by a musical need. It is my assumption that the highly problematic simple system had also become outdated and the flute in that form did not inspire the composers, as it was not considered as a possible solo instrument.

This idea is supported by L. v. Beethoven (1770-1827) himself in his reply dated 1 November 1809 to Scottish music publisher Georg Thompson, who wanted to commission him to compose a piece for flute: “I cannot bring myself to write for the flute as this instrument is too limited and imperfect”.

Let me briefly attempt to reveal what actually might have hindered the spreading of the Böhm-system in the German speaking area. Böhm’s concept was based on acoustic evidence. His measurements convinced him that the consecutive semitones indispensable for playing the chromatic scale could only be produced by using keys that are nearly identical in diameter. Böhm found that in an optimal case the diameter of the tone holes should be at least three quarters of that of the bore. Therefore, the tone holes, or rather the diameter of the tone holes that until then had not only been arranged in accordance with the diatonic scale, but also actually adapted to the finger size of the flutists, was no more adequate in the modern system flute for playing the precise chromatic scale. As a result, on the basis of acoustic evidence, Böhm needed to alter the body of the instrument from the conical(i.e. narrowing towards the end) design, which had been used until then, to the cylindrical design where the diameter is the same throughout the whole length of the tube. He divided the instrument into three parts and the cylindrical bore only tapers in the head by two millimeters towards the cork.

At the same time, the cylindrical bore already allowed for the use of different types of alloys beside wood, and later also of silver and gold, while in the 20th century even of platinum. As a result, however, the ideal tone of the instrument changed in every respect, which took a rather long time to be accepted.To sum it all up, we can say that by introducing the cylindrical bore, putting the tone wholes in chromatic order and arranging them according to his Schema, applying a constant diameter to all the tone holes and using different alloys and precious metals Böhm fundamentally changed the tone character of the flute.

Böhm’s invention was accepted with the greatest enthusiasm in France. For example, Georges Barrére (1876-1944), an outstanding figure among French and later American flutists, performed Debussy’s cultic Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which is often considered as the beginning of modern music, already on a Böhm-system flute in its 1894 premiere in Paris. By that time, the French had been using Böhm’s instrument for decades, due to the fact that Lot and Godfroy of Paris had immediately bought the license after the presentation of the instrument. We should also mention here that one of the most important composers of symphonies, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – who also played the flute and whose master in St Petersburg was the Italian Cesare Ciardi (1818-1877), who, of course, played the simple system flute – during his travels in Europe, met Paul Taffanel (1844-1908), a great figure in the French Flute School, in Paris. Tchaikovsky was so enchanted by the tone of the Böhm instrument that he decided to compose a concerto for flute. Unfortunately, due to his untimely death, this piece could never be written.

But it was not only the French who immediately converted to the new instrument. The same happened in Britain, where the license was bought by Rudall and Rose.

However, in Germany, his home country, Böhm’s modern flute was far less successful. Of course, his invention was also recognized in the German language area, but the Germans still insisted on the conical bore flutes. The spread of the modern flute in Germany was greatly hindered by Maximilian Schwedler (1853-1940), who was the principal flutist of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and later a professor at the Conservatory in the same town. Schwedler developed and presented his own flute in 1885 in cooperation with the Krupse Company in Erfurt. Actually, concerning its mechanism, the footjoint of the instrument is very much like that of a Böhm flute, and only the inventors themselves knew what exactly the so-called improved bore meant. The Reform flutes, as they were called, can also be linked to Schwedler. These instruments already have metal alloy headjoints, and the ebonite lip-plate appears as well. Even Brahms praised the Schwedler flute in 1886, after the premiere of his Symphony No. 4 in Leipzig:

I gladly repeat in writing that I was very pleased yesterday not only about your excellent playing, but in addition about the especially full-bodied, beautiful, and powerful tone of your flute! If an invention of yours has helped you in this, then it is to be praised most warmly and to be recommended most highly.

However strange it may sound, I believe that the enthusiastic supporters of the different tones characters of conical and cylindrical bore flutes fought some kind of ideological battle against each other – at least in the German language area. And although it might seem inappropriate to mention this in relation to an ideological reference, we could ask the question whether it was not just certain financial interests related to the licenses that prevented the spread of Böhm’s instrument.

My other assumption is that an indispensable precondition of the creation of an important composition is the good relationship between the composer and the musician playing the instrument. As for the flute, one of the best examples of how fruitful such a relationship can be is the one between Frederick the Great (1712-1786) and J. J. Quantz  (1697-1773).

Returning to the masters of the symphony, Hungary has great traditions related to the composers of the genre. Think of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who worked for decades in the service of the Esterhazy family, and who is considered to be the most prolific composer of symphonies. Beethoven also often visited Hungary and he even composed two pieces for the opening of the Pest Theatre in 19 February 1812: Overture to King Stephen,Op.117 and The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113. Dvořák and Brahms gave concerts in Vigadó Concert Hall in Pest, at the same venue where Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” of the musical director of the Hungarian Royal Opera House, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was premiered in 1889, conducted by the composer.

Two years after Böhm’s invention was registered, the war of independence against the Habsburg Empire was crushed in Hungary. In this new, different setting and in the spirit of renewal, the Hungarian national opera reached its peak with Ferenc Erkel, Mihály Mosonyi and Béni Egressy, and historical themes became dominant. Two of the most prominent figures of this movement in Pest were the Doppler bothers, of Austrian origin, who spoke German, but considered themselves Hungarian. It is very important for us here that thanks to the Doppler brothers, who learnt to play the flute in Vienna, the Viennese flutes became prevalent in Hungary.

Böhm’s invention had no followers in Hungary, still under the strong influence of Vienna, either.

Thus the Doppler brothers defined the art of playing the flute in Hungary for nearly a century or until the appearance of the Böhm system before World War II.

Following the Compromise and the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Budapest was created as the Hungarian capital in 1873, when the neighboring towns of Pest, Buda and Óbuda were united. The musical life of the new capital, where the most famous musicians and composers performed, one after the other, was among the most vibrant in Europe. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)played an extremely significant role in this when he initiated and took part in the establishment of the Academy of Music that was later named after him. Perhaps some credit in this respect should also be given to the Doppler brothers.

Dohnányi, and then Bartók, who followed him to Budapest, were equally mesmerized by the fact that they may have piano classes under István Thomán, who was the student of Liszt and, moreover, use the maestro’s instrument. But, as for the flute, what we can see is that the two youngsters coming from Pozsony (Bratislava) arrived in a town where Viennese system flutes were used. At that time, Adolf Burose (1858-1921) was the professor of the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music and also the first flutist of the Royal Hungarian Opera House. The musician of German origin, who was also well-established internationally as a soloist, founded the first Hungarian language flute school. The exact date of his two-volume Die Neue Grosse Flötenschule is unknown. We should not be misled by the German title.The book was published as the study material of the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music with German and Hungarian instructions. On the one hand, both languages were official languages of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, on the other, it was only natural that Burose wrote the instructions in his mother tongue. It is probable that he spoke only a little Hungarian, or none at all, as in the preface to the flute school he thanks his student, Dr August Alcsuti for the translation of the text into Hungarian.

From Burose’s work which includes the fingering chart of both the Viennese and the Böhm systems (!), it turns out that he preferred the former! He even recommends specific exercises to practice the fingering of the Böhm system, which means a deviation from the “normal instrument”.The fingering chart for the Viennese system flute ranges from small B to four-line E. There are not too many greater orchestration geniuses in the history of music than Mahler, who regularly writes small Bs in the flute parts of his symphonies. And this might prove the fact that Mahler composed for orchestras where Viennese-system flutes were used since we do not know of any 19th century Böhm flutes with small B.

Another important musical document of the ageis the two-volume Study of Orchestration by Albert Siklós (1878-1942) published also by Rozsnyai Publishing House. Siklós studied under János Koessler (1853-1926), who was a personal acquaintance and also great admirer of Brahms, and Bartók’s and Dohnányi’s professor of composition at the Academy of Music.In this book, the author presents the sound range of the flute in accordance with the Böhm system. However, he also mentions that the flutes manufactured in Germany and France are rather different from each other. Perhaps the most important thing from the point of view of our topic is that in his notes he mentions that in the flutes with the “latest” system, small H and small B also appear, and that if we want to study the legatos, staccatos and virtuoso passages of the flute, then Adolf  Burose’s Flute School is the best source. However, we do not know which instrument the author has in mind. Is it the Schwedler flute that was extremely popular in Germany and on which small H could already be produced, or the Ziegler flute used by Burose where small B also appears? We should not forget that the Schwedler flute is much younger than Böhm’s invention, while the Viennese system instruments are about the same age.

This can definitely lead us to two conclusions. On the one hand, Burose’s Flute School was written before the publication of the Flute School written by Siklós, and, on the other, what Siklós meant by the “latest” instrument must have been the conical-bore Viennese flute used by Burose.

At that time Dohnányi was teaching in Berlin, while Bartók was working on finding his own individual voice and beginning the in-depth study of folk music. It seems highly improbable that, while communicating with Burose within the walls of the Academy, they would decide to write a piece for solo flute.To start with, the composers hardly wrote any wind chamber music. Dohnányi wrote fort he horn and the clarinet only in his Sextet, Op. 37 in 1935, while Bartók composed Contrasts in 1938 (Sz 111. BB 116), which was ordered by the excellent American clarinettist Benny Goodman (1909-1986) through his good friend, the violinist, József Szigeti (1892-1973). And as for titles, in our case too we could use “Contrasts” instead of “Parallel lives”.

To conclude, we can say that at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the composers who wrote the bulk of the most often performed symphonic repertoire of today were concentrated in a place where the flute actually did not exist as a solo instrument. Most probably, one of the reasons behind this was the imperfection of the instrument, which had been realized by Theobald Böhm much earlier. That is why we should be really grateful for each note that these magnificent masters wrote for our instrument in the orchestra repertoire.

At the same time, mainly thanks to the influence in the 20th century of performers of exceptional skills like Jean-Pierre Rampal or Sir James Galway, the flute has by now become the most popular wind solo instrument.

Maybe, if the Böhm system had become widespread in the German language area at an earlier time, the flute repertoire – that is rather rich even as it is now – could have been expanded by a great number of highly valuable concertos and chamber pieces.

It took almost a whole century for Böhm’s patent to become a fully accepted member of symphony orchestras all over the world. As opposed to this, the tone of the German system clarinet in Germany, and of the Wiener oboe in Vienna is still insisted on.

Accordingly, the programme of Parallel Lives plays with the thought of ”What would have happened if…?”,going backwards in time. The aim of the performers is not to historicize but to make up for the “missing pieces”, hoping also to inspire others to take the path of discovery.

While Bartók and Dohnányi, the composers in the program, are both well-known personalities of the history of music in Hungary and worldwide (although considered to be of different significance) the expression “path of discovery” may also refer to researching their relationship. Despite the fact that they worked near each other in Budapest for several decades, we have very little information about their personal, professional, or musical relationship. Therefore, in the future, it is worth to continue with exploring where and how their lives intersected.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article in next month's issue.

Szabolcs Szilágyi

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