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Traverso flute in Germany in the 18th century

The flute started to be popular on the international stage only at the end of the 17th century. It was a professional instrument used for solo and orchestra pieces. Obviously a baroque traverso flute was completely different from a modern flute. Two main differences are the material and the keys: a baroque traverso flute was generally made of hard wood, more rarely of ivory and had only one key.
For a modern flautist it might appear a primitive instrument with a much quieter sound than the modern flute. However, for musicians from the 18th century its sound was astonishing, particularly when we take into account an evolution from the renaissance to baroque structure, which took part at the end of the previous century, probably in France.
A traverso flute in its new, improved form and by far more beautiful sound appeared relatively late in the baroque. That is why most solo pieces written for this instrument represent mature style or even the end of this period, which is characterized by gradual changes in music and other arts. Due to this fact, repertoire for flute solo in mid-18th century combines achievements of the passing period and new mainstreams (those of the classical order and the innovative ones, like galant, rococo or Empfindsamkeit).
In the “mature” classical period, which is generally known as times of J. Haydn and W. A. Mozart, traverso flute was not used as a solo instrument and the musical form of flute concerto was forgotten. Composers of the next generation after C. P. E. Bach almost entirely resigned from sonata as the main musical form dedicated for this instrument. It started to be used, however, in the orchestra, where composers included solo pieces for flute in operatic and symphonic music scores in order to make the musical piece lighter and more ‘colourful’. The flute itself was also improved – a simple key system was introduced, which strengthened some of the ‘weaker’ sounds performed so far by ‘fork grip’.
To sum up we can acknowledge that the biggest number of solo flute pieces was composed till the 60s of the 18th century. They are mainly sonatas consisting of different number of parts accompanied by a key instrument that provided harmony to the piece.

The first compositions dedicated especially for the flute or for the flute and other instruments in bigger ensembles existed as early as renaissance, but the number of such musical pieces is very limited in comparison with the next period. The first collections of pieces dedicated for traverso flute as a solo instrument accompanied by bass appeared only in the first decade of the 18th century. Till then the most popular instrument was a recorder, which was gradually replaced by another member of its family – the flute.

A change of the renaissance traverso flute to a much more glorious baroque one consisted of the evolution of its construction. The flute was divided into three parts with six holes in the body and the seventh hole in the foot covered by the first key added to the instrument, which was used to produce the D sharp sound. The holes were smaller and closer to each other, which made fingering more comfortable. Thanks to its conical construction the flute acquired a warm, full sound. It also gained full chromatic scale and sweet tone, often compared to the beauty of the human voice.

The new flute gained rapid popularity among professional players and amateurs. However, in the first decade of the 18th century the number of pieces for flute solo or for ensembles or orchestras with the flute was very limited. At the beginning they were mainly suites written in French style. In his autobiography Johann Joachim Quantz described the beginning of the 18th century in the following way:

“At that time there were few compositions written especially for flute. One had to make do for the most part with compositions for the oboe and violin, which one had to arrange as well as possible for one’s purpose.”1

The situation started to change dramatically after the publication of a small book Principes de la flute traversiere ou de flute d’allemagne, de la flute a bec, ou flute douce et du haut-bois in Paris in 1707. It contained basic information about blowing, posture, basic and trill fingering and the way to perform small, most frequent ornaments. It was written by a French music maker, musician and composer Jacques Hotteterre nicknamed „le Romain2.

The flute started to appear more and more often in operas or cantatas and it supported soprano arias. Whole collections of solo pieces were written for the flute, which became a favourite instrument in France. Its popularity grew in other countries as well – German composers in particular added a lot to solo and chamber repertoire, where the flute was a leading instrument.

Germany of the 18th century was a country with highly developed musical culture. It was, however, influenced a lot by French music in the first decade of the century, and by Italian music from about 1715. A particularly important place at the beginning of the 18th century was the musical centre in Dresden. During the reign of August II the Strong the royal orchestra consisted of outstanding musicians from all over Europe. The concertmaster at that time was Jean Baptiste Volumier (between 1709 and 1728). He was an extraordinary violinist, educated at the French court. Under his leadership the orchestra was raised to a very high level and was considered “the best in Europe”3 .

At the beginning, due to Volumier, the orchestra was under a strong influence of the French style and was famous for performances of French overtures and dances. The first flautist in the orchestra was also French – Pierre Gabriel Buffardin (between 1715 and 1749). He was considered a great virtuoso, known for playing fast passages with absolute perfection. When he was in Dresden, Buffardin taught future German flute virtuosos, such as J.J. Quanzt and Johann Jacob Bach (the older brother or Johann Sebastian Bach).

The passion for the French style in Dresden started to change slowly after the Grand Tour. In 1716-1717 the orchestra travelled to Italy with king August II. During the tour an Italian violinist and composer Franceso Maria Veracini was offered the position of the court composer and Johann Georg Pisendel, who performed these duties at that time, started learning musical composition with Antonio Vivaldi. Musicians began to introduce Italian style and copy Italian manuscripts, for example those of Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Torelli, Tomasso Albinoni or Arcangelo Corelli. Due to this tendency national influences started to blend, which generated a new style called “mixed” by Quanz.

Italian inspirations were strengthened after the death of the concertmaster Volumier in 1728, who was replaced by an admirer of the Italian style, Johann Pisendel. The Italian way of playing the violin influenced the style in which flute music started to be composed not only in Germany, but also in other cities like London, Paris or Amsterdam. J.J. Quantz, related to the Dresden court from 1740, also learnt composition with Pisendel, which explains violin texture of his flute sonatas and concertos.

An example of mixing styles and strong influence of Italian violin texture in Germany is a collection of 56 sonatas written by hand. It contains musical pieces created by different composers for various instruments (violin, oboe, flute) with basso continuo. Most of these pieces are written for the traverso flute4  and were composed between 1710 and 1717.5 In the majority of these compositions we can see passages of fast notes, which are characteristic for Vivaldi or Corelli:


Example 11. Collection of 56 sonatas written by hand., J.D. Heinichen, Sonata D-dur (XXXVIII), part II Allegro

Some composers of flute sonatas in this manuscript were influenced by the Italian school of composition:

Example 12. Collection of 56 sonatas written by hand. List of composers.

The first collection of sonatas for traverso flute accompanied by bass printed in Germany was Der brauchbare Virtuoso by Johanna Mattheson published in 1720. Each sonata has a title “Sonata for violin, traverso solo or continuo”. These pieces are characterized by rich violin ornamentation, but their register is generally low and the intervals are not extensive. In the collection of 56 sonatas, which was mentioned earlier, the ambitus is much broader. Using a much diversified sound of the instrument was probably caused by the availability of a various flute models on the German market.

In the 20s of the 18th century German instrument workshops became highly advanced and instruments were also imported from other countries.

Till about 1720 three-piece flutes were built:

Hotteterre’s three-part flute

Flute makers that became most famous by building these instruments were: Hotteterre family (France), J.J. Rippert (France), Pierre Naust (France), J.J. Schuchart (Germany), Jacob Denner (Germany), Johann Heitz (Germany), Denner family (Germany), Pierre Jaillard Bressan (London), Richard Haka (Amsterdam).

According to Quantz, around 1720 the body of the flute started to be divided into two parts, resulting in a four-part built. This change was introduced due to a difference of pitch among instruments in different cities and sometimes in different ensembles in the same city.

In northern Germany in the 17th century the most common pitch was high. It was called a choir pitch –  Chor-Ton, Zinck Ton or Cornet Ton. It was characterized by a very high basic pitch, around 445 Hz to 460 Hz for a1.6 Organs and brass instruments were tuned this way. It was used mainly in sacred music – an example could be church music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Kuhnau. It is thought that organs were tuned so high in order to save material used to build the pipes.

From about 1680 this pitch started to be replaced by a lower one due to an influx of new woodwind instruments, particularly oboes, flutes, recorders and bassoons, which were tuned one tone or even a third lower. This pitch was called Cammer-Ton, which means chamber pitch and it was around 388 Hz to 400 Hz for a1. At the beginning differences in tuning instruments caused problems for the composers who wrote pieces for orchestras with brass and woodwinds instruments. An example is J. S. Bach’s cantatas from 1707-1717 where scores for woodwinds instruments are written one tone or one third higher than organs or choirs in order to offset the difference in pitch.

After taking over the position of cantor in St. Thomas Church in Lepizig in 1702, Johann Kuhnau officially introduced “low chamber pitch” (one third lower) as a standard of performing music. Woodwind instruments that have been preserved till now and are displayed in museums serve as a proof that from about the year 1715 the pitch was raised to “higher chamber pitch”, in which a1 is around 410 Hz. In his essay J.J. Quantz writes:

 „It is undeniable that the high pitch is much more penetrating than the low one; on the other hand, it is much less pleasing, moving, and majestic. I do not wish to argue for the very low French chamber pitch, although it is the most advantageous for the transverse flete, the oboe, the bassoon, and some other instruments; but neither can I approve of the very high Venetian pitch, since in the wind instruments sound much too disagreeable. Therefore I consider the best pitch to be so called German A chamber pitch, which is a minor third lower than the old choir pitch. It is neither too low nor too high, but the mean between the French and the Venetian; and in it both the stringed and the wind instruments can produce their proper effect.”7

Due to differences in instrument pitch, makers started to build flutes in which the part of the body next to the head was changeable. At the beginning flutes had three changeable bodies but gradually their number grew to six. In comparison with the first body, the third one changed the pitch of the flute of more than half a tone. Flute players chose the part depending on the pitch of the sound “a” in the orchestra. This way they did not have to buy the whole collection of instruments tuned in a different way.

Four-part flutes were built in Germany by, among others, Johann Heinrich Eichentopf, Jacob Denner, John Just Schuchart, Johann Wilhelm Oberlender, Johann Poerschmann, August Grenser and Johann Joachim Quantz, who started constructing instruments in 1739. The ideal sound of a flute favoured in Berlin musical cycle should resemble a human voice – not a soprano, which it often accompanied in operatic duos, but a contralto. As J.J. Quantz described it, the sound should be “clear, penetrating, thick, round, masculine, and withal pleasing”8.


The most important German flute virtuosos in the first part of 18th century are:

Johann Martin Blockwitz – between 1717 and 1733 he was a flautist in the Royal Orchestra in Dresden. One of his sonatas is included in the Brussels collection of 56 sonatas (manuscript number XY 15.115) mentioned above.

Pierre Gabriel Buffardin (1690-1768) – a French flute player and teacher working in Germany. From 1715 till 1749 he was employed as the first flautist in the Royal Orchestra in Dresden. He was a teacher of, among others, Johann Jacob Bach (the elder brother of Johann Sebastian) and Johann Joachim Quantz. He was also a friend of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In 1728 he presented a traverso flute to count Frederick (future Frederick II). It is thought that he improved the flute structure by adding a foot extension, which made it possible to achieve a better balance when changing the body length in order to adjust the pitch.

Frederick II the Great (1712-1786) – Prussian king, long term student of J.J. Quantz, composer of many flute pieces. According to the sources he had a brilliant technique and he was famous for emotional interpretations of slow parts. For many years he played as a soloist during weekly concerts in Sanssouci palace in Potsdam.

Johann Heinrich Freytag – a flute player in the Köthen orchestra, when the Kapellmeister was J.S. Bach. His six sonatas can be found in the Brussels collection of 56 sonatas (manuscript number XY 15.115).

Johann Gottlieb Würdig – another outstanding flute player in the Köthen orchestra when the great Johann Sebastian was the Kapellmeister.

Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf (1708-1758) – a flute player, solder, a friend of count Frederick (later king Frederick II the Great), probably in homosexual relationship with the count. He accompanied the king as a chamber musician and gradually he was promoted to higher and higher positions in the state.

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) – a flute player of the Dresden Royal Orquestra and Kleine Kammermusik ensemble during the reign of August II the Strong. He was a teacher of the Prussian king Frederick II the great and he is the author of the manual Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen published in Berlin in 1752.

Johann Georg Tromlitz (1725-1805) – flute player and lawyer. According to the sources he was famous for his strong “trumpet-like” sound. He was the first flute player in Grosse Konzertgesellschaft, precursor of Gewandhaus orchestra in Lepizig, the author of the treatise for one-key flute Ausfüchrliher und gründlicher Unterricht die Flöte zu Spielen (1771). He was also the inventor of new keys for the instrument and the author of the manual Űber die Flöten mit mehrern Klappen (1800). 

Karolina Zych

1A. Powell, D. Lasocki, Bach and the Flute: The Players, the Instruments, the Music, w: Early Music, Vol. 23; Oxford University Press, 1995, cyt. F.W. Marpurg Historisch critisch Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik Berlin 1755.

2Jacques Hotteterre, a composer, virtuoso of different instrument, such as oboe, musette, viola da gamba, bassoon and traverso flute. He worked on the Versaille Court. He probably earned his nickname Le Romain after his journey to Italy, where he spent undetermined amount of time. His birthday and death dates are debatable (between about 1680 and about 1761). He stems from a family of French carpenters who were famous for elaborate way of wood processing and came from a Gypsy village La Couture – Boussey. His family was strongly connected to the Versaille court, serving Luis XIV as constructors, composers and instrumentalists. They performed in the band Grande Ecurie du Roy and their virtuosity was awarded many times with royal titles. Reconstruction and popularization of windwood instruments is attributed to the Hotteterre family. However, due to very few documents about instrument construction in the 17th century, it is difficult to establish who was the author of the “building revolution” and where it took place. It is thought that the maker of the new baroque construction of the traverso flute is Martin Hotteterre (1648-1712), the father of Jacques Hotteterre.

3 J.J. Quantz Herrn Johann Joachim Quantzens Lebenslauf, von ihm selbst entworfen; from F. W. Marpurg Historisch-kritische Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik 1757/58.

4The manuscript can be found in Brussels library under the number XY 15.115

5A. Powell, D.Lasocki, Bach and the Flute…,: op. cit.

6M. Cyr, Performing Baroque Music, Amadeus Press 1992, p.62.

7J. Quantz On Playing…, op. cit., Northeastern University Press Boston 2001; p.268

8Ibidem, s.50.

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