My Long Love-Affair with the Flute

My flute piece “Harmattan” from Desert Winds is  in the ABRSM Wind Syllabus 2019-21

The earliest surviving flutes, made from bones, date from between 30,000 and 40.000 years ago and were found in caves in Germany.  Thus the flute is so ancient as to be  more or less one of those “timeless” sounds together with drones,  bells, drums and, of course, the human voice.

The flute’s most characteristic voice, especially in its lower register, has to be that which depicts earthly delights and pleasures, with just a tinge of sadness that they, all too quickly, pass away. The sinuous chromatic solo flute melody that opens Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune  is probably the best known example of this sensuous quality.

However, in its highest octave the flute can be shrill and even harsh.

We well know that the flute was Mozart’s least favourite instrument- even though he wrote work for it that is an essential part of the flautist’s repertoire.

 It is my favourite instrument and has been for many years- although I do not know why this should be, as I do not play it. My very first published works were for guitar solo and ensembles, but a little later some pieces for flute and piano- probably out of print by now- attracted the publisher of Arrendsdorff Edition. I remember meeting the publisher at some hotel in London and going through the proofs and the excitement of receiving the final printed copies. But I tend to avoid publishers now because they take so long to actually get anything in print. My last published work came about through the publisher actually contacting me first after hearing my work at a concert [or a recording of it].

Looking through my most recent list of works [2018] I note a total of  53 works for solo flute, flute and piano or that include the flute in ensembles [not counting wind quintet pieces] So, too many to list in detail here.  

However, there are just five unaccompanied flute pieces:  Meditation at the Summer Palace [1997], Chinese Suite [2004], 24 Preludes [2009], Chameleon [2015] and Little Jazz Etude [2018]

And for flute and piano: Canonic Preludes [1993, Arrendsdorff], Divertimento [2005], Desert Winds [2009, Emerson Edition], and Celtic suite and October Music [both 2011] Two Little Pieces [2003 rev. 2016] Two Pieces [c1980 rev. 2018]

Of the numerous ensemble pieces including the flute I will just mention Qi for flute and percussion [2002], Equatorial for flute, vibraphone & percussion [2003] and two sets of arrangements of Latin American dances for flute and guitar, and flute and harp [both 2007].

There is also a Concerto for flute and orchestra: A Breath of Highland Air, composed after a visit to the Scottish mountains in 2003.

When the time came for my daughter Zoe to start learning an instrument, the flute was our choice. She now has a diploma in flute, a B.Mus. degree, the course for which included jazz flute studies and performance and she now teaches flute in private practice.                                                       

MJR 10/18

Bach’s “Stream of Consciousness” Technique in the Chromatic Fantasy

 “…admirable works of genius arise in every period, and I have always taken my stand in the front rank of those who joyfully acclaimed the passing standard-bearers; and still it seems to me that of all these beautiful paths leading so far afield- none lead upward.”


 The form which comes nearest to Busoni’s ideal of freeing music from the shackles of conventional structural procedures is the toccata as initiated by the 17th century keyboard composers, notably Frescobaldi, and continued into the 18th century by Bach in his harpsichord and organ toccatas, by C.P. E. Bach in the formal freedom shown in some of his sonata movements,  and by Mozart in a few works labelled Fantasia, e.g. the well-known examples in D minor K397  and C minor K475   in which a succession of seemingly unrelated sections are strung together in rhapsodic forms.  

 J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy has all the appearance of a written-out improvisation and for its date [c1720] is one of the most remarkable of compositions. In this work we may observe that, far from being the “old-fashioned” composer of counterpoint so often portrayed, Bach seems to be among the “avant-garde” of his era. It would seem that Bach in this unique work placed one idea after another in a kind of “stream of consciousness” manner. Rapid figurations, arpeggiando chords, a recitative and a final poignant descending melody, all seemingly unrelated, but all falling logically into place to create a memorable entity.

 As well as freedom of form the Chromatic Fantasy displays a notable and, for its date,   advanced use of chromatic and enharmonic harmony, the latter made possible by the use of equal temperament [e.g. m.49-50 where C# and A change to Db and Bbb]  and wide-ranging modulations [e.g. from the initial D minor we reach a very distant C# minor  by m. 62] Much use is made of the diminished 7th chord, both consecutively and  to abolish a firm  sense of tonality. We also note dissonances caused by suspensions, anticipations [e.g. m.46, the C added to the E major chord belongs to the following A minor chord] and bass pedal notes [e.g. m. 76-the end, the bass D]

 After being as it were, in the clouds with the fantasy we need to come down to terra firma with the fugue that follows and its expected reiteration of subject, answer and counter subject in the accepted academic manner of the time.


 Piano v. Harpsichord- a personal view

 My view is simply this: Most keyboard music before c1760, unless specifically for organ, was written for the harpsichord or other plucked keyboard instruments. To perform it on the piano is as incorrect as performing the viol consort repertoire on modern violins and cellos. Not only that, but especially in contrapuntal works, the harpsichord gives a much clearer resonance to each voice- particularly in the lower register.

 Sir Thomas Beecham remarked that the sound of the harpsichord resembled “a birdcage struck with a toasting-fork”. Yes, fair enough, but like it or not, that is the sound that was in the inner- ear of the composers of the early 18th century.

 However, I do realise that harpsichords, spinets, etc. are not common, and so accept the piano as a second- best.

 MJR 12/18



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