Syrinx or “La Flûte de pan”
by Anja Weinberger
This short piece for flute alone always touches my heart. I have known about it since my second year as a flute student.
And I can still remember exactly how it entered my life. Back then, there was no Internet or cell phone, and networking was completely different. Everything you wanted to know you had to read up on – in the town library, at school or from your instrumental teacher. And you only really knew what literature or sheet music was available if you had a teacher who was willing to open his music cabinet. My first teacher was unfortunately not like that, but sometimes she did tell a bit, more in passing and by accident. Once there was this strange name “Syrinx”.
In those years I often went on vacation with my parents to Hungary to visit friends. And there we visited Budapest every time for one day, because there were wonderful coffee houses, the Gellért bath, the beautiful blue Danube and two music dealers. In these wonder stores I was allowed to spend the money I had exchanged and one must honestly say that sheet music was dirt cheap in the Eastern Bloc at that time. I usually had a list with me, from classmates, the teacher or girlfriends. Because everything that was needed was also published by Peters/Leipzig. Sheet music by Handel, Bach, Telemann and Beethoven was much more affordable this way than at home in the West. So I was able to buy a considerable library of sheet music at a young age.
So there I was again that year, standing at a magnificent Art Nouveau counter, a high stack of sheet music in front of me, and I was allowed to leaf through it. Most of the booklets were made of rather coarse paper from Editio Musica Budapest, Sikorski or another Eastern European publisher. In between were the typical green Peters editions. I was looking mainly for the Halle Sonatas by Haendel and the seller couldn’t believe that I wanted them three times. And directly underneath, thus wrongly classified, lay a very thin green Peters booklet, with the inscription DEBUSSY – SYRINX. Without thinking too long, I put it on top of my pile of notes, which was already a good 5 cm high, and my father paid for everything. Afterwards there was right next door Somlauer Nockerln with cocoa for me and for my parents Café and who-knows-what delicious Danube monarchy cake.
On vacation in Hungary, I never had a flute with me, because the check-in at the border crossings was always quite exciting. For her friend Ilonka, my mother had many bottles of hair setting lotion with her and lots of nylon stockings, so the border guard shouldn’t be drawn to us by a musical instrument. But even without a flute, I naturally leafed through the new sheet music, with a view of Lake Balaton and the smell of kettle goulash or lecsó in my nose. So for the first time I was able to have a look at music by Claude Debussy.
What a difference from everything I knew at that time. No regular sixteenth notes like in Bach’s sonatas or other note patterns I knew. No, and already the key: D flat major – at least that’s how I derived it with the help of my fingers – five Bs, i.e. D flat major. In the first line already the first fermata, also strange! And then the rhythm – I needed a lot of pencil strokes to mark the quarters.
Back home, I took the music book to flute lessons and my teacher said what I would say today to a student in the second or third year: “Actually, this is too difficult for you”. She was right, of course. So I put the sheet music aside, but I leafed through it again and again and tried a few notes – difficult. I had also never heard the piece before. How could I? There was a symphony orchestra in my hometown, but chamber music concerts were not on the schedule.
Perhaps a year later, I received a record for Christmas with the Northern Irish flutist James Galway, on it everything that could be played by Debussy with the flute and a piano, that is, a whole lot of arrangements. And at the very end, as an encore, so to speak, Syrinx. I almost missed it. So now I knew how this jumble of notes could sound. No comparison to my ponderous attempts – the beginning sounds floating and haunting at the same time. Later, the flute becomes more demanding, then euphoric. And at the end, after a little swirl, it returns to calm. I was amazed, enchanted and full of energy.
Then – again some time later – I changed teachers. This second one was completely different! He radiated enthusiasm, played a red and gold flute and was a flautist with the Hof Symphony Orchestra. His tone was full and clear and he taught very committed, also strict, but in a very approachable way. Right at the beginning he told me that literature for flute solo was very important, because only there we could not lean on someone else, e.g. on the piano, but had to make music completely on our own, completely independently and with all our strength. First he put a small solo sonata by Stamitz on the music stand for me and already in the third or fourth lesson I dared to bring the green Peters booklet. I asked if we could perhaps work on it together. He was surprised, but not averse. Again I heard the sentence “this is actually too difficult for you”, but this time with a completely different emphasis on “actually”. And now it started. Two lines every week, that’s all we could manage. We played and played. Often at the same time, so that I could learn the phrasing. Sometimes he would play before and I would play after. We played out of the window and tried not to let the bells of the nearby St. Michael’s Church upset us. Or he advised me to try to use the bells as a very unrhythmic metronome, because Debussy is played more freely than, for example, Bach. In the notes it said in some places to make blue or green sound – I would never have dreamed a few weeks ago that music could have something to do with colors.
At the same time, of course, I was still practicing other pieces, because in the coming January, the competition Jugend musiziert would be on the program for me. I had learned a lot in the few months with the new teacher. His wife was also a flautist, and for the first time I perceived that music can determine the whole life of a family. I was very impressed and practiced diligently. For the competition, only pieces for flute and piano were considered, but they had to be from three different eras. And there, too, a new world opened up for me with the Sonata by Paul Hindemith. For the first time, I had an edition from Schott in my hand – silvery-gray on the outside with a white border. I found it very pretty and unusual.
Through the state and national Jugend musiziert competitions, I met many new people and for the first time I thought that music might also become a profession for me.
But then things turned out differently. I started studying medicine in Munich and was able to take lessons at the conservatory at the same time as an external student. That was a great time! The buzz of notes came from all the rooms, everyone carried an instrument bag around with them, and I learned a lot here, too. I played in the student orchestra and one of the conductors was also the organist at a large church in the Munich area. He asked if I would like to play the Easter Vigil, since the organ is supposed to be silent until the Resurrection. Exciting, but I agreed. What do you play there?
So now for the first time in front of an audience: Syrinx. I also chose the slow movements of Bach Father and Son from the A minor sonatas and was actually surprised by my own courage. But now nothing could be changed, because the Easter Vigil was just around the corner. In the meantime, of course, I could play Syrinx’s score at least flawlessly. But I had always practiced only in one room of the university or in my small room. So I waited very eagerly for the first opportunity to play in the large Romanesque-Gothic nave and to try out everything. Unfortunately, this was only possible once, on Easter Saturday evening. So I took the S-Bahn to the north, then had to walk a few minutes and saw the huge building from afar.
As agreed, a side door was open and I entered the rather dim, cool church. On one of the benches I unpacked my flute and placed the music stand in the very center. First I tried quite timidly a few single notes, and already that was wonderful. But shouldn’t the music better come from above during the Easter Vigil, shouldn’t I rather play in the gallery? Yes, that would really be better. So I packed everything up again and looked for the stairs. It’s quite a long way to walk in such a large church, hard to believe. When I reached the top, I was pretty cold, but above all I wanted to get started.
And that’s what I did – first I played the beautiful Sarabande from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in A minor. Already then I noticed that there are a lot of things to consider in such a large room. It almost feels like the notes are being plucked right off the lip. It’s a strange feeling, a bit like being divided into a player and a listener. Bach’s Sarabande consists of long, quiet, winding chains of eighth notes. With hardly any resting points except at the end of the first part and at the conclusion, it offers plenty of room for steady and flowing playing. For the listener, wonderful music to come to rest – for the player, a passage through almost all registers of the flute.
Then the first movement from Carl Philipp Emanuel’s solo sonata in A minor. At that time I didn’t know much about music history, certainly nothing about the exciting time in which the Bach sons lived. I just found it very strange that the slow movement of a sonata is at the beginning and not between the two fast movements. Somehow I also perceived that this is a completely different kind of music, although not much time had passed between father and son. This movement also consists mostly of eighth notes and sixteenth notes, but in 3/8 time and in a kind of two-part harmony. At the end, there is even a small cadenza to be played, so clearly this already leads in the direction of classical music – that’s how I would explain it to my students today. At that time, I merely found it strange. But anyway, this movement was also wonderful to play in the large, three-nave church.
Now Debussy was still missing. In the meantime I had ice-cold feet and also the hands were no longer particularly mobile. Nevertheless, I was very excited. And already the first few notes showed me that it is simply wonderful to play this kind of music in this kind of space. More than with music from earlier eras, one can play with the space, let the sounds float, savor fermatas. What a pity that Syrinx consists of only 35 measures. I played and played the few lines a few times until my hands could no longer be moved. It was simply too cold and, as I suddenly realized, almost completely dark. Creepy, so alone in such a large, obscure church. I quickly packed up, took the stairs down and slipped out of the door, which was fortunately still open. The S-Bahn took me back downtown, only to take me back again a few hours later for the Easter Vigil at St. Castulus.
It was a wonderful service, only a few candles, the music stand got a lectern light, the congregation was enthusiastic about the idea of their cantor and about the flute music. Then, after the resurrection, the organ rustled again and everyone sang “Der schöne Ostertag” with joy.
Then, after a few semesters, I decided against medicine and completely for music. I studied eight semesters of orchestral music and took many courses all over Germany during the semester breaks. Syrinx was always there. I soon realized that my earlier attempts could not really do justice to the intense piece. I had used the means I had at the time, and they just amounted to my experience as a student, especially in baroque music.
In the years to come I learned a lot about the development of music, about national music, about special, ingenious composers and about the power of publishers of sheet music. I obtained the first Urtext edition of Syrinx from the publishing house Henle (I also like this sheet music particularly well in its very elegant blue-grey with the clear writing). However, this edition could not really help, but I found it very nice to have sheet music in front of me on very smooth paper in a very clear font. It was not until Schott came out with a new edition in the Wiener Urtext Edition series some time later, in which the flutist Anders Ljungar-Chapelon explained the history of the short work in detail, that I understood what it was all about.
Syrinx was originally called “La Flûte de pan” and was a short drama music for the drama “Psyché” by Gabriel Mourey. In Psyché, among other things, the myth about the god Pan is told. Mourey had contacted Debussy and asked him for his collaboration. Debussy then decided that the instrumentation for this music could be nothing other than flute solo – precisely because of the story about Pan.
The short drama music was premiered on December 1, 1913 by Louis Fleury, who was one of the most famous flutists in the world at that time. He would play it again and again throughout his career, including at chamber music recitals, often hidden behind a curtain. The title was only later changed to “Syrinx” to avoid confusion with other works. For the story of Pan, who pursues a nymph that turns into reeds out of fear, has inspired many composers. No one, however, as momentous as Claude Achille Debussy.
So it is that we flutists have this truly extraordinary work in our repertoire.
Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009