From France to the world



by Anja Weinberger

From France to the world

by Anja Weinberger

From France to the whole world – the flute and its way into the 21st century

The flute as we know and play it today is a design by Theobald Böhm, the German instrument maker and musician. He revolutionised the transverse flute and flute playing in lengthy, precise and technically very advanced work.

Here is a very apt quotation from the flutist Konrad Hünteler: The flute of the 1810s – that is, before Böhm – was like “an old house which, in the course of a long time, had become so confusing due to numerous extensions, bay windows […] and attics that no one could find their way around the complicated arrangement of corridors […] and staircases.”  Apparently, the fear of a complete change of the fingering system, which would require a completely new finger technique, had always prevailed. No one before Theobald Böhm dared to make fundamental changes and invent a thoroughly new, quasi-modern flute.

In 1847, Böhm finally presented the final result of his many years of tinkering: a completely new flute, mostly made of silver and with a cylindrical body. In France, this new invention immediately fell on fertile ground. In his own country, however, the prophet was not heard for a long time.

The flute is one of the oldest instruments in cutural history and has come a very long way – from bone or reed with a few or no holes to the technically very complicated instrument of today. If you want to know more about this, you can read about it in my book “Kulturgeschichten – nicht nur für Flötisten” or in other texts here on the blog.

It is exciting to watch the new Boehm flute make its way from Paris to us in the 21st century.

But let’s go back a few years.

In 1795, the Conservatoire de Paris opened its doors. The composers Cherubini, Gossec and Mehul formed the board of directors, and the teaching staff included the most outstanding musicians in the country. Several flute professorships were created.

One of these was held by François Devienne, and the advanced students were mainly looked after by Georg Wunderlich, who came from Bayreuth and was one of the most respected masters of his guild at the end of the 18th century. Devienne, on the other hand, left his mark on the flute world less as a player but all the more as a teacher and composer. After all, his concertos, sonatas and duets accompany us throughout our lives, even today.


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One of the many students of these two was Jean-Louis Tulou. And the young man developed over time into a true master of his craft.

Tulou enjoyed a very high reputation as a musician and virtuoso, and his impeccable intonation was repeatedly praised. He played on the four- to twelve-keyed instruments of the pre-Böhm period. Actually, good intonation was impossible on these flutes. From 1829, Tulou took over Wunderlich’s professorship at the Conservatoire. Just like Fürstenau in Germany, Tulou disliked the powerful sound of the Boehm flute and was able to prevent the introduction of the new instrument until the end of his tenure in 1856. He penned around 200 compositions, most of them extremely elegant music, of which the 15 Grands Solos are still an integral part of the repertoire today. Among his pupils were Henri Altès and Jules Demersseman. The latter was proposed by Tulou as his successor at the Conservatoire, but it was decided under Berlioz’s auspices that the next professor of flute should be a Boehm flutist.

A small insertion for those who want to know more:

In France after the French Revolution (from 1789), the responsibility for the education of children and young people no longer lay with the church, but with the state. From this point on, a good education was no longer seen as a privilege, but as a prerequisite for a responsible civic life.

In this context, the Paris Conservatoire was created in 1795 by merging the Municipal School of Music and the Royal School of Singing and Declamation (École Royale). Until then, the music school (École de musique municipale) mainly trained musicians for the National Guard Corps and the École Royale trained the next generation for the Paris Opera.

Opera in France is seen and loved less as a performance venue than as an institution. The citizens traditionally feel very attached, and orchestral musicians, singers, dancers and also actors have a high social standing.

Before the Revolution, the Opéra was called the Académie Royale de musique and was incorporated into the Académie Royale. This goes back to the initiative of Louis XIV, who promoted science and art on a grand scale, indeed gathered the best of the then known world around him. The Académie Royale is a precursor organisation of the Institut de France.

A coveted award of the Conservatoire was the Prix de Rome, France’s oldest and probably most important competition for young composers. The winner lived for at least two years at state expense in the Villa Medici in Rome and had to submit specified works on a regular basis. Prize winners include Debussy, Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, Ravel, Ibert, Charpentier, Bozza and Dutilleux. The first woman to be awarded a gold medal was the highly talented Lili Boulanger, who unfortunately died young.

In the past, even more than today, the Conservatoire de Paris had a reputation like thunder. It was a coveted destination for many musicians throughout Europe to study there.

Tulou’s younger colleague Louis Dorus, with whom he played in the Paris Opera Orchestra, was then one of the first flutists to choose Boehm’s instrument. Between 1837 and 1839, he did not give any public concerts in order to switch to the Boehm flute. Paul Hippolyt Camus, who became the permanent representative for the new instrument in France after Böhm’s presentation of the new flute at the Académie des Sciences, probably also played a major role in this. Camus was himself an excellent flutist, and Böhm dedicated his Grande Polonaise op.16 to him.

In 1859 Dorus Tulou’s successor at the Conservatoire de Paris immediately introduced the new flute. Dorus was a very educated, tolerant, highly esteemed teacher and can be considered the forefather of the “French School”. He retired in 1868. He was succeeded by Henri Altès, who had still studied with Tulou but had switched to the Boehm flute at an early stage.


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Finally, in 1893, Paul Taffanel became professor of flute at the Conservatoire de Paris. In retrospect, this is probably the decisive moment in this story. For his contribution to the development of playing the flute can hardly be overstated; he was the right man in the right place at the right time. Taffanel cultivated expressive, sensitive playing full of elegance and suppleness, giving top priority to a natural tone and respectfully placing his virtuoso technique at the service of the interpretation of the musical text. He also strove hard to revive the chamber music tradition, indicating his urgent desire to liberate musical culture from pure virtuosity. He went on to have an impressive and brilliant career as a musician and teacher. From our perspective today, we actually see him as the father of the modern French school of flute playing.

Here are a few details:

Paul Taffanel was born in Bordeaux in 1844 as the son of a professional musician.

He learned to play the flute at an early age, and it is reported that he gave his first public concert at the age of ten. In 1858, the family moved to Paris, possibly because of better teaching opportunities for the gifted son. He soon became a pupil of Louis Dorus, who was the solo flutist at the Opéra at the time. When Dorus took over the professorship at the Conservatoire de Paris, Taffanel joined his class at the age of 15. After only a few months, he received the highly coveted Premier Prix, a distinction that a student usually only achieved after one or even two years of study.

Shortly thereafter, Taffanel played in the Opéra orchestra and remained principal flute for many years. In addition, he took up positions as flutist of the Opéra-Comique and the Société des concerts. He undertook concert tours as a soloist throughout Europe and Russia, several times accompanied by Camille Saint-Saëns.

In 1871 Taffanel founded the Société classique and in 1878 the Société de musique de chambre pour instruments à vent, in order to give impetus to the revival of demanding chamber music in general and wind chamber music in particular in a city dominated by opera. It was also he who brought the long-neglected works of Bach, Handel and Mozart back to life. For example, Mozart’s flute concertos – unimaginable today – were all but forgotten at the time.

He encouraged many of his colleagues to compose new flute chamber music. Fauré and Gounod are just two examples of many. He also composed himself. His very beautiful wind quintet, surprisingly clarinet- and not flute-heavy, is prize-winning, as is the Andante pastorale from the last years of his life, which he dedicated to his favourite pupil Philippe Gaubert.

Contemporary witnesses report an extraordinarily beautiful tone, technical perfection and great charisma. Saint-Saëns was his greatest admirer and repeatedly expressed his deep sadness at this loss when Taffanel exchanged the flute for the baton. From 1893, in fact, he was chief conductor of the Opéra and Altès’ successor at the Conservatoire de Paris. As a teacher he was an inspiration, and students from all over the world came to him. They all report dedicated teaching that brought out the best in each student. Here began the spread of the “French School” to all points of the compass.

Paul Taffanel died in 1908 and was succeeded by Adolphe Hennebains. The latter had already been familiar with the class since 1893 as Taffanel’s assistant and the transition accordingly went smoothly. He also succeeded his revered predecessor and friend in the orchestras. Hennebains was a much sought-after chamber music partner and a founding member of the Double Quintet, which was celebrated throughout Europe. He is one of the first flutists of whom there are recordings.

And now Georges Barrère will perform. He studied with Altès and Taffanel and received the Premier Prix in 1895. He was also a flautist in several Paris orchestras and continued Taffanel’s chamber music ambitions very successfully. As a result, 61 premieres by over 40 European composers were played in ten years. In 1905 he joined the New York Symphony as principal flutist. Walter Damrosch, the principal conductor, who was born in Breslau and had emigrated to the USA, lured some French musicians to the New World at that time. With his flexible and brilliantly sounding French silver flute, Barrère initiated a revolution in American flute playing. Until then, American flute players had preferred to play on heavy German wooden flutes. American flute makers also took notice, and in 1913 the Haynes company began producing new types of silver flutes in the Boehm system.


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Barrère founded numerous ensembles with which he both introduced French music to America and commissioned new American music; and he was a teacher at the Institute of Musical Art, later the Juilliard School of Music. The American patron Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge gave him a Haynes flute made of the precious metal platinum. For the inauguration of the instrument in 1936, Edgard Varèse wrote the solo piece Density 21.5 (which is the specific gravity of platinum) for him, which remains an important piece of solo literature to this day.

Meanwhile, France was heading for the First World War. In 1914, Léopold Lafleurance took over the flute class, as he was no longer called up for military service at the age of 49. He was thus the first person to hold a professorship at the Conservatoire without ever having studied there himself. And from 1891 he was flutist at the Opera, where he remained for a proud sixty years. It was only at the age of 81 that he retired as a piccolo player. An unusual curriculum vitae. Duplaix called him “un hérisson au cœur tendre” – a hedgehog with a tender heart.

Philippe Gaubert was a soldier at the front during the First World War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre at Verdun. Returning to Paris, he took up the professorship at the Conservatoire. He had a large class full of names still known today and continued Taffanel’s work in an impressive way.

Philippe Gaubert was born in Cahors in 1879. The family played music at home and the boy first learned the violin. In 1886, the Gauberts moved to Paris, and flute lessons – immediately as a private student with Taffanel – could begin. Philippe was only seven years old at the time, and his experienced teacher immediately noticed his unusual talent. When Taffanel took up his professorship in 1893, he immediately accepted Gaubert into the class. Gaubert, too, won the Premier Prix after only a few months. As early as 1897 he became principal flutist at the Opéra and in 1904 conductor at the Societé des Concerts.

After the war, his life was filled with equal parts flute playing, teaching, conducting and composing. Gaubert was on the one hand a restless and hard worker and on the other hand a naturally very gifted musician. Several recordings of him exist that have captured his warm flute tone, his extremely supple legato and wonderfully economical use of vibrato. He impressed with the lightness of his playing and the variety of timbres. His staccato playing is regarded as a true figurehead of the “French School”. The only problem his otherwise enthusiastic students had with him was that he, kissed by the muse, could not comprehend many difficulties. However, he played willingly and also possessed an extraordinary amount of patience.

His many compositions are not merely occasional music and are composed entirely in the style of the time. Especially the three sonatas for flute and piano and the Trois Aquarells for flute, cello and piano convince both players and listeners with their very colourful harmonies, smooth and yet surprising melodic turns and their very brilliant passages without virtuosity….

His sudden death in 1941 at least spared him the humiliating to and fro at the Conservatoire in occupied Paris and after the Second World War.

The situation was different for Marcel Moyse, born in Burgundy in 1889, who studied briefly with Taffanel, then with Hennebain and finally with Gaubert. He lived in this extraordinary period at the beginning of the 20th century, when all the arts were developing at a breathtaking pace and Paris was the centre of the artistic avant-garde. He played the flute in the world premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and also in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë.

Already a professor at the Conservatoire since 1932, Moyse was one of the great luminaries of his field at the outbreak of World War II, even performing with most European orchestras. He refused to teach in German-occupied Paris and his position was filled elsewhere.

After the war, he moved to the USA, founded the Marlboro School of Music and the festival of the same name, gave highly sought-after master classes there and returned to Europe again and again for such courses. He died in the USA in 1984 and in 1989 the Marcel Moyse Society was founded in Pittsburgh.

Numerous works are dedicated to Marcel Moyse, including the concerto by Jaques Ibert, which he himself premiered in 1934, and several works by Bohuslav Martinů.

His school and study works are on the music stands of flutists all over the world. And among his pupils we find the well-known flutists of today.


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We must by no means forget Louis Fleury, for he had the privilege of premiering Debussy’s Syrinx. Why him of all people?

His biography is unusual. From childhood, he was interested in music. However, there were no connections to musicians, so the boy learned to play the piccolo from a master barber and later to play the flute from a pharmacist. The two must have been quite good teachers, because when the family moved to Paris, Georges Barrère only briefly prepared the 15-year-old for the entrance examination at the Conservatoire, which he passed immediately. Taffanel accepted him into his class. Fleury was not a child prodigy, nor was he shaped by his parents’ home in a musical environment, but he was an enthusiastic and diligent student who was eager to be integrated into this world of the arts. After completing his studies with the Premier Prix, he was a flutist in a wide variety of formations, including the Folies-Bergère, the Association des grands Concerts, the Concerts Berlioz and the Concerts Rouge. And he became a member of the Société Moderne d’Instruments à vent founded by Barrère, which he took over a little later.

In 1906 he founded the Société des Concerts d’Autrefois, an ensemble that toured the whole of Europe. Interested in all kinds of music, he was insatiable and worked early on with young, as yet unknown composers – including Mel Bonis and Albert Roussel. He was also fascinated by the idea of a liaison of different arts. This is how Syrinx came to be premiered by him, for the short work for solo flute was, after all, written as music for the stage.

He was the first French flutist to give up all his jobs in order to devote himself exclusively to solo and chamber music activities. His career was very successful throughout Europe, but especially in England. His programmes, which mixed old and new music and very often included world premieres, were extremely unusual for the time. He was also successful as a music critic and author; and his very committed, passionate, but never unpleasantly instructive texts met with a great response.

The silver flute also came to England via a French diversions. Geoffrey Gilbert, the English flutist, heard recordings by Marcel Moyse and subsequently took lessons with René Le Roy. After the Second World War, he turned away from the wooden flute and towards the silver flute. He adopted the French style that was just emerging, returned to his post as principal flutist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and became an initiator and role model for the next generation in England.

What happened in Paris after the war? Gaubert died in 1941 and Gaston Crunelle took over a professorship, which he held until 1969. He had studied with Gaubert himself and preferred to devote himself to chamber music. He succeeded René Le Roy in the legendary Quintette instrumental de Paris, later Quintette Pierre Jamet. This quintet, consisting of flute, string trio and harp, inspired a whole generation of young composers. Jolivet, Ibert, Roussel, Françaix, Honegger, d’Indy, Kœchlin, Cras, Jongen and many more composed for this previously unknown instrumentation. And so it is that we can draw on such rich literature in this field today. The nucleus of this success story was Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, which Jamet premiered with colleagues in 1917. In addition, Gaston Crunelle was solo flutist at the Opéra-Comique from 1933 to 1964 in the good old tradition.

And René Le Roy, whose name has already been mentioned twice? He, too, is an important man for the flutists’ guild, for it was he who first performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in A minor after its rediscovery by Karl Straube in 1918.

And he founded the aforementioned Quintette instrumental de Paris in order to be able to perform as many chamber music works as possible through this variety of instruments.

Born in 1898, he studied with Hennebain, Lafleurance and Gaubert. His Premier Prix in 1918 had an echo far beyond the borders of the Conservatoire, Gaubert was full of praise. In 1929, he travelled to the USA for the first time and met Franklin Roosevelt, with whom he then had a long and close friendship. From 1952 to 1968 he was principal flute in the New York City Opera Orchestra and from 1971 professor of chamber music at the Conservatoire de Paris.

Gustav Scheck must also be mentioned in this “French” context. For he was one of the first to play a silver Boehm flute in Germany. He was severely criticised at the beginning, but he received more and more approval on a broad basis.

Gustav Scheck was born in Munich in 1901 and acquired solid flute skills as a high school student on the Boehm flute made of wood with a silver head and a reform mouth hole, which was common in Germany at the time. He first studied medicine, but then flute, musicology and music theory, and soon began a stellar career as an orchestral musician. From 1924 he could be found as a flutist in Freiburg, Düsseldorf, Kiel, Bremen, Königsberg and finally at the State Opera in Hamburg. He was also in demand as a soloist and chamber musician throughout Germany. Musicology accompanied him throughout his life, numerous broadcasts on Deutschlandfunk contributed to his fame. His chamber music circle Scheck-Wenzinger, in which he also played the transverse flute, made important contributions to the urgently needed revival of baroque music, also through numerous recordings. From 1934 to 1942, Gustav Scheck taught at the Berlin Musikhochschule and, after the Second World War, founded the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg together with Willibald Gurlitt. He was its director until 1964. Many important works of flute literature were dedicated to him, including works by Genzmer, Fortner, Hessenberg and Heinrich Kaspar Schmid. His book Die Flöte und ihre Musik (The Flute and its Music), published in 1975, is of timeless importance. It contains the numerous, well thought-out insights of a musician’s life. Breathing, sound, technique, music history, analysis – everything is considered and is memorable and coherently formulated throughout.

His switch to the silver flute was initially met with interest but rather disapproval. Nevertheless, he prevailed, and his search for “enchanting singing, contrasting colourfulness and virtuoso brilliance”, as he himself said, convinced even the last critic. Thus he had made a significant contribution to uniting the German tradition with French playing technique. The silver flute has finally arrived in Germany.

Among the outstanding flautists of our day, too, there are, it seems to me, an above-average number of native French speakers. Just think of Aurèle Nicolet, André Jaunet, Jean-Claude Gérard, Alain Marion, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Michel Debost, Maxence Larrieu, Patrick Gallois and above all Emmanuel Pahud. Anyone who speaks a little French themselves knows that this language evokes a completely different mouthfeel than any other European language. The speech melody is also different.

Perhaps a speech therapist could provide more detailed information. Perhaps in this way reasons could be found for the unusual staccato and the special, uninterrupted lines.

All speculation! And yet, how fortunate that Theobald Böhm’s ingenious invention has fallen on such fertile ground in the French-speaking world.

This text was also originally written for my book “Kulturgeschichten – nicht nur für Flötisten”. In a somewhat shortened and more general version, it has now become a French cultural history.
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