TELEMANN – Twelve fantasias for flute

From the mid-seventeenth century the transverse flute began an irresistible rise in popularity which saw it, less than a century later, supplant the recorder in the favour of both musicians and the public at large. Its shape was significantly altered: in France it was given a slightly conical form and its range was enlarged; soon thereafter it acquired three adjustable parts and a mechanical key to cover a seventh hole. By the end of the century the combined efforts of composers, performers and instrument makers had brought about advances which enhanced its expressive capacity and made it easier to play without, however, causing any substantial modifications to its nature. In the third decade of the eighteenth century its middle joint was divided and interchangeable bodies were provided, thus extending its chromatic range; several decades later new keyed note holes were added to deepen its bass register.

Unlike the oboe the transverse flute had not yet, in the seventeenth century, become an orchestral instrument. Jean-Baptiste Lully, emulated by Reinhard Keiser, did write flute parts as an accompaniment for the voice in several operas; for many years, however, the indication “flute” on a musical part meant recorder, while the transverse flute was often called the “German flute,” a designation which remains, for us, opaque. It was an age — we need look no farther than Bach’s cantatas — in which individual instruments were used less for their inherent musical properties than for their place in a complex symbolic hierarchy more often honored, we must concede, in the breech. Nonetheless, before being employed for its sound alone, the transverse flute had gradually begun to replace the recorder in music where it evoked the events surrounding death, its breathy tone being associated with the departure of the soul.

In instrumental music the transverse flute strode boldly into fashion in the first decade of the eighteenth century. In 1707 Jacques Hotteterre published his Principes de la flûte traversière and Michel de La Barre composed the first pieces, in suite form, to be written exclusively for it. Compositions by musicians throughout Europe, in all manner of styles, soon followed. Though the title pages of a large number of collections of sonatas list the transverse flute as a substitute for the violin, the instrument rapidly acquired its own specific repertoire. It gained further, powerful impetus from the contemporary vogue for rustic instruments. Combining simplicity and highly refined expressive powers the transverse flute responded to the widespread fascination for grace, tenderness and ingenuousness that the pastoral universe summoned forth in the imagination of the age.

Exploiting the slight dissonances created by the digital acrobatics necessary to produce semi-tones, several great virtuosos composed, often for their own use, seemingly innumer-able sonatas and concertos. Among the most illustrious were John Lœillet, Michel Blavet, and Johann Joachim Quantz, private instructor to Frederick II of Prussia, and author of the Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (usually referred to as “On Playing the Flute”), one of the most remarkable musical treatises of all time. Others, like Bach and Vivaldi, wrote parts for the instrument when they encountered a capable flutist, or, like Telemann, played on its fashionability to offer talented amateurs the fruit of their art.

Telemann’s Fantasies
Music for unaccompanied melodic instruments has always been a relative rarity. In the baroque period one naturally thinks of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, his suites for unaccompanied cello, and of Jacob van Eyck’s much lesser known pieces for recorder. Stringed instruments can produce simultaneous sounds and near-chords in the form of arpeggios, and Bach was able to compose true fugues for violin. But such an accomplishment is impossible with the flute, which produces but one sound at a time.

It would have been surprising had Telemann, amongst his immense chamber music production, not taken up the challenge of writing for unaccompanied flute. His Twelve Fantasies for flute without bass were published no later than 1732, a few years before his Fantasies for solo violin. Possibly written for didactic purposes, as their key progression suggests, these Fantasies do not follow a strict form. The number of movements varies in the extreme; some are short da chiesa sonatas while others consist of sections which flow into one another. This formal freedom is particularly apparent in the openly improvisational character of several of the introductory movements.

Though melody was the age’s chief vehicle for musical expression, Telemann was not content, in these pieces, to rely on melodic interest or rhythmic variety alone. But his Fantasies for flute illustrate, above all, one of the fundamental considerations of baroque æsthetics: beyond the technical possibilities of the instrument, what they offer the listener is illusion.

As if to wink at his self-imposed solitude Telemann employs a trompe-l’oreille — comparable to the trompe-l’œil which flourished in the visual arts of the age — to create the impression that we are hearing not one flute, but two. False polyphony is achieved by the rapid alternation of notes and motifs in the high and the low registers, and by sets of questions and answers which remind us of a conversation between distinct characters, or perhaps of an interior dialogue. The effect is typically baroque, since the listener is quite aware that what is being heard is the result of the composer’s ingenuity. The listener’s pleasure and sense of wonder derives precisely from the knowledge that he or she is being tricked.

Admired unconditionally by Quantz, who held these Fantasies to be exemplary, surpassing even the works of many of the great virtuoso flutists of the time, Telemann has handed down to us one of the most inventive, musically original pages in the entire flute repertoire.

© François Filiatrault  Translation: Fred A. Reed


” Music should now rouse the passions, now still them again […] Gaiety is represented with short notes which move both by leap and step; it is expressed by lively tonguing. Majesty is represented both with long notes during which the other parts have quick motion, and with dotted notes. […] Boldness is represented with notes the second or third of which is dotted, and in which the first is precipitated. […] Flattery is expressed with slurred notes that ascend or descend by step. […] No less must good execution be varied. Light and shadow must be constantly maintained. No listener will be particularly moved by someone who always produces the notes with the same force or weakness and, so to speak, plays always in the same colour, or by someone who does not know how to raise or moderate the tone at the proper time. Thus a continual alternation of the Forte and Piano must be observed. ” —Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing the Flute, 1752. ”


We know that baroque poetics sought illusion and the sense of wonder, and that the former is the gateway to the latter. But we now know that illusion, as both psychological and [sensorial] fact, is less a continuum than a shift from the normal state, and that this shift can cause an emotional shock, a sense of wonder. ” —Giulio Carlo Argan, L’ Europe des capitales, 1964.