Advice for Traverso Beginners

I have received several emails over the years from flutists wanting some practical advice for beginning the traverso. I would like to share a bit of information that I have been compiling along the way.

Instruments

When you are deciding which traverso to buy, you should first consider what music you are most interested in playing with it.  For an all-around Baroque flute for music composed before about 1750, including music by composers like Telemann, Bach, and Handel, I recommend trying copies of an original, pre-1750 German, English, Belgian, or Dutch instrument. Try the copies of instruments by Quantz, Oberlender, Stanesby, IH Rottenburgh, and Beukers. If music by Blavet or Couperin is part of your list as well, you might also consider the beautiful 4-part French flute by Naust, which has recently appeared on the early flute scene and is being enthusiastically copied by many makers. (I generally advise against a Denner for traverso beginners. Though they are lovely once you get to know them, Denners can be quite moody instruments and need a lot of patience and dedication.)

If your goal is to play mainly Mozart, Haydn, and CPE Bach, an early, one-keyed classical flute will be your best choice. Flutes by GA Rottenburgh and A Grenser (with a round or oval embouchure) have long been copied and are loved for their bright but nuanced palette, but you should also try a copy of a Tortochot, which has been getting a lot of praise by many of today’s makers and musicians. Sometimes modern flutists switching to early flute enjoy playing a Palanca copy, and indeed many early flutists play Palanca copies as well, often largely because they tend to have a bigger sound. I have yet to hear of a professional early flutist who felt that a Palanca had all the colors and nuances that he or she finds in the other Classical flutes, so it is certainly worth giving the other copies try as well.

Early 18th-century French repertoire from composers like Hotteterre and de la Barre naturally sounds best on 3-part, early French flutes, which are today generally copied in a lower pitch (A=392-398). If you have the extra money, I would definitely recommend getting a 3-part French flute in addition to a Baroque or Classical flute. Flutes in A=392 feel very luxurious and are absolutely wonderful to play, with their rich, chocolaty feeling and sound. This is a truly lovely pitch to play, but you must first be absolutely sure that your colleagues will be willing to tune their instruments down. A 3-part Naust and the long-respected Hotteterre flute are superb choices.

Performers, conservatory students, and makers are experimenting with flutes much more now than in the past decades, and to great results, so check out all the previously-mentioned flutes by the makers on my “Links” page. These makers describe their instruments on their own sites, and you will certainly discover some really beautiful instruments that deserve to be played more.

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Pitch

Pitch is the next consideration for your traverso purchase. Extant original instruments play in a whole variety of pitches, as there was no pitch standard across Europe at that time. In fact, many original flutes often have extra middle joints that would have allowed players to change pitch a few cents either direction, but makers today have adjusted their instruments to some standardized pitches set by the early music scene in the 20th century. You will generally find A=392 for French Baroque music, A=415 for all other Baroque music, and A=430 for Classical music.

As you pick your traverso, take time to think about with whom you will be playing. If you are going to any early music camps or festivals, or if you just want to experiment playing Baroque music with some of your colleagues, I would first recommend an instrument in A=415. This is especially nice to your string-player friends, who will be more likely to tune their instruments to A=415 than to A=392.  If you are lucky enough to know a harpsichordist, you should consider that harpsichords are almost always tuned in A=415 these days. They sometimes have options for transposing to A=440 or A=392, but not both. If you are planning to stick with Classical music and do not plan to need a harpsichord, A=430 is a nice pitch, also for your string-player friends. Fortepianos for Classical repertoire are often made today at A=430. And of course, if you will be using your early flute with musicians who cannot or do not want to tune down, many makers are happy to build flutes at A=440.

What I would probably avoid are flutes with two (or more) middle joints, for example in A=392 and 415, or A=415 and 440, a sort of 2-in-1 combo. It can be done, and it often is, but you can really feel that the instrument feels more comfortable in one pitch over another. Obviously you need to be practical with your purchase, but I have found it most fulfilling to have my flutes at one pitch each. Anyway, if you need another pitch, is it not more fun to have a different flute altogether?

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Where to Purchase a Traverso

At Festivals:

  • Utrecht Oude Muziek Festival  – This yearly festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands, has a 3-day instrument exhibition at the end of August / beginning of September. There are regularly four or more traverso makers presenting their instruments.
  • Berliner Tage für Alte Musik  – This yearly festival in Berlin, Germany, in October, has an instrument market as well. There are regularly two or more traverso makers presenting their instruments.
  • National Flute Association – This yearly flute convention in the USA takes place in August. There are regularly two or more traverso makers presenting their instruments.

From Makers:

Secondhand:

From Stores:

  • Lazar’s Early Music in the US sells flutes by Martin Wenner, and second hand flutes by many makers
  • The Early Music Shop in London sells flutes, including second hand flutes, by Martin Wenner, Alain Weemaels, and von Huene, among others

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Books and Methods about Historical Flutes, Suitable for Beginners

Boland, Janice Dockendorff. Method for the One-Keyed Flute. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1998.

  • This method is a handy book that contains a bit of everything, yet focuses more on the practical side of actually playing the traverso. It offers comparative fingering guides and easy repertoire excerpts for traverso beginners.

Brown, Rachel. The Early Flute: A Practical Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

  • This guide is wonderful for all of its basic information about the traverso, from instrument care to historical articulation. I find it particularly useful for the frequent comparison of historical flute methods and how you can apply that information to the music, shown very directly in the ‘case studies.’

Janssens, Doretthe. New Method for the Traverso. 2012.

  • Using texts by Johann Mattheson and the affects of the various keys is a great starting point, for Mattheson’s ideas are so helpful to our understanding of Baroque music in general. Combine that with traverso-relevant information, and I think this new book will be very popular for beginners.  Also published in Dutch and German.

Powell, Ardal.  The Flute (Yale Musical Instrument Series). New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.

  • This is an extensively researched reference book about the flute and its history. It is invaluable for the beginner who plans to stick with the traverso.

Quantz, Johann Joachim.  Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen, Berlin, 1752. Second edition, English translation by Edward R. Reilly as On Playing the Flute. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

  • Quantz is the historical flutist’s Bible. It contains practical (and sometimes comical) advice on all things relating to the flute, including fingerings, improvising cadenzas, composing, articulation, ornamentation, and stage settings.

Solum, John.  The Early Flute (Oxford Early Music Series). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

  • This general book has a great overview of early flute history, care, maintenance, music, and musicians.

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Online Resources

  • The Earlyflute Yahoo Group has many discussions about instruments and instrument making, but also about other issues related to early flutes. Irish flutes show up often in the discussions, and occasionally advertisements for instruments, festivals, and concerts.
  • www.flutehistory.com has excellent timelines and lists to help you pinpoint where, by whom, and for which music your flute would have been played.
  • Flute makers’ websites generally offer tons of information about their flutes, general flute history, and fingering charts.

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Renaissance Flutes and Music

When I started playing Renaissance flute, I enjoyed playing Jacob van Eyck’s ‘Der Fluyten Lusthof’, which has simple melodies for solo flute or recorder that are then set in increasingly more complex diminutions.  You can then challenge yourself by transposing up a 4th or 5th.

Also try the ‘Trattado de Glosas’ by Diego Ortiz.  Some pieces in do not work well for flute, but others do.  The madrigal and chanson melodies he uses are the most popular tunes from the Renaissance, and you will find many versions of these melodies the more music you play from that time.

You can also take any 4 part chanson and play any of the voices – you might have to do a bit of transposing.  Keep in mind that the ‘melody’ on which 4-part chansons are based is often in the tenor part in Renaissance music. But that shouldn’t stop you from playing the cantus or altus voice as well.

I only know the Ortiz in facsimile, but it might be in modern editions as well by now.  You can get the Van Eyck in modern notation.  But challenging yourself with old notation is very fun and it brings so much extra to the music!  In case you aren’t always up to the challenge, check the London Pro Musica and Ut Orpheus editions.

There are very few people in the world playing Renaissance flutes, but it is an area that will grow, I hope.  My all-time favorite performer is Kate Clark (I am biased, of course, because I studied with her, but even if I had not, I would still pick her.) Order their cd–you won’t be disappointed!