Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation: Early 19th-century Flute Structural Inconsistencies

French composer Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation (1843/4, rev. 1855) is a historically significant document that provided one of the most comprehensive discussions on instruments and orchestration of the early nineteenth century. Reading the entries in this document from a twenty-first century perspective offers musicians an authoritative description of each instrument by one of the foremost orchestrators of the time. Berlioz’s entry on the flute in the Treatise, however, presents one of the most problematic and neglected issues in the academic flute literature: the structural development of the flute and the concurrent treatment of the flute in the symphony orchestra during the Classical/Romantic era.

The structure of the flute inconsistently evolved from approximately 1750 through the introduction of the Boehm flute in the 1840s. During this nearly 100-year time span, instrument makers began adding keys to the standard one-keyed, or in the case of Quantz, two-keyed Baroque flute, but instrument makers in different countries made these advances in isolation, thus eradicating the collective international conception of how the instrument looked, sounded, and functioned. Simultaneously, composers began regularly including the flute in the wind section of the Classical symphony, but Berlioz pointed out in his entry on the flute in the Treatise that the instrument’s weaknesses were apparent in the orchestral writing of this time: relentless use of the high register and lack of significant solo passages for fear that the instrument would not be heard. These characteristics are particularly evident in the orchestration of Beethoven, as the first flute parts for his symphonies remain largely above the staff. The remainder of Berlioz’s entry on the flute in the Treatise further complicates this scenario. While Berlioz cites Boehm’s revolutionary improvements to the instrument, the rest of the entry seems to describe an instrument from decades past. The inconsistencies found in the Berlioz Treatise therefore illuminate the lack of consensus on flutes and flute playing during the Classical/Romantic era.

Before discussing these inconsistencies, it is important to understand the structural development of the flute beginning in the Baroque era. The basic structure of the flute was reasonably consistent in during this time. The early baroque flute, made of boxwood, ebony, or ivory, had three sections, a conical bore, finger holes drilled along the natural contour of the hand, and an E-flat key. The addition of the E-flat key by the French Hotteterre family clearly distinguished the flute from the fife. By 1720, instrument makers split the body of the flute between the two hands with the upper joint acting as the corps de rechange, interchangeable pieces of varying size that changed the pitch of the instrument to accommodate different chamber music settings.

Four-piece baroque flute with corps de rechange

Four-piece baroque flute with corps de rechange

Beginning in the late 1720s, Johann Quantz made a series of modifications to the flute to allow for better intonation and a fuller tone. The Quantz flute was a two-keyed instrument that featured a D-sharp key in addition to the Hotteterre E-flat key. The addition of the D-sharp key made up for the 22-cent pitch discrepancy between D-sharp and E-flat in the just intonation system, though the shift to equal temperament tuning in the mid-18th century rendered this key obsolete. Quantz also paired a headjoint tuning slide with the longest corps de rechange. A sharper taper to the bore of the instrument, undercut tone holes, and an elliptical embouchure all contributed to a stronger, more penetrating tone, particularly in the low register.

By 1740, the flute had been established as solo instrument and was becoming the principal wind instrument for virtuosi, spurring a new bravura style that eventually coincided with the altered role of flute in the orchestra. During the 1750s, several English flute makers began building instruments with keys for F, B-flat, and G-sharp and extended the lower range down to C and C-sharp. Ardal Powell describes the purpose of these keys and refutes common misconceptions in his book, The Flute:

The new keys did not make playing easier, faster, or more agile, nor did they make the flutes better in tune. Rather their purpose…was to provide an alternative to the flute’s more veiled notes at the bottom of the first octave, permitting a more cutting and penetrating tone in that part of the flute’s range that carries the least well in large performance spaces or in ensembles with strings.

The 1760s marked the first appearances of the new English-style keyed flutes in Germany. The most notable German flute maker was Johann Tromlitz, a virtuoso flutist known for his cutting tone and for bringing the bravura style of concerto playing to Germany. Tromlitz began making keyed flutes as early as the 1780s, and his eight-keyed flute, introduced in 1796, had keys for D-sharp, E-flat, G-sharp, and C with duplicate keys for F and B-flat. These instruments also had a particularly narrow bore that aided in the production of a strong tone that was both resonant in the low register and full in the high register. In 1800, Tromlitz published Über die Flöten mit mehern Klappen (The Keyed Flute) which included a history of keyed flutes and instructions for playing  these instruments. In this book, Tromlitz proclaimed that a true virtuoso was one who could “perform everything correctly and in tune” and that this was only possible on an eight-keyed flute. This declaration is contrary to Powell’s modern day assertion that the keys did not make playing easier, faster, or more in tune. Perhaps Tromlitz believed this to be true in 1800, or perhaps he made these claims in an effort to promote his new instrument.

Eight-key classical flute by E. Riley, New York, c.1820

Eight-key classical flute by E. Riley, New York, c.1820

The new English and German keyed flutes and the subsequent development of the bravura style of playing had little influence in France. Francois Devienne, professor of flute at the Paris Conservatory from 1795-1803, continued to perform on a one-keyed flute. In the introduction to his Nouvelle Méthode (1794), he condemned several new practices, but recognized that keyed flutes were an inevitable evolutionary addition to the instrument.

I find myself quite compelled to censure several customs, such as the double-tongue; such as the hard sounds which are played with force in the low register… [and] as for the flutes called “English” on which two keys have been added to the footjoint…it does not follow from this that I wish to condemn the small keys which correct research has caused to be added to the normal flute to improve the choked tones which exist in the low register… although I do not use them, I endorse them.

In addition to Devienne, Antoine Hugot and Johann Georg Wunderlich also taught flute at the Conservatory. The Hugot-Wunderlich method, published in 1804 as the first official Conservatory flute method, indicated that the French four-keyed flute had become the institution’s official instrument, replacing Devienne’s preference for the one-keyed flute.

The next landmark achievement in the structural development of the flute was the introduction of Theobald Boehm’s new flute in 1832. This instrument had large tone holes drilled in the ideal acoustical positions regardless of the shape of the human hand. A system of ring keys connected by rods and axles allowed the performer to access and properly seal these larger tone holes. The 1832 Boehm flute was still made of wood with a conical bore. Jean-Louis Tulou, professor of flute at the Conservatory from 1829 to 1859, continued to defy progress in France with his opposition of the Boehm ring key flute. In 1847, Boehm introduced the silver cylindrical flute, and this instrument finally became the official choice of the Paris Conservatory in 1860 when Louis Dorus succeeded Tulou.

Conical Boehm flute (1832 model with Dorus G#) by C. Godfroy, aînè (Paris, c.1845)

Conical Boehm flute (1832 model with Dorus G#) by C. Godfroy, aînè (Paris, c.1845)

Boehm cylindrical flute Number 1 (1847)

Boehm cylindrical flute Number 1 (1847)

With a clear understanding of the history of the structural development of the flute, the inconsistencies present in Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation become overwhelmingly apparent. Berlioz begins his entry on the flute by praising Boehm’s technological advances, stating that the flute “has now achieved such perfection and evenness of tone that no further improvement remains to be desired.” Berlioz included this passage in the original 1843/4 publication of the Treatise, thus creating a logical timeline from the 1832 release of the first Boehm flute to the writing of this particular entry. This is unfortunately, however, where the logic ends and Berlioz’s assertions become problematic.

Hector Berlioz, ed. Richard Strauss, trans. Theodore Foote: Treatise on Instrumentation

Hector Berlioz, ed. Richard Strauss, trans. Theodore Foote: Treatise on Instrumentation

Berlioz’s first discrepancy occurs when he describes the sound of the flute as being “soft in its medium range, rather piercing in its high notes, and very characteristic in its low register.” This is a contradictory description to the instrument with “perfection and evenness of tone” cited in the introductory material. This is the first suggestion that Berlioz may have been referencing a pre-Boehm flute considering the initiatives set forth as early as Quantz to overcome the weak low to middle range. This could also be seen as a preference for the French style of flute playing as championed by Devienne. In his memoirs, Berlioz described his contempt for Joseph Guillou’s avoidance of the weak low register in a performance of Gluck’s Alceste at the Théâtre de l’Opéra:

Guillou…takes extraordinary liberties with Gluck…where the composer has written for the bottom register of the flutes, precisely because he wants the special effect of their lowest notes. That doesn’t suit Guillou. He has to dominate… so he transposes the flute line up an octave, thus destroying the composer’s intention.

Next, Berlioz invokes Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo as a prime example of flute orchestration. He commends Gluck’s “sublime lament of a suffering and despairing spirit” for its use of the “weak and veiled sound of the medium F and B-flat above the staff, which imparts so much sadness to the flute in the key of D minor where these notes frequently occur.” On the contrary, keys for F and B-flat were two of the first to be added to the instrument after the Baroque era to produce a more penetrating tone. The veiled F and B-flat were characteristic sounds of the one-keyed flute.

Finally, at the conclusion of this entry, Berlioz comments on the trend in nineteenth-century flute orchestration:

The modern masters generally kept the flutes too persistently in the higher ranges. They always seem afraid that they will not be sufficiently clear amidst the mass of the orchestra. Consequently the flutes predominate in the ensemble instead of blending with it; the instrumentation thus becomes hard and sharp rather than sonorous and harmonious.

This hardly describes the keyed flutes of the Classical/Romantic era, which provided numerous alternate fingerings for the third octave. This more adequately prepared orchestral flutists for the ever-increasing use of the high register. Additionally, this excerpt certainly does not coincide with Berlioz’s previous description of the Boehm flute’s “evenness of tone.” It rather suggests a need to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the one-keyed flute.

Berlioz was no stranger to the flute, as it was his primary instrument as a child. He studied Devienne’s Nouvelle Méthode and the concertos of Droulet. In 1819, he acquired a red ebony eight-keyed flute with a C footjoint, therefore asserting his familiarity with the keyed Classical flute. It is therefore even more curious that his entry on the flute appears to describe an instrument from an earlier time. One plausible explanation for this discrepancy is the social influence of the Paris Conservatory. Having attended the Conservatory, it is possible that the ideology of the institution and the professors, particularly Devienne, influenced Berlioz’s opinion of the flute and proper flute playing. Whereas German flutists expressed a preference for a strong cutting tone and a powerful low register, this style of playing remained controversial in France. The entry on the flute in the Treatise may therefore be Berlioz’s expressed preference for the French style of playing. Considering Berlioz’s apparent familiarity with the structural evolution of the instrument, however, the conflicting descriptions of the flute in the Treatise illustrate the complexities in scoring for an instrument that drastically varied in construction and performance practice from country to country.

Images of historical flutes from Rick Wilson’s Historical Flutes Page

Works referenced:

Berlioz, Hector, ed. & trans. David Cairns. The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002.

Berlioz, Hector, ed. Richard Strauss, trans. Theodore Front. Treatise on Instrumentation. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.

Powell, Ardal. The Flute. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Tromlitz, Johann, trans. Ardal Powell. The Keyed Flute. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.


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