The Most Spectacular Transverse Flute in the World - The Denner Flute



Now and again, on those rare occasions - dreams become reality for players of old musical instruments - fairy tales come true, miracles do happen. The recent discovery of a transverse flute by Jacob Denner doubtless qualifies as a modern musical miracle. The German land of North Rhine-Westphalia is the current owner of the instrument, now in the possession of Konrad Hünteler.

Jacob Denner (1681-1735), a Nuremberg native, was the most renowned European maker of woodwind instruments of his time. Throughout the eighteenth century his transverse flutes in particular were in great demand and praised for their harmonious sound and perfect pitch. Denner himself was an excellent instrumentalist, a not insignificant factor in explaining why his instruments had a considerable advantage over those of his competitors. The extant number of known Denner transverse flutes today stands in lamentable contrast to this Nuremberg master's significance for the development of woodwind instrument making. Until the discovery of our flute only three Denner transverse flutes were known to us, two in the German National Museum in Nuremberg and one in the Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Brussels. The paucity of surviving Denner transverse flutes no doubt is explained at least in part by the fact of the thorough redesign of the transverse flute in the nineteenth century. As a result, the then modern instruments replaced the outmoded older instruments of the eighteenth century. The older instruments were no longer of any value, and many of them no doubt met their demise in the fireplace. Figures from the history of the violin give us a clear idea of the full extent of the irreparable losses suffered by old transverse flute inventories. About six hundred of the some one thousand violins made by Antonio Stradivari are still attested today. As a general rule, violins of worth were not thrown away during the nineteenth century because they could be rebuilt to meet the new demands in the areas of volume, playing technique, and brilliance of sound.

An old house in the Nuremberg area was scheduled for demolition in the late autumn of 1991. While the attic was being cleared out, an eye-catching, obviously once very valuable wooden box was found. Inside the box there was a spectacular flute: the instrument had evidently been slumbering in the box for the past two hundred years without having been played and is now being presented on its first recording on compact disc.

The completeness of the flute is its first overall extraordinary feature. It was found in its original, elaborately designed wooden box. d. The inside of the box is lined with red chamois, and the outside is edged with printed parchment still bearing the traces of an original gilding. The central ornament on the top side of the box consists of two interlocking eight-pointed stars of different design in a decorative field filled with baroque ornaments. A number of different decorative ribbons wind around the box.

The baroque emblem on the bottom of the box exhibits a human figure playing a lutelike instrument under a sort of Chinese baldachin. It is possible that this emblem contains clues as to the identity of the instrument's first owner. The letters »AS« are found on a number of the decorative ribbons winding around the case on all sides. It is possible that these letters are initials, and perhaps they too may be able to tell us something about the history of the instrument.

The flute itself is of boxwood. The original nitric acid stain gave the instrument a dark, almost black color. The transverse flute preserved in its entirety in the wooden case consists of a head joint, four middle joints, a socket joint, and a foot joint with a silver key. All the parts bear Jacob Denner's official stamp: an unfurled banner with the name »I Denner« above a fir tree with the letters »I« and »D« to the left and right of the trunk. The first three middle joints play at the pitches of about a' = 422, 412, and 402 Hz on the tone of d'. The fourth and longest middle joint plays at the pitch of a' = 422 Hz on the tone of b or at the pitch of a' = 402 Hz on the tone of c' and thus transposes the flute down by a minor third over against the highest middle joint and by a whole tone over against the third middle joint. This adjustment makes the flute a »flûte d'amour.« No other extant transverse flute by Jacob Denner has come down to us with so many middle joints and we know of no other Denner flute with a middle joint lending the instrument the character of a flûte d'amour. And finally, none of the other flutes has a case of such elaborate design.

The almost immaculate condition of the flute is no less remarkable. The mouth hole of the flute is an almost perfect circle with a diameter of 8.85 to 9.00 mm. There is relatively little undercutting, most of it on both sides parallel to the direction of the airstream. It is quite evident that it was never reworked.

All the parts are complete and do not show the slightest trace of deformation. Even the bore profiles are by and large circular in form, and the occasional departures from this form are minimal. When the flute was discovered, the key was still covered with the original leather pad. The leather pad has since been removed (but not discarded) owing to its hardness and untightness. The original cork was found in the head joint but has also been replaced in the interim.

The foot joint was damaged during the eighteenth century. As a result, the key holder was dislodged from the surrounding socket. The repair involved the replacement of the broken wood piece and the riveting of the key spring to the lever.

The dark stain of the middle joints and their different shades indicate that the flute was played almost exclusively with the shortest middle joint during the eighteenth century, i.e., at a pitch of ca. a' = 422 Hz. This pitch corresponds to that of several alto (treble) recorders by Denner in the German National Museum in Nuremberg and thus seems to have been the pitch employed in Nuremberg during his lifetime. Although the third middle joint for the pitch of a' = 402 Hz shows only slight traces of use, it has the best sound and tuning quality of all the flute's middle joints. This middle joint was presumably involved in the tuning adjustment of the flute in order to keep the compromises required for the flûte d'amour middle joint within reasonable limits. The second middle joint does not show any traces of use at all. Thus the instrument must not have been played at the pitch of a' = 412 Hz.

The fourth middle joint, however, the flûte d'amour middle joint, seems to have been employed at least as much as the third middle joint. This fact suggests that the use of transposing transverse flute sizes may have been more frequent that we had been able to establish thus far. Perhaps additional research in this area will shed further light on this question.

The ivory cap at the upper end of the head joint has an unusual form. The cap of this flute is of more extravagant design than the caps of the other known flutes by Denner. It is rounded at the end, and the edges are adorned with a number of decorative grooves (cf. III. 6). Although we cannot rule out the possibility that the cap was added at a later date, the space occupied by the headpiece in the case supports the assignment of the cap to the original parts of the flute. The length of the space accommodates such a rounded-off cap.

A comparison of the four parts of the flute and the outer design of its parts to the other known Denner flutes suggests the period between 1715 and 1720 as its probable date of origin. Thus the flute is the ideal instrument for the performance of compositions by J.S. Bach, Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries. The composers named here wrote their important flute music between the years 1718 and about 1740.

When all has been said, however, what is really fascinating about the flute is its playability, tone, and sound character. First, it has an usually full and luxuriant, dark and richly colored tone and a wide range of dynamic possibilities at its disposal. Its tone at least relativizes the »soft, complaining flute« (Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day) and the »sweet, thick honey« (C.D.F. Schubart). Its sound is more reminiscent of that of French instruments of the turn of the century or of Quantz's »bright, piercing, full, rich, virile, and yet pleasant tone.« The flute plays effortlessy on all levels and even sounds g''' and a''' in piano without difficulty. Second, its purity of intonation is impressive. Denner's flutes were famous for this quality in the eighteenth century. The pitch of the third middle joint in particular is flawless. It is striking that many of the tones of problematic intonation on most of the extant originals and their copies require astonishingly little lipping adjustment on this flute. Even the flûte d'amour middle joint requires very little correction in matters of intonation.

In sum, the discovery of the flute heard on this recording represents an especially important and extremely rare find. In the opinion of experts it is the best preserved and most complete flute of the early eighteenth century. Moreover, it has maintained its phenomenal playing qualities. We may thus say without hesitation or qualification that the Kunst und Kultur Foundation of North Rhine-Westphalia was very fortunate to acquire this valuable instrument. The acquisition of this Denner flute by the foundation means that it will be maintained in its present condition, made available to music scholarship, and, not least of all, employed in concerts and recordings. For it is only when such a rare, outstanding, and valuable instrument is heard that it fulfills its original function.

[The way of the Classical-CD]