Celebrated for its elegant and refined music-making, Similia has received many prizes and accolades, including the coveted Prix Félix for Instrumental Album of the Year awarded by ADISQ (Quebec Recording [...]
Fantasia for Flute and Guitar
They spoke about it
The instrumental fantasy on a popular theme is probably almost as old as music itself. In the 19th century, this type of fantasy was a staple in the repertoire of soloists, who would compose these made-to-measure show pieces to display their talents in the best light. One surefire way to attract audiences was to program fantasies on themes from famous operas, which is just how Similia presents this delightful program of arrangements for flute and guitar.
In the second half of the 19th century, transverse flute making in France reached a level of excellence unrivaled in Europe, building on the revolutionary work of German flautist and flute maker Theobald Boehm. In 1847, Boehm literally transformed the instrument, abandoning the traditional conical-bore wooden flute so popular in the Baroque, and creating the cylindrical metal flute equipped with keys that bears his name and which we know today. The Boehm flute allowed greater accuracy and fluidity in virtuosic passages, but it was French makers who perfected its complex and sophisticated system of keys. Not only did French flautists quickly adopt the new instrument—which was at the time a novel prototype regarded with suspicion by many—they also composed a significant repertoire of pieces to highlight the new instrument’s extraordinary capabilities.
Two such flautists were Paul-Agricol (or Agricole) Genin (1832–1909) and, a generation later, François Borne (1862–1929). Very little is known about them except that Genin was principal flute with the orchestras of the Théâtre Italien and the Concerts Colonne in Paris, and that Borne was a flute teacher at the Toulouse Conservatory and co-inventor of the “split E,” a device to make the Boehm flute’s high E more responsive.
However, while these two flautists, who apparently wrote primarily for their instrument, remain in the shadows, their music has remained part of the flute repertoire through changing fashions and times. The reason for their popularity stems not only from their virtuosic sparkle, but also from the famous operatic themes that spring up from what are initially billed as free improvisations. Borne uses this technique in his Fantaisie brillante on Carmen, imitating models of his countryman Genin on La Traviata, and of the German Karl Doppler, in the fantasy for two flutes on Rigoletto.
Karl Doppler (1825–1900) started his career at age nine as a child prodigy travelling Europe with his older brother Franz (1821–1883), also a flautist. The duo was renowned for the cohesion of their playing, even in the most difficult passages, but also for the fact that Karl held his flute “backwards” (i.e., to the left), giving the duo a symmetrical look on stage. Loyal to the old wooden transverse flute to the end, both Dopplers later enjoyed very successful careers as soloists, conductors and composers, dabbling in all the different genres, from chamber music to opera, to symphonic and concert works. They spent nearly 20 years together in the Hungarian capital before Karl was named Kapellmeister to the court at Stuttgart and Franz moved to Vienna to teach at the conservatory and direct the ballet of the Imperial court. Karl’s Fantasy for two flutes on Rigoletto was probably composed for one of the many concerts the two adult brothers continued to give together, as was the Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy, by Franz, who may have also collaborated on the Rigoletto fantasy.
Flautists were not the only ones to write “brilliant fantasies” for their instrument. Violinists were also very much in the game, and Pablo de Sarasate (1844–1908) was probably the most celebrated violinist of his generation. Though born in Spain, Sarasate studied at the Paris Conservatory, and the French capital remained the base for his busy solo career in Europe and the Americas until his death. He composed over fifty solo pieces for violin, with either piano or orchestral accompaniment and many with a Spanish flavour; he also wrote numerous opera fantasies. Once exception, however, is his German-titled Op. 20, Zigeunerweisen (meaning “gypsy songs”), which Similia presents here in a version for flute and guitar. Its succession of languid, nostalgic melodies opening into frenetic dance-like passages owes much to the Hungarian czardas—a “folk dance” which, in one of history’s ironic twists, was adopted by the gypsies as their own, even though it was the complete fabrication of a late-18th-century aristocrat. Nevertheless, Sarasate’s use of spectacular virtuosic effects gives the piece all the characteristics of a “brilliant fantasy.”
Between these brilliant 19th-century fantasies, Similia has interwoven the works of contemporary composers.
Guitarist-composer, Frenchman Erik Marchelie, is partial to combining the guitar with other instruments or instrumental ensembles. He has composed seven pieces for flute and guitar, including a three-movement Sonatine. The composer writes that in Gémeaux, written for Similia, “contrasting moods succeed one another, with passages that evoke calm or uneasiness giving way to bright, energetic music.” Valse, on the other hand, “is of more modest intent and, with its lightness of spirit and clear simplicity, is also more French. It speaks to the heart, rather than to reason, using plain, direct language .”
Finally, Michael Conway Baker is one of Canada’s most sought after composers for cinema and television. Based in Vancouver, he has composed film scores for over 180 films and TV shows, many of them award-wining. He has also written over 125 symphonic and concert works, as well as dozens of chamber pieces. Elegy is a work originally written for flute and organ, which the composer was happy to rearrange for flute and guitar at the request of Similia.