Friedrich Kuhlau’s legacy in his lifetime was as a significant composer of music for the flute, the favoured instrument of gentlemen amateurs in the early 19th century. In his unfinished biography of 1804–1805, the great German Romantic Jean Paul wrote that the flute was a “magic baton, which changes one’s internal world, when it is touched by it; it is a divining rod plumbing the depths of the soul.” Figures as varied as Schopenhauer and Berlioz found pleasure in playing the instrument, and its widespread popularity ensured that music publishers could be assured of sales. Kuhlau was more financially successful with the 30 or so opus numbers featuring the flute than with all his other compositions, including his prestigious incidental music to Heiberg’s Romantic national play Elverhøf (1828).
Kuhlau was born in 1786 in a small provincial town between Hannover and Hamburg. His father, grandfather, and uncle were all oboists in a military regiment. Kuhlau took up the keyboard after a terrible accident in which he tripped and fell on a broken glass bottle, losing the use of his right eye. He would later describe the accident as a stroke of great fortune; as he convalesced, his parents allowed him a keyboard to play on. After a time in Hamburg as a pianist and teacher, Kuhlau fled to Copenhagen when Napoleon invaded in 1810. He continued to earn his living as a teacher and composer and began to enjoy his first operatic successes. In 1825 he visited Vienna, where he met, among others, the piano builder Conrad Graf and Beethoven. Apparently, Kuhlau and Beethoven got on rather well; they exchanged compositional canons as souvenirs, and Beethoven gave the visitor a signed lithograph of himself. Schlesinger wrote in Beethoven’s conversation book: “Kuhlau is a talented man, isn’t he? A cyclops! His one eye is close to his nose, didn’t you notice? He must be quite a drinker, because he can hold his liquor well!” Kuhlau’s last years in Copenhagen were marred by illness and financial problems, and a devastating house fire destroyed much music and permanently damaged his lungs, leading to his death in 1832.
Erin Helyard, © 2018