C. W. Gluck
The 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits'

Forgive me if this page rambles a bit. Music touches secret places and links me with the past.

This famous flute solo has haunted me ever since I started to play the flute when I was about ten years old. At the time it was the solo flute piece. We had no record player or piano at home and virtually all the music I heard came from the BBC. I studied the Radio Times for forthcoming performances by flute players in particular. It was five or six years before I spent 'birthday' money on a record deck to plug into the back of the (only) radio in the house and started buying LP's. I still have them all. The first was Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons', Karl Munchinger conducting the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. A landmark recording of a then virtually unknown work. How times change! (The second was their recording of Brandenburg Concertos 2, 4 & 5. I wonder if the young lady flute player who introduced me to them still remembers me... )

I soon got a copy of the famous Gluck solo. It was only available from Leduc, a very large 1927 edition printed on very poor quality paper. The cover is a disappointing green multi-purpose print, 'Les Classiques de la Flute', Nr. 20, Gluck Orphée, Scène des Champs-Elysées. The work is identied by a rubber stamped number referring to the title in a list of 50 on the page. At the head of the cover is a list of names... Taffanel, Gaubert, Moyse, Caratgé*, Fleury. Great names from the early days of modern flute playing. I still have it, dog eared and browning round the edges, and not much played.

Not much played?

Yes. And my wife hates it!

Iconic works can be a problem. Its not actually very difficult, technically, but demands a degree of understanding and rapport between the flute and orchestra or piano that can be very difficult to achieve. For me, this piece has a history all of its own.

I showed it first to my teacher, George Wiseman, an ageing, semi-retired professional player who had left full time flute playing when the coming of the talkie cinema deprived him of his regular engagements. He was good, very good, and had played on the trans-atlantic liners. The then popular overtures and romantic symphonies were his stock in trade. He took me along to play Tschaikovsky at the local amateur orchestra. But Bach, Handel... and Gluck were not his thing. I was taught at home. My parents heard me being shown how to play the run of semi-quavers like a flourish in a concerto** and could tell that I was not happy. Apparently, I hid the music, and he never saw it, or heard me try to play, it again. Eventually I worked out my own solution to the French musical terms and the grace notes.

The next time it came out was when we visited my grandfather and his new wife. My Nana had died soon after I was born and, to everyone's surprise he married a lady of his own age a dozen years or so later. My new 'Aunty' could play the piano... wouldn't it be nice to play something with her. Oh dear. Piano reductions are nothing like the Methodist Hymn Book. We just couldn't make it work. The atmosphere became rather tense.

Fast forward twenty years or so. My memory is a little hazy, but I played it, on the recorder, when I took my Trinity Grade 8. Times change. It was a happy experience with a sympathetic music teacher colleague.

There were a couple of attempts to make it work in concerts by our teacher's orchestra in Avon but I never thought that it was a suitable piece for youngsters. I advised my students to get to know it, but perform it at their peril. (It is easy to get now, it is in a James Galway compilation.) You can play 'Annies Song' anywhere, but the Gluck is risky.

So, after more than fifty years, here am I playing it, on a silver (Yamaha YFL681h) flute Its a version that I am comfortable with. Unfortunately, as always it seems, there was only one, rushed, rehearsal. However, the small body of string players is sympathetic, the acoustic is flattering and though the microphone is not ideally placed the sound is not bad. Its a live performance and the audience (apart from a restless child) appreciated it. Some things are worth waiting for.

* Fernand Caratgé was a pupil of Gaubert who was involved in the re-structuring of the flute course at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1920's. I found this information in Edward Blakeman's book on Taffanel, OUP, 2005.

** I have just found Rachel Brown's 'Case Study' of this work in her excellent book 'The Early Flute', CUP 2002. It seems from the original edition that a gentle accelerando was intended by the composer, but removed from modern editions. My next performance may be slightly different.

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