Adapting Flutes: Authenticity, Ingenuity, and Accessibility

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin) //

In a genius-composer-centric tradition, a lot of ink is spilt over finding performance approaches that are “faithful” to the composer’s intentions. One of the crucial components of this concern, beyond identifying the most accurate score (the “urtext”) is the choice of instrumentation: timbre is such a defining quality of music that we might rightly consider that a composer was thinking of a particular instrumental sound when setting a work to paper, and thus if we want to recreate that sound “faithfully” we should turn to that instrument. This is the premise behind the “historically informed performance” approach; for more than a century musicians have argued that reproductions of instruments from the past should be used to play the music composed for those instruments.

Intriguing issues arise from this premise. Among the most perplexing have to do with instruments named specifically by renowned composers that no longer exist. Take, for example, the “echo flute”:


The handwritten title page of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti

In his beautiful handwritten musical gift to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, “Concertos for Several Instruments,” Johann Sebastian Bach specifies a wide array of instruments in unusual combinations—almost as if he were demonstrating both his awareness of the significant sonic palette available to early eighteenth-century musicians as well as his ability to write for contrasting timbres in compelling and creative ways. (Scholars have long debated whether the collection might have been a job-seeking portfolio of sorts.) In the fourth concerto, Bach features a “violino piccolo”—almost certainly a smaller violin tuned higher than the modern standard—and “due fiauti d’echo” (two echo flutes).


The first page of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, (Brandenburg 4) in what we think is J.S. Bach’s handwriting, indicating the instrumentation at the top

What Bach might have meant by two “echo flutes” has mystified modern musicians, since he doesn’t use that indication anywhere else in his music, nor does the term appear reliably in the works or writing of any of his contemporaries. Presented with the quandary of how to deal “authentically” with this indication, musicians have tried a number of different strategies. 

As a first step, a consensus has built around the fact that when Bach called an instrument “flauto” he was referring to what in English we call the recorder—an instrument of the woodwind family that is played parallel to the performer’s body. (Bach and most of his contemporaries reliably called “traverso” a woodwind instrument that is played perpendicular to the body, what in English we call the flute.) So Bach almost certainly had in mind instruments of the recorder family. But the consensus stops there. 

Some have read the designation “echo” as referring simply to the softer “echo effects” that characterize the music the instruments are given, especially in the second movement, suggesting that these were “normal” recorders played in such a way as to accomplish a softer sound. While this is possible, the nature of the instrument is such that if a player blows more softly (to reduce the volume) the pitch of the instrument also changes, leading to significant tuning problems. Other performers have decided that in the second movement, where the “echo” indication and volume contrasts are made explicit, the recorder players should be placed separately from the main ensemble to achieve an “echo” effect by distance. This is certainly feasible—and there are examples from earlier composers of precisely this way to achieve a sonic “echo.” Those favoring this hypothesis have also observed that the “flauti” have a short rest before they enter in the third and final movement, potentially allowing them to rejoin the ensemble—but there’s no rest between the end of the first movement and the beginning of the second “echo” movement, so the hypothesis is not ironclad.1

Recently two separate ensembles have pursued the possibility that Bach was referring to an obscure variant of the recorder that involved two separate instruments, physically connected in some way, one constructed to sound louder and one with a softer sound. There are references to such an instrument in a couple of literary passages of the time—for example, the 1668 diary of English music lover Samuel Pepys in which he mentions an instrument builder showing him “a fashion of having two pipes of the same note fastened together, so I can play on one and then echo it upon the other, which is mighty pretty.”

The first ensemble, Voices of Music, took as its model the double-recorder (the only surviving example of its kind that dates approximately from Bach’s time, but too high-pitched for the Brandenburgs) in the Musical Museum of Leipzig, commissioning from Dutch instrument-maker Peter van den Poel a version that would match the range required in Brandenburg 4:

Los Hanneke van Proosdij and Andrew Levy, recorder players for Voices of Music, perform the second movement of Brandenburg 4 in 2013 on their van den Poel instruments, built specifically to provide a contrasting timbre as well as volume between the connected recorders.    

The second ensemble, Concerto Köln, worked with Swiss instrument-maker Andreas Schöni to reconstruct an instrument similar to one depicted in an illustration called “The Wind Instrument Maker” that appeared in a book depicting various professions and trades published in southeast Germany in 1698. Though there are no surviving double-recorders similar to that in the illustration, Schöni succeeded in creating “unibody” instruments that work effectively to provide louder and softer dynamics at the same pitch:    

Cordula Brewer and Wolfgang Dey, recorder players with Concerto Köln, demonstrate and talk about the double-recorders built by Schöni specifically for the ensemble’s 2014 recording of the Brandenburg Concertos. More information on this collaboration is available in German here and here.     While these performances are indeed lovely, and the dynamic contrasts achieved through the double-recorders are more nuanced than previous solutions using single instruments, this is a lot of work (and significant financial and time investment) to recreate an instrument that appears to be relevant for a single piece of music, and one that was quite possibly never performed during Bach’s lifetime. Bach himself later decided (as he often did for pragmatic reasons) to repurpose this concerto as a work for harpsichord and two (presumably normal-recorder) “flauti a bec,” transferring the “echo” effects in the second movement to his own trademark keyboard instrument:    

The second movement of JS Bach’s concerto in F major BWV 1057 for harpsichord and two flauti a bec, in which the harpsichord takes over the musical material played by the recorders in Brandenburg 4; Trevor Pinnock is accompanied by the English Concert.

One can certainly celebrate the collaborative ingenuity of the musicians and builders who have attempted to recreate Bach’s “echo flute,” reflecting the way instruments have been continually refined and adapted to meet performers’ expressive goals and preferences. Perhaps that creative ingenuity is at least as important, in the end, as the historical accuracy of construction. That would certainly seem to apply to situations where the performer’s physical configuration and comfort is a factor in the design of musical instruments, most especially in the case of instruments adapted for impaired or unconventionally configured bodies.

Let’s further consider the recorder, which has become a widespread pedagogical instrument since its revival a little over a century ago. Several manufacturers have introduced models that can be played with just one hand (either right or left) through the use of multiple keys; other models permit the player to adjust the direction of each individual hole to account for variants in hand configuration or physical dexterity. Though such models may be especially designed for performers with significant bodily differences (missing or unconventionally shaped hands), their “universal design” characteristics permit even those who have more typically configured bodies to perform with greater comfort or creative inspiration, as one instrument manufacturer points out.

Like the double-recorders re-invented for Brandenburg 4, “universal design” instruments are expensive, partly because they cost more to produce, but largely because of demand: it’s cheaper to produce multiple items if one is working from a “standard” design, and we have come to accept that specific musical instruments have standard shapes, largely through the conventions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century mass production. This standardization has erased differences not only between instruments, but between the bodies that use them, whether impaired or not. After all, every body is different, and before mass production instruments were inherently built or customized to suit and showcase the performer’s ability, much like the music that those instruments were used to perform. As we seek authenticity in instrumental performance and construction, we might also consider the diversity of bodies for which those instruments were, and continue to be, custom-produced.

For Discussion

  1. If you play a musical instrument, how might you adapt it to suit your bodily strengths and creative preferences? How might you consider “improving” the instrument (whatever that might mean)? What benefits could such improvements bring?
  2. Seek out other performances of Brandenburg 4 on YouTube—there are many. How do other ensembles solve the quandary of the “echo flutes”? Which solutions do you find more expressive or satisfying, in which ways?

1 For a summary of various hypotheses, see

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s