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Beethoven of the Flute

Laurence Taylor | March 2020

From the October 1961 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    Somewhere back in the nineteenth century it became fashionable to call various composers by such titles as "Beethoven of the Violin," "Beethoven of the Guitar," "Beethoven of the Harp," etc. For many years now, Friedrich Kuhlau has been the recognized and undisputed "Beethoven of the Flute."

    Kuhlau was born in Hanover, Germany, of German parentage, in 1786. At a very early age he showed such remarkable musical talent that his parents, although poor, arranged for the child to have piano lessons. When only seven, he lost the sight of one eye through a fall while fetching water from a well on a dark evening. However, this misfortune seems to have caused no diminishing of his enthusiasm for music, for he was soon afterwards sent to Brunswick, where he entered a choir and received lessons not only in singing but also on piano, flute, and violin. Later he went to Hamburg and studied composition under C. F. Schwencke, who had been a pupil of the famous Kirnberger.

    In 1810, when twenty-four years of age. Kuhlau went to Copenhagen where he supported himself by teaching piano and theory. In 1813 he was appointed first flutist (unsalaried) in the orchestra of the Royal Chapel and the Opera, receiving the title of "Chamber-Musician to the King of Denmark." He now achieved his first great success as a composer, not with his flute compositions, but with a series of operas. Danish national opera had not been in a very flourishing condition, and Kuhlau succeeded in bringing it to a peak of success with operas of a pronounced national character, in which he skillfully introduced many of the famous old Danish folk-songs and national scenery. (The Robber’s Castle, 1814; The Magic Harp, 1817; Elisa, 1820; Lulu, 1824.) Various honors came to him. In 1818 he was appointed salaried court composer, and in 1828 received the title of "Professor." So successful was he with his Danish-oriented operatic works that his original nationality was quite over-looked and he was hailed as "the great Danish composer."

Writing for the Flute

    All the while that he was achieving renown with his operas, Kuhlau was quietly composing an imposing number of works for his favorite instrument, the flute. It is interesting to note that his reputation today rests chiefly on his flute music; the operas and even the sonatas and sonatinas for piano two and four hands, which once enjoyed a tremendous popularity, are now largely forgotten. Most flutists today have had a go at his flute duets; many have played some of his seven flute trios and his one extant flute quartet. These works alone, with their brilliant use of the instrument, their tunefulness, and solid comprehension of sonata-allegro form, would be enough to justify the title of "Beethoven of the Flute." But there are so many more flute compositions available from the pen of Friedrich Kuhlau that we gain but an imperfect understanding of his genius when we limit ourselves to the playing only of his duets, trios, and quartet.

His Last Years

    In 1830 Kuhlau suffered the loss of the greater part of his unpublished compositions, including a second flute quartet in manuscript. when his house, just outside Copenhagen, burned to the ground. Shortly after this calamity he lost both his parents, to whom he had been deeply attached, and whom he had brought to live with him in Denmark years before, as soon as he had saved the money for their passage from Germany.

    Under this double stroke of misfortune his health gave way, and he passed away early in 1832. Surprisingly little has been written about Friedrich Kuhlau. All the music dictionaries give him space, but the only lengthy studies of his life and works which I have been able to locate are (1), a book by Carl Thrane titled Friedrich Kuhlau, Lebenskizze and Verzeichniss der Compositionen von F. K., published by Breitkopf & Hartel, Leipzig, in 1886; (actually this is a German translation made from Thrane’s original book on four Danish [sic] composers, published in Danish in 1875 in Copenhagen); and (2), an article by Walther Nohl in a German musical periodical, Die Musik, volume year of 1935. An up-to-date study of Kuhlau – in English – seems long overdue.

    Appended hereto is a fairly complete list of Kuhlau’s published flute compositions. Several of the solos for flute unaccompanied listed be-ow were provided with piano parts later by various flutists; such editions, since they are not fully the work of Kuhlau himself, have not been included in the following list.

Kuhlau’s Flute Compositions

Op. 10: 3 Duos Concertants, Two flutes. (Carl Fischer, Cundy-Bettoney, Ricordi, et al.)

Op. 13: 3 Trios, Three flutes. (Costallat)

Op. 38: 3 Fantaisies Brillantes, Flute unaccompanied. (Costallat)

Op. 39: 3 Grands Duos, Two flutes. (Cundy-Bettoney, Breitkopf)

Op. 51: 3 Quintets, Flute, violin, two violas, and cello. (Costallat)

Op. 51bis: 3 Sonates Concertaantes, Flute and piano. Piano part arranged by the composer from the quintet score. (Costallat)

Op. 54: 3 Solos, Flute unaccompanied. (?)

Op. 57: 3 Grands Solos, Flute unacc. (Costallat)

Op. 63: Introduction and Variations on a Romance from Weber’s Euryanthe, Flute & piano. (Costallat, Litolff)

Op. 64: Grand Sonata in Elicit, Flute and piano. (Cranz, Costallat)

Op. 68: 6 Divertissements, Flute unacc. (Cundy-Bettoney)

Op. 69: Grand Sonata in G, Flute and piano. (Costallat, C. F. Schmidt)

Op. 71: Sonata in E Minor, Flute and piano. (Litolff, Simrock)

Op. 80: 3 Duos Brillants, Two flutes. (Ricordi, International, Cundy-Bettoney)

Op. 81: 3 Duos Concertants, Two flutes. (Carl Fischer, Cundy-Bettoney)

Op. 83: 3 Grandes Sonates, Flute and piano. (Simrock, C. F. Schmidt) Op. 83, No. 2 is found in the collection Pleasures of Pan, vol. 6. (Cundy-Bettoney)

Op. 85: Grande Sonate, Flute and piano. (Schott, Costallat)

Op. 86: 3 Grands Trios, Three flutes. (Costallat)

Op. 87: 3 Grands Duos Concertants, Two flutes. (Cundy-Bettoney, Carl Fischer)

Op. 90: Grand Trio, Three flutes. (Costallat)

Op. 94: Variations on Le Colporteur, Flute and piano. (Costallat)

Op. 95: 3 Fantasias, Flute unacc. (Zimmermann)

Op. 98: Introduction and Rondo on Le Colporteur, Flute and piano. (Costallat, Richault)

Op. 99: Variations on Le Colporteur, (a second set). Flute and piano. (Costallat, Richault)

Op. 101: Introduction and Variations on the duet, ‘Fairest Maiden,’ from Jessonda, Flute and piano. (Costallat, Hansen)

Op. 102: 3 Duos Brillants, Two flutes. (Ricordi, Cundy-Bettoney)

Op. 103: Quartet, Four flutes. (Southern Music Co.)

Op. 110: 3 Duos Brillants (These are really sonatas). Flute and piano. (Ricordi, Costallat)

Op. 119: Trio in G, Two flutes and piano. (Costallat, Simrock)

Op. 130: 12 Variations and Caprices, Flute unacc. (Costallat)