Back to the Baroque, A Look at Traverso Flute

Leela Breithaupt | October 2014

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about learning and playing the traverso.

    Every serious flutist has the pleasure of performing the great Baroque and Classical masterpieces of the repertoire – J.S. Bach Sonatas, Telemann Fantasies, C.P.E. Bach Sonatas, Quantz, and Mozart Concertos. Have you ever wondered how the composers might have imagined these pieces, or how flutists like Frederick the Great or Hotteterre might have played them while the ink was still fresh?
    Flutists and other musicians today are expected to have a breadth of knowledge that spans more than 400 years and includes vastly different historical and national styles and techniques. To become a more knowledgeable and multifaceted artist, flutists can learn about Baroque performance practices, including how to play the traverso.

Historically Informed Performances
    The Baroque Period (c.1600-1750) was a time of exquisite sensitivity to aesthetics, royal affluence, strict courtly hierarchies and social structures, lavish display of ornaments, love of allegory, and nostalgia for antiquity. In the latter part of the 19th century into the mid-20th century, Western culture largely drifted away from Baroque aesthetics and social ideals and embraced the Romantic and post-Romantic cultural norms of emotion and sentimentality, large scale imagination, and sublime over-arching phrases. They forged ahead with new innovations and knowledge, social and economic change, and the triumph of individual identity. By the mid-20th century, musicians took a new modern approach to playing Baroque music, which often had few ties to the composers’ original intentions.
    After World War II there was a renewed interest in earlier time periods. A few curious individuals began to question the way Baroque masterworks were played. Frans Brüggen, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Alfred Deller, and Paul Hindemith were among the pioneers leading the early music movement in their respective countries. In the United States, Robert Willoughby led the resurgence of interest in playing the traverso. Today there are a plethora of recordings and videos of historically accurate performances on period instruments, many of which may be found online.
    Studying Baroque music and performance practice requires patience and time. The first step is to learn more about the period, including information about the composer, style, genre, social and historical implications, temperaments and tuning systems, beat hierarchy, micro-dynamics, ornamentation, inflection of sound, varied articulation, and use of gesture and rhetoric.

Traverso or Modern Flute
    Although it is possible to play a Baroque piece in a historical style perfectly well on a modern flute, I find that playing Baroque music on a traverso allows me to think and express music in a completely different way, just by the nature of the instrument’s capabilities. Although the traverso is the forefather of the modern flute, the two instruments differ in many ways and involve different playing techniques. For example, by playing a modern flute with less vibrato, messe di voce (swells) on long notes, and attention to crisp articulation and dance rhythms, the effect would be closer to a historically informed traverso performance. However, learning to play Baroque music on a traverso uncovers the capabilities and limits of this Baroque instrument. It illustrates how a traverso’s sound breaks if pushed too hard, that rapid double tonguing does not suit the subtlety of the timbre, and that a full rich sound does not need the embellishment of vibrato to make it sing. As Barthold Kuijken says, we can let the traverso teach us.
    Learning to play the traverso helps flutists translate Baroque technique and ornamentation more easily to modern flute, although it will take time to feel comfortable with these techniques and enunciations on a modern instrument. This new outlook brings deeper insight and practical application of historical principles to your performances no matter which instrument you are playing.

Selecting an Instrument 
    There is great diversity among 17th and 18th century traversos. Embou-chure hole shape and size, bore shape, spacing of holes, and joint length all vary quite a lot. Today, there are many excellent traverso makers producing copies of Baroque instruments both in the U.S. and Europe. When choosing a traverso, try out a variety to see which one is a good fit. (Several traverso makers exhibit their various instruments each year at the NFA convention.) There are several models that are well suited to beginning traverso players. Among them, good choices include copies of G.A. Rottenburgh, I.H. Rottenburgh, J. Denner, Naust, and Beukers flutes. I recommend purchasing a flute pitched at A=415, which is the standard pitch in Baroque period instrument ensembles.
    When selecting an instrument, pay close attention to the scale of the flute. Check if the D octaves are in tune, and then move to a D major scale. The F sharp is naturally lower on the traverso, which works well in D major as major thirds are played lower in Baroque temperaments. If all is well, try a D minor scale using the fork fingering for F natural to see how sharp it is. On most instruments, F natural is quite sharp and requires adjusting, but there are some that are naturally more stable. Move on to check tone flexibility by testing dynamic range. Pay particular attention to the quality of the sound at the end of a diminuendo. Articulation should be crisp and even more facile than on modern flute. Most importantly, choose a traverso with an inviting tone that inspires you to spend time learning the instrument.

Care of a Traverso
    Traversos require extra care and protection from heat and cold. Wooden instruments are much more sensitive to changes in climate than metal flutes. They need to be played in gradually over a period of a few months so that the wood becomes used to expanding and contracting with the moisture from playing. Start out playing just 5-10 minutes a day and slowly increase it from there. This should help avoid cracking. As with a modern flute, always dry a traverso with a soft cloth after playing. Traverso flutes should be oiled about once a month. Each maker has slightly different instructions for oiling, so make sure to follow the directions carefully. You will need to remove the cork and the key when oiling. Caring for a wooden flute as Baroque musicians did ensures that the instrument will play at its best for many years and provides a tangible connection to the period.

Fingering Charts
    There are a number of good charts for traverso fingerings. Historical treatises are an excellent starting point. On Playing the Flute by Johann Joachim Quantz (1752) and Principles of the Flute, Recorder, and Oboe by Jacques Hotteterre (1707) both have a fingering chart in the first chapters. Modern editions offering compilations of Baroque fingering charts are also very useful. The Baroque Flute Fingering Book by Margaret Neuhaus, edited by Ardal Powell, is a good option. A truncated version can be found online at
    Unlike modern flute, many notes do not automatically speak well and in tune even when the correct fingering is employed. Due to the conical nature of the traverso bore and the lack of keys, chromatic notes are much more unstable and challenging to play in tune. In Principles of the Flute, Hotteterre goes through the notes and explains the adjustments needed for each one. For example, to play F natural, the fingering is 123 | 46 no key. This fingering is called a cross or fork fingering because a hole is skipped. He goes on to explain that this note should be tuned by the embouchure. To lower it, roll the flute inward (Hotteterre, p. 16-17). These less stable notes are adjusted just as modern flutists lower middle C sharp. In time, learning to navigate these adjustments becomes second nature and an integral part of playing the traverso’s unique timbre expressively.

    Although we can learn a lot from playing copies of period instruments, modern ways of thinking and playing music are very different. It is important to imagine what music could have sounded like in the 18th century. To better understand performance practices of the time, research original notation, historical treatises, Baroque aesthetics, and what was considered playing with good taste.
    Studying the original notation without editorial marks gives a better sense of a composer’s intentions and offers insights into performance practice. Many manuscripts and facsimiles can be found online at
In addition to reading the original notation, it is essential to learn the musical conventions of the time. Musicians were well versed in these conventions, so it was not necessary for composers to write everything down. For example, Baroque composers often wrote articulation marks only at the beginning of a passage. A performer was expected to play these articulations in similar passages throughout the movement.
    In the French style there were even more subtle conventions that performers were expected to know. For example, in a movement in 4/4, written sixteenth notes were played slightly unequally according to the unwritten practice of notes inégales. The effect is akin to how notes are swung in jazz. Barthold Kuijken’s book, The Notation Is Not the Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), provides many wonderful insights on this topic.
    Historical treatises are a valuable resource for studying Baroque style and aesthetics. These manuals show how 18th century flute masters taught people to play the flute, what was important to them, and in some cases, what was not. Hotteterre’s and Quantz’s famous technique books not only teach how to play the traverso, but also how to play with good 18th century style and taste. The idea of what constituted le bon goût (good taste) or lack of it was much discussed at the time and is still of vital interest to period instrument performers today. The possibilities might sound quite strange to modern ears. For example, there is little mention of vibrato (other than an ornament called flattement or finger vibrato) or modern double tonguing. These two staples of modern flute playing either did not exist or were not considered in good taste.

Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud.

    It is also essential to have a mental image of the culture and time period when preparing a Baroque piece. Through the Internet, musicians today have access to great works of art from around the world. To appreciate and understand Baroque aesthetics. study Baroque paintings, sculpture, and architecture including Sanssouci and Versailles palaces, and paintings by Tiepolo and Watteau. To get a sense of the atmosphere of courtly performances, look in particular at the portrait of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701 (above) and the painting of Frederick the Great playing a flute concerto in Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel (at the beginning of this article). All of these ornate details form an impression and are pieces of a puzzle that help create an understanding of the Baroque.

Traverso, Johann Joachim Quantz, mid 18th century, Berlin Musical Instrument Museum

    The act of putting all of the components of music into a Baroque point of reference gives musicians the ability to create a musical effect that is likely to be closer to the composer’s intentions. Try to bring the listener not only another brilliant piece written by Bach, Telemann, or Mozart, but transport them to another time and culture. By doing so I think that we can affect the listener in a more profound way.

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    There are many YouTube videos and CDs available to give a taste of how the leading Baroque flutists sound and the style choices they have made. I recommend listening to the following pieces from excellent recordings.
Barthold Kuijken: Bach Partita in A minor from the CD Solo pour la flûte traversière – JS Bach, Hotteterre, Weiss, Rousseau, CPE Bach & Fischer
Wilbert Hazelzet: Telemann Paris Quartet No. 1 in D Major from the CD Telemann 6 Paris Quartets with Trio Sonnerie
Jed Wentz: CPE Bach Hamburger Sonata from CPE Bach: Complete Solo Flute Sonatas

On Playing the Flute by Johann Joachim Quantz (1752)
Principles of the Flute, Recorder, and Oboe by Jacques Hotteterre (1707)
The Notation is Not the Music by Barthold Kuijken (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013)
The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century by Bruce Haynes (Oxford University Press, 2007)