Johann Joachim Quantz

Johann Joachim Quantz. Most flute players know him for his Concerto in G Major. We’ve all played it at some point or another, probably at contest in high school. But his contribution to the flute world goes well beyond a lovely Baroque concerto. In fact, his sonatas and concertos number in the hundreds. As a flute maker he offered innovations that advanced the instrument of his day. But perhaps it’s his role as a writer that has had the greatest impact on twenty first century flute players.

Johann Joachim Quantz was born in Oberscheden Germany on January 30, 1697.  That’s fewer than 80 miles from the town of Ohrdruf where a 12 year old orphan named Johann Sebastian Bach was growing up under the care of his brother Johann Christoph Bach. That same year in France, Charles Perrault published Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots). This book was inscribed “Mother Goose Tales” and is credited with launching the Mother Goose association with fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Meanwhile, Sir Isaac Newton’s publication Principia Mathematica was only ten years off the press. This work introduced Newton’s three laws of motion as well as his explanation of planetary motion.

 He received his early musical training from a family member, becoming proficient on violin, oboe and flute.  As a young man he moved to Dresden where he continued to play and study composition. Eventually he dropped violin and oboe to concentrate on the flute. He performed extensively on the flute, travelling throughout Europe. In the early 1740s he entered the service of Frederick the Great of Prussia where he stayed for the remainder of his life. During his long tenure with the king, he produced hundreds of sonatas, concertos and works for the flute. His most well known piece is the Concerto in G Major.

Quantz’ employer, Frederick the Great was himself an accomplished flute player, composer and patron of the arts. King Frederick’s court supported many important musicians and composers of the day including C. P. E. Bach. The king composed dozens of sonatas and several concertos for flute, many of which have survived and are still played today. 

Flutes

During his time of service to the king, Quantz took an interest in making flutes. The flutes of his day were made of wood and had a single E♭. Quantz added a second key to his design, the D# key. The addition of this second key allowed the flutist to play in tune throughout a wider range of keys. Since he was not a commercial flute maker, his output wasn’t large. His flutes were made for use within the court although many were given by the king as gifts. A small number of his flutes are still in existence in museums and private collections.

Compositions

Quantz was a prolific composer producing hundreds of Sonatas and Concertos while in the service of Frederick the Great. Many of his works have been lost, but there is a wealth of his compositions still in print. Today he is best known for his Concerto in G Major. This work is a standard within the flute repertoire, a work that nearly all serious flute students study at some point in their musical education. It’s standard fair at contest and in college flute studios.

Treatise

Perhaps Quantz’ greatest contribution to future generations was his treatise On Playing the Flute. I don’t imagine that this work is on the shelves of very many flutists. After all, more than a quarter of a millennia has passed since its creation. How relevant can a treatise be to the modern flutist if it concerns a simple wooden instrument with two keys? Hasn't music moved on? Our instruments certainly have. Yet the treatise provides an invaluable insight into the music and practices of the eighteenth century. In spite of the reference to flute in the name, this treatise is more a detailed instruction manual on Baroque style and performance practice than a primer on how to play the flute.

We have no recordings of music from this period, only the written record so we’re left with the composer’s markings to puzzle out what tempos, style and ornamentation would have been used. The metronome itself was not invented until more than 40 years after Quantz’ death. That left composers with descriptive terms like Alegro (happy tempo), Andante (walking tempo) and Moderato (moderate tempo). The shorthand of the day included symbols for ornamentation seldom seen in modern music. In fact, these ornamentations were often left out of the scores entirely, leaving it to the musician to style the music as he or she saw fit. Even grace notes of this period were executed differently than their modern counterparts. Quantz’ treatise has served as a Rosetta Stone allowing modern musicians to accurately recreate the music of the eighteenth century.

Johann Joachim Quantz died on July 12, 1773 in Potsdam, Germany.

Just Intonation

Flutes of the Baroque era typically had one key, the E♭ key. Quantz innovated flute design by adding a second key, the D♯ key. That fact may cause some head scratching among modern flutists since E♭ and D♯ are one in the same pitch. The explanation has to do with the relative frequencies of the notes within the scale. During the Eighteenth century most musicians used Just Intonation to tune their instruments. Relative pitches were based on the overtone series. The relative frequencies of the tonic and its octave were in a ratio of 1:2. The ratio of the tonic to the fifth was 2:3.  Other pitches were determined by working around the circle of fifths to fill in the blanks. As a result of assigning pitches with this method, notes landed on slightly different frequencies depending on the key in which you started the process. The pitch of an E♭ resulting from a B♭  scale would be slightly different than a D♯ resulting from an E scale. Today we use Equal Temperament to assign frequency to the notes of the scale. The octave still has a 1:2 frequency ratio. That spread is divided equally along a logarithmic scale to assign pitches to the eleven intervening notes (half steps). The result is a D♯/E♭ that is consistent from one key to the next.


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