terça-feira, 12 de março de 2013

Marin Mersenne: Harmonie Universelle (1636) - The transverse flute and the recorder

Marin Marsenne (1555-1648) was a French born theologist, priest, philosopher, mathematician and musical theorist. He played an important role in the dissemination of the scientific and philosophical production of his time: he maintained correspondence with Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, and Torricelli (among others). His main contribution to music was a treatise titled "Harmonie Universelle" (1636), which deals with many theoretical and practical aspects of seventeenth-century music - just like a great musical encyclopedia. In this post, I will relate to the definitions of "transverse flute" and "recorder" given by the author.

Transverse flute ("Fluste d'Allemand")

The entry which deals with the transverse flute is titled "Fluste d'Allemand" (if you recall it, the transverse flute was known at that time and in the majority of European countries as "german flute" - if not, go to the post related to the flute in the Middle Ages). Mersenne gives its measures and writes about its basic technical principles: how to hold the flute and how to blow inside of it. He also provides a fingering chart for it.

But even before talking about the transverse flute, Mersenne's concern is to make it clear that the fluste d'Allemand is a completely different instrument from the "Flageollet" (written in some publications with a single "L" instead of a double one). The French version of the flageollet is very similar to the recorder: 

This is an English flageolet. Its sound is very similar to that of an Irish tin whistle. 

On the video posted above, we can hear and see a "double flageolet". Its shape resembles more closely that of an English flageolet. Its sound is somewhere between that of a recorder and an Irish tin whistle.

The precedent image can be found in Mersenne's treatise. The letters and numbers contained in it are there to help the reader to understand what Mersenne wrote: "Even if some people prefer to put this kind of flute in the same category of the Flageollet because they both have six holes to be stopped with the fingers, I chose not to do the same because the embouchure hole is not located in the A B region (as it can be observed in the flutes of the other kind), but in the I hole (...). The embouchure is achieved by placing the inferior lip by the border of that hole and pushing the air rather softly into it.". The author sustains that the embouchure needed to play the transverse flute is more difficult to learn than the embouchure needed to play the flageolet and other similar flutes.

Mersenne also talks about which materials could be used to make transverse flutes. Wood was more commonly employed, especially that of the plum and cherry trees. Ebony was also appreciated. Besides wood, glass and crystal could be used, even though more rarely. Still on the subject of the physical characteristics of the flute, Mersenne provides us with measurements for the holes' diameters, for the distance between them, and for the tube's diameter. But Ardal Powell (The Flute, 2002), sustains that some of those measurements are not accurate. The flute described by Mersenne is, supposedly, a flute in G, but the provided fingering chart seems to relate to a flute in D - and the given distance between each of the finger-holes doesn't seem to correspond with neither instrument. The same fingering chart could be used, according to its author, by those who play the fife ("Fifre"). Mersenne writes that the fifre and the transverse flute are two very similar instruments, differing only in sonority (the tone of the fifre being more piercing and lively) but not in technique.

Recorder ("Fluste d'Angleterre")

The entry which deals with the recorder is called “Fluste d’Angleterre” (“english flute"), also known as “Fluste douce” (“sweet flute”) and nine-hole flute. Its first name is due to the fact that it was first introduced in French territory by an unknown English king. Its second name was inspired by its sweet tone. The origin of its third name is rather obvious: that flute had, indeed, nine finger-holes. Today, this kind of flute is known as “flûte à bec” (“flute with a beak”) by the French.

The flute described by Mersenne could be played by right and left-handed musicians: the last finger-hole (the one located at the end of the flute’s foot joint) was doubled, making it possible for both kinds of flutists to reach it. Mersenne affirms that the recorder and the “Flageollet” had the same extension (a 15th, approximately).

This image can be found in Mersenne’s “Harmonie”. Its shows many musical instruments, most of them recorders. The letters written on the image are meant to help the reader to have a better understanding of which instrument was Mersenne talking about. The instrument pointed by a green arrow is a recorder in its more familiar shape. The blue arrows show a less known kind of recorder. According to the author, that instrument could be 7 or 8 feet long. The blue oval shows a kind of resonating chamber which hides some of the toneholes from our view. Those toneholes are stopped by the action of a key for the small finger. That key is doubled, a feature that allows right and left-handed flutists to play the instrument. Watch the following video to see and to hear this overgrown flute.

This entry mentions a very curious technique. Mersenne points out rather naturally that the natural extension of the recorder can be expanded if the flutists sings and plays at the same time, “for the wind which leaves the mouth while one sings is capable of sounding the flute, making it possible for a single man to play a Duo”. It is interesting to notice that such technique was not mentioned in the entry which deals with the transverse flute. The author mentions solely the possibility to build transverse flutes with two tubes, an invention that would allow a flutist to play a duet without the help of another musician. Maybe Mersenne hadn't met a flutist capable of applying the sing-while-playing technique to the transverse flute with equal success as it was applied to the recorder. It can be inferred that Mersenne thought that such technique could disturb the kind of embouchure needed to play the transverse flute and, therefore, it couldn't be used. Nevertheless, it is worthy of notice that in 1636 a technique that still sounds rather strange to some 21th century listeners was not a stranger to Mersenne and his contemporaries.

Principais fontes:
MERSENNE, Marin. Harmonie Universelle. Paris: 1636. Fac-símile presente em: SAINT-ARROMAN, Jean. Méthodes & Traités: Flûte à Bec - Europe 1500-1800. Vol.I. p.165-168. 3ªEd. Bressuire: Anne Fuzeau Productions, 2001.
MERSENNE, Marin. Harmonie Universelle. Paris: 1636. Fac-símile presente em: SAINT-ARROMAN, Jean. Méthodes & Traités: Flûte Traversière - France 1600-1800. Vol.I. p.7-10. 3ªEd. Bressuire: Anne Fuzeau Productions, 2001.
POWELL, Ardal. The Flute. New Heaven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.

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