Program highlight – Don’t miss Franz Doppler: Flute Virtuoso, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Doppler, flute virtuoso and composer on Saturday 16 October at 1pm with presenter Nina Fudala.
Paul Cooke appraises Franz Doppler.
“Jimmy ‘lit a bonfire’ with his superb playing … playing that embraces all the elements of the greatest artistry.” But not even James Galway (thus described by an LSO colleague in the 1960s) was able to rescue the reputation of Franz Doppler, born 200 years ago this month. A New York Times review of a Galway concert in 1984 said that Doppler’s Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy ‘sank under its burden of sentimentality and pointless ornateness’; similarly, in 1997 the Irish Times wrote of Doppler’s Airs Valaques as a showpiece ‘where effect is all and substance nothing’.
Has Doppler (some of whose compositions were written with his younger brother Karl) been ill-served by posterity and changing fashion? Contrast those scathing reviews with this contemporary (1855) appraisal by the musicologist Eduard Hanslick of the Fantasy and Variations on Verdi’s Rigoletto: “…all this art of the double staccato, series of thrills and interval leaps, these two brothers play them with such purity, serenity and steadiness that the greatest sworn enemy of the flute would be unable to deny his keenest interest.”
Born in Lemberg, in the Austrian Empire (now Lviv, over the border from Poland in western Ukraine), Doppler made his debut as a flautist at the age of 13. A few years later he had moved to Pest, where he played in theatre orchestras.
He also turned his hand to composition, writing a number of operas which were staged at the Hungarian National Theatre. They were informed by Italian composers such as Donizetti but also included other influences, from Russian in Benyoszky to Polish in Wanda.
Many Romantic composers were preoccupied by opera — and here the young Doppler conformed — but they were also focused on writing for the piano, while spurning certain other instruments. For an accomplished flautist, therefore, the more rewarding path was to follow the violinist Paganini’s example and compose pieces that could form the backbone of recitals and concerts. In Doppler’s case these compositions reflected popular tastes of the mid to late 19th century and were typically based on existing folk and operatic melodies.
It made good sense to revisit The Barber of Seville and Rigoletto: Rossini had become the most popular composer – ever – of music for the stage, and Verdi was his obvious successor. Along with Liszt and Brahms, Doppler was also in the vanguard in engaging with ethnic music. His Airs Valaques takes its inspiration from music of the principality of Wallachia (in modern Romania). The Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy uses folk melodies, rhythms, and structures; while shepherd pipes were part of Hungarian folk heritage, transverse flutes were not, and it was Doppler who employed them in the verbunkos form based on slow (lassú) and fast (friss) movements.
Doppler was not quite content to rest on his laurels. He wrote another opera, Judith, together with a number of ballets which were popular in their time. He also composed a concerto for two flutes and orchestra, more serious in intent and owing much to the early Romantics. But his enduring legacy was to show the musical world that here was an instrument capable both of technical virtuosity and of nuances of tone and expression – a challenge taken up by Paul Taffanel and the French Flute School of the 1890s, resulting in an increasing prominence of the flute in substantial orchestral and chamber music.