Saturday 17 March 2018

Classical - Kuhlau: forgotten genius of the flute

March: Napolean in the BBC's War and Peace
March: Napolean in the BBC's War and Peace

George Hamilton

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace - recently serialised on BBC - offered a fascinating, if fictional, insight into how Napoleon's all-conquering march across Europe was finally halted in Moscow by a combination of native cunning and the cruel Russian winter. His undoing was celebrated, musically, in the great set-piece we know as Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

Further back in the story, there's a twist that might be deemed an example of the law of unintended consequences. Enter Friedrich Kuhlau, a musician whose name may not be altogether familiar, but the reason for that will become clear in due course.

Kuhlau was born in the north of what we now know as Germany, roughly half-way between from the cities of Hanover and Hamburg, in September 1786. Napoleon, at this stage, was just 17, a Second Lieutenant not long out of the military academy.

Kuhlau's family were army people as well. Both his father and his grandfather played in military bands. There was rudimentary instruction in the wind instruments they played, but nothing formal until he went to study piano and composition in Hamburg.

This is where the paths of Fritz Kuhlau (as he was known) and Napoleon Bonaparte coincide, for the French had taken Hamburg, and conscription would soon follow.

Kuhlau had suffered a serious injury as a child when he'd slipped on ice with a bottle in his hand, and shards of glass has pierced his right eye. But the lack of an eye in a young man in his early 20s wouldn't have been enough to put off the recruiting sergeants.

So the accomplished pianist and budding composer decamped across the border to Copenhagen, which proved to be the making of him. Within a year, he was entertaining Denmark's royal family and took Danish citizenship soon after.

Napoleon's campaign had come to its bitter conclusion, and Europe was open to Kuhlau again. With a reputation as one of Scandinavia's top pianists, he travelled extensively, taking in top musical destinations like Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna. There he was introduced to Beethoven. Kuhlau was a huge fan.

Funnily enough, fans of his own dubbed him the Beethoven of the flute - maybe because Beethoven himself wrote little for it. Kuhlau, though, was producing for the marketplace. A lucrative sideline as it turned out, for Kuhlau didn't play the flute himself.

This, in line with demand, was principally music for small ensembles - duets in particular - and it's still well regarded. A search through iTunes or any of the online sites will take you to a variety of delights.

He also wrote extensively for the piano, and there were operas, too, and incidental music for the stage. In that connection, there's the work that cemented his position at the heart of Danish life.

The Elves' Hill was a play performed to celebrate the wedding of the King of Denmark's daughter. A perennial favourite, it's still very much a part of state occasions. Kuhlau wrote the music.

He never married - he famously declared he had no time for that sort of thing - but the fact that throughout his adult life he had his impoverished parents in tow had something to do with it.

And then came two blows from which he, and his reputation, never really recovered. Both his parents died, and then his house burned down. His manuscripts - including unpublished work - were destroyed.

He had been in poor health, and the experience only exacerbated things. He died not long after, his legacy, to a large extent, lost in the flames.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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