I just ran across a post from 2009 by Fenwick Smith, former Boston Symphony Orchestra flutist and long-time professor of flute at New England Conservatory. The post is titled, Bach’s Partita for Flute Alone: The Dilemma.
In this short post, Smith discusses how the opening movement of Bach’s Partita presents a quandary to the flutist. Just imagine: the year was 1717 and Bach was writing his first piece for the newly invented transverse flute, rather than the recorder. Bach ambitiously opens the Partita with an Allemande, writing 18 measures of continuous sixteenth notes before providing the first pause for a breath. Smith then goes on to explain how we flutists, as we study the architecture and logic of Bach’s music, can eventually learn how to manage our breathing without disrupting the flow of the piece –- no mean feat, I might add!
This post reminded me of one of my earliest lessons on the Partita with my teacher and mentor, Louis Moyse, whose editions of the complete Bach Sonatas for flute, including the Partita, are published by Schirmer. My “strategy” consisted of choosing to leave out a note or two as a way to make concessions for the challenges in breathing. I recalled Louis approving of this technique in earlier lessons as I studied works by other composers.
During this particular lesson, however, Louis stopped me mid-phrase and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that my strategy of leaving out an occasional sixteenth note would not suffice for the Partita. To this day, I remember his exact words:
“One note by Bach is more important than all of the other notes by all the other composers combined!”