Berbiguier - 11 Studies of Great Character

An Introduction To Berbiguier

11 STUDIES OF GREAT CHARACTER

by

BENOIT TRANQUILLE BERBIGUIER (1782 – 1838)

WHY STUDIES or ÉTUDES?

Historically, very much in the same way that scales have suffered a similar fate, studies are rarely considered with great affection and as such, are invariably and begrudgingly shoved to the bottom of our ‘to do’ lists. They have more often than not ended up being thought of as a punishing chore that we are obliged to endure, before we are free, or are given permission to play all those gorgeous and showy party pieces, that we can’t wait to get our hands on to explore. In a comparable way that as small children we were required to eat all of our vegetables before leaving the table, as students of the flute, we cannot go off and have endless fun, without first playing our scales and studies. An air of misery therefore hangs over us. It is all too easy to hate studies!

If it is a tragedy to arrive at the conclusion that playing scales fails to bring us great joy, it is even worse to assume that studies are just more of the same, but with a few extra tedious twists and turns thrown in.

Both scales and studies form a crucial part of our flute discipline, education and of establishing a method of learning, in the process consolidating fingers, lips and lungs, in order to steadily and consistently move forward, potentially in leaps and bounds. They are there to improve our techniques and achieve our goals with greater ease. As such, they should be welcomed and embraced with open arms.

Added to this, a study really should be considered as a supremely beneficial bridge between scales and playing or performing our pieces. Studies in themselves can be amazing building blocks.

In all fairness to those study naysayers out there, whilst there is a colossal quantity and wide variety of volumes of flute studies available to delve into, many of them can be deeply unsatisfying and lacking in motivation or inspiration.

Clearly an element of repetition is to be expected, but going around and around with the same idea or concept for five pages or more, could be deemed to be on the tedious and even downright boring side. With such high levels of repetition and the implied lack of variation, it is hardly surprising that concentration wavers.

A constructive study should be written with two key objectives in mind. 

Firstly to provide material to improve a technical issue and secondly to inspire us to consider musical line, whilst at the same time working on specific technical points. A well-constructed study should be as pleasurable to work on and perform, as those works of a similar standard, found elsewhere in our core repertoire.

I firmly believe that many of the studies of Benoit Tranquille Berbiguier happily and firmly sit in this latter category and in particular the eleven that constitute his Studies of Great Character (in French the title is “Grandes Études Caracteristiques”, which literally translated becomes “Grand Characteristic Studies”. However, I have taken the liberty of interpreting, rather than translating the title and feel that “Studies of Great Character” is a more appropriate description of what lies ahead). 

In each of these studies, the technical reason is clear to observe, but at the same time, musical progression and direction is embedded in the line throughout, making them not just a challenge to play, but also providing endless scope for musical creativity. As such, they are a pleasure to work on.

ABOUT BERBIGUIER.

Benoit Tranquille Berbiguier was born in October 1782, just under two months after Nicolai Paganini, the violin virtuoso. A gifted and talented musician, playing not only the flute, but also the violin and cello (and without lessons), he was acutely aware of the importance of harmony in music. Too often, as single line musicians, flute players are oblivious to the harmony providing the foundations supporting and consolidating a musical line. Berbiguier was well-known for his big sound, which at the time certain musicians considered to be somewhat coarse, preferring the lighter qualities of flageolet flutes or recorders.

After Napoleon’s disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, Berbiguier’s musical life was interrupted when for a time he was conscripted into the army, eventually resigning and returning to music, playing and composition in 1819.

He wrote more than 200 works, including a method for flute. In this, many of the exercises are accompanied by a bass line, encouraging students to be inquisitive about harmony. Not only did Berbiguier marry one of the best harpists of his era, but his closest friend was the well-known cellist, composer and conductor Pierre-Louis Hus-Deforges. It is easy to appreciate why he was so passionate about the importance of harmony.

There is however a sad end to Berbiguier’s life. When Hus-Deforges unexpectedly died, he was devasted. After accompanying his friend’s remains to the cemetery, he announced to those gathered: “In eight days you will come here for me.” This prediction came true. On 20th January 1838, just nine days later, Berbiguier followed him to the grave.

WHY THE 11 STUDIES OF GREAT CHARACTER?

So far, beyond the Marcel Moyse version/edition of these studies, I have found little information about the 11 STUDIES OF GREAT CHARACTER (the Moyse edition appears to be the only one currently in print). As far as I am aware, they do not feature in Berbiguier’s three part method, nor are they registered on IMSLP.

Berbiguier died before the Boehm System Flute was patented, so he was clearly writing for flutes that were very different and most probably of a lesser quality. They were infinitely more complicated to play. However, from these studies it is abundantly clear that he was absolutely aware of the weaknesses of the instruments available at the time and of the necessity for the operator to have a robust understanding as to how to overcome any inherent flaws. Lips, lungs and fingers are given athletic workouts, but at the same time there is a strong, engaging musical line, providing constant stimulation.

Apart from interesting and engaging melodic patterns, focusing on a wide variety of disciplines, from slurring in groups of two, to articulating across the beat and attention to detail when playing wide intervals, it is abundantly clear that Berbiguier wishes us to be aware of what is taking place harmonically beneath the top line. As such, each and every study provides a compelling and ultimately complete musical journey, stretching our technical abilities, whilst at the same time promoting us to grow as musicians.

The Moyse edition has to date provided me with my only reference point. I am not exactly sure as to how close these studies are to Berbiguier’s original compositions.

My edition is deliberately very different. I have attempted to encourage us to embrace natural shapes, along with the hills and valleys of musical lines, without ever needing to force sound, or overcook dynamics.

Although there are tempo markings at the head of each study, by playing slowly to start with, we can truly delve into the detail to be found within and in particular with regards to wide intervals, have a clear idea as to the physical demands.

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