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Jean-François Beaudin: Modernising the traverso By Robert Bigio
Early flutes can sound wonderful in small rooms, but in a modern concert hall they are sometimes almost inaudible. Jean-François Beaudin found a surprising solution. Jean-François Beaudin had devoted his existence to the study of the recorder and the Baroque flute (traverso) when he had a career-changing moment: he attended a concert by one of the world’s leading traverso players but found he could barely hear him. This didn’t make sense to him: his beloved instrument, even in the hands of a master, simply did not work in a modern concert hall. What, he began to wonder, was the point in trying to play an instrument, no matter how beautifully, if the audience can’t hear it? He has found a solution. It may not be an authentic one, but then, as he points out, neither is playing into a microphone. Jean-François learned to play the recorder in Montréal, where he was taught by Jean- Pierre Pinson, a French-born musicologist at Laval University in Québec City. While he was a student at the Université de Montréal he became attracted by the playing style of Frans Brüggen and some other Dutch players, and was accepted as a student at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. There he studied with Ricardo Kanji and was accepted into the traverso class of Barthold Kuijken. He was nearly a beginner on the traverso, but Kuijken was patient with him, and although Kanji had ambitions for him as a virtuoso recorder soloist, he became more and more attracted to the flute. The Conservatoire had a musical instrument workshop and a tradition of encouraging students to make their own instruments, based on the work of Ricardo Kanji and of Bruce Haynes, who taught the Baroque oboe. There, Jean-François, who had a family background of making things, made himself few traversos and became friendly with the great Australian recorder maker Fred Morgan, who was at the time (in the late 1970s) working and studying in Amsterdam. Kanji and Morgan introduced him to Frans Brüggen’s collection of instruments, which Morgan had studied, measured and drawn—his beautiful measured drawings of the recorders were later published in Japan—and Jean-François found him a source of great inspiration. Morgan had made one traverso as a special order, a copy of a flute by the London maker Thomas Stanesby Junior in Brüggen’s collection. Jean-François borrowed Morgan’s tooling for this flute and made one for himself in the Conservatoire’s workshop. On his return to Montréal from The Hague in 1980, Jean-François set himself up as a player and teacher of the recorder. With the traverso, his recent passion, he had to convince the public as there was a strong competitor as a traverso player in Claire Guimond—who had also studied in The Hague—and, finding it difficult to get good instruments, started making his own. He made a few recorders but decided to concentrate on the traverso and travelled to Washington to examine the flutes in the Dayton C. Miller Collection in the Library of Congress. There, among many instruments (Miller collected over 1600 of them) he measured a flute made in the eighteenth century by Johann Joachim Quantz for Frederick the Great of Prussia, which Jean-François describes as the most evolved traverso of the eighteenth century. ‘Most traversos were quiet and frustrating,’ he says, ‘but the Quantz flute was louder. Not loud enough, but louder.’ There remained the problem of taking an instrument that is at its best in small, intimate performances and making it audible in a large, modern concert room. Jean-François examined dozens of instruments, in the Miller Collection and in other places, and produced his beautiful measured drawings of them, after the style of Fred Morgan. (The drawings are available on Jean-François Beaudin’s website.) And, of course, he produced copies of the flutes he had studied—beautifully- made instruments that were highly regarded by musicians. Beautiful, but simply too quiet, he felt. At the age of 28 Jean-François developed an interest in the highly-sophisticated and elaborate music of India, and it particular the Carnatic music of south India. He found himself a vocal teacher in Montreal. When that teacher moved away in 1988, he went to Madras to continue his studies and considers himself privileged to have had the virtuoso flute player T.S. Sankaran as his teacher. ‘It was hard, but great,’ he says, and he was able to attend a concert of flute playing or Bharatanatyam dance every couple of days. What surprised him the most was the power, the sheer loudness, of the Carnatic flute. On examining one carefully he discovered that it had a bore very similar to that of a modern, western Boehm- system flute. At this point it is necessary to give a quick history lesson in flute design. In Europe, the flute of the Renaissance had a simple cylindrical bore, on which it is difficult to overblow octaves in tune. There have been two basic methods of correcting this. The traverso has a bore in which the headjoint is cylindrical but the body section tapers down to the bottom of the flute (usually with a slight flare at the very end). The Boehm flute, which has been the standard instrument since the middle of the nineteenth century, has a conical headjoint and a cylindrical body. Both the traverso and the Boehm flute are conical to a degree: the traverso is blown at the wide end and the Boehm is blown at the narrow end. The Boehm flute generally plays much louder than other flutes. The Carnatic flute has a bore similar to that of the Boehm: the body section is cylindrical, the headjoint is conical and the instrument is blown at the narrow end. How, I asked Jean-François, can this be, as the flute is made from natural bamboo? ‘They choose their material carefully so it has the correct bore,’ he answered. The resulting instrument can be played very loud. ‘Maybe,’ suggests Jean-François, ‘Boehm took his idea from the Carnatic flute?’ (Most unlikely, I tell him, but it’s an interesting idea!) Studying the Carnatic flute gave Jean-François a brilliant, if rather bizarre idea: why not apply a Boehm-style (or Carnatic-style) bore to a traverso? He experimented and eventually developed what he calls his modern traverso, which has a bore similar to that of the Boehm flute (cylindrical body with a conical headjoint, blown at the narrow end), but maintains the six-holes-and-one-key design of the traditional traverso. The result is a flute that allows all the subtlety of the traverso but plays loud enough to be of use in a large, modern concert room. There is another factor in flute design that must be considered: players of traversos need them to play at a range of pitches, from A=392 (a whole tone below modern pitch, A=440) to A=415 (the standard pitch used today by many Baroque ensembles, to A=430 (the pitch adopted for much music of the Classical era), and even to A=440. In the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for a flute to have a collection of interchangeable centre joints to adjust the pitch. Jean-François recognised that flutes tend to play best at one pitch without the interchangeable joints. Jean-François Beaudin’s modern traverso can be played just like a traditional one, with basically the same fingerings and tuning, but he has not simply made a simplified Boehm flute; after much experimenting he determined the ideal bore for each pitch. His modern traverso has a different bore for each different pitch to ensure the best balance between high and low register, and he has scaled the bore for flutes pitched at A=440, A=430, A=415 and A=392. He makes his flutes with a one-piece centre joint, with a double-socket barrel to connect the headjoint to the centre joint and with a long headjoint cap similar to those on early French Baroque flutes. What of the traditional conical traverso? Does Jean-François still make those? ‘Last year,’ he says, ‘I made a copy of a Quantz flute, the first in five years, but I was shocked to re- discover at how soft it was. For me, the flute must be loud, just like a harpsichord is loud.’ He doesn’t refuse to make traditional flutes, but, quite simply, he is kept fully occupied filling orders for his modern traverso. If it had been necessary for Quantz to have a flute loud enough to play in a big hall, would he have invented something like this? ‘Absolutely! I think Quantz would have adopted a flute like this straight away.’ What next? ‘Until now I have been more a researcher and inventor than a maker involved in large production,’ says Jean-François. ‘I need to become more business-like.’ There has been some resistance to his modern traverso from many Baroque flute players, although he does have some enthusiastic devotees, such as Masahiro Arita, Colin St. Martin, Mindy Rosenfeld and, of particular interest as he is a flute maker himself, Philippe Allain-Dupré. There is a large potential market among players of folk music, who would surely appreciate the strength of the modern traverso, and there is the surprising development of new compositions for the instrument. The range of players’ testimonials on Jean-François’s website attests to the versatility of this new flute. He is proud of his invention, and justly so. Rather than calling it a modern traverso, perhaps he should abandon his modesty and call it the Beaudin flute. 
T.S. Sankaran, virtuoso player in the Carnatic tradition. (Photograph:
A Carnatic flute.
Diagrams of flute bore types (left to right): Renaissance flute (cylindrical throughout); Baroque flute or traverso (cylindrical headjoint and conical body, blown at the wide end; Boehm flute (conical headjoint and cylindrical body, blown at the narrow end).
Flutes by Jean-François Beaudin. Below: three views of a Baroque-style flute in African Blackwood (Grenadilla) with contrasting fittings in Mopane. Right: A Baroque- style flute in African Blackwood and Mopane. (Photographs by David Weigens.)
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