Rudolf Tillmetz (1847 - 1915), flute player and composer.
Possibly, if you are a German flute player you are entirely familiar with the name Rudolf Tillmetz. However if, like me, you are British, it’s less likely that this influential flute player will be known to you.
As a young student in the late 1960’s, I listened to my teacher’s careful explanation of the difference between French and German embouchures, but, and I never thought about it at the time, she didn't tell me anything about the German players, she only extolled the work of Moyse and other influential French flautists. Now, carrying out some research, I find that Rudolf Tillmetz (not to be confused with the painter of the same name) was one of Germany’s most important flute players. Born in Munich on 1st April 1847, he showed an early aptitude for music, which was which rewarded by lessons with the best teachers: piano lessons with Franz Barraga, author of the book ‘ Music is Knowledge’ and flute lessons with Theobald Boehm whose influence on Tillmetz was to be seminal.
He became a fine pianist, but under Boehm’s tutorship, Tillmetz made prodigious progress with the flute and, just eleven years old, in 1858, made his debut performance. He completed his studies in 1864, at the age of seventeen, and immediately attained an apprentice position in the prestigious Bavarian Royal Hoforchester [now known as the Bavarian State orchestra]. Incidentally it was the same year that a horn player in the orchestra celebrated the birth of a new son, named Richard Strauss. After three years Tillmetz got the Principal’s chair and continued in that position for most of his career.
He also taught at the Royal Bavarian Military Academy [Cadet Corps], and subsequently at the Royal School of Music [Königlichen Musikschule] before ultimately being made Professor of flute at the Academy of Music in Munich. His influence on students and players alike was so strong that he became known as the founder of the Munich School of flute playing. His choice of flute, in part attributable to Richard Wagner, was to have an especially significant impact:
Tillmetz recalled that ‘ For many years I played an old system flute but, on the advice of my great teacher, Theobald Boehm, I swapped to his new make of flute.’ In fact according to the 1876-1879 accounts book of Boehm & Mendler, Tillmetz bought several cylinder flutes:
• Cocus wood flute with C foot, gold springs and octave key (September 18, 1876)
• Grenadilla flute with C foot, gold springs, octave key, normal pitch (Autumn, 1878)
• Cocus wood flute Nr. 2, with coil springs (11 April 1879).
Critics had complained that these cylindrical flutes were too noisy and made unattractive, out-of-tune, whistle-like tones in the 3rd octave, but Tillmetz remained a staunch supporter of them until he was forced to give way in the face of a powerful aversion. He recalled that ‘ For nearly twenty years I played the cylindrical flute in the Royal Hoforchester in Munich, strongly defending it in the face of all opposition. However’, continued Tillmetz, ‘during the course of my 33 years as an orchestral player and soloist, I was forced to admit through experience that the various objections to the Cylindrical flute were to a large extent justified.’
The particular ‘experience’ to which he referred occurred in 1882 when Tillmetz and many other members of the Hoforchester were engaged to play in nearby Bayreuth for the premiere of Wagner’s opera Parsifal. As is well known, Wagner had a detailed regard for texture that required highly specific sounds from the instruments deployed in his scores - and these sounds definitely did not include the cylindrical flute. Wagner referred to them as ‘cannons’ or Gewaltröhren [trans: violence pipes] and thought that their trumpet-like quality left too little opportunity for the player to explore tone colour. Wagner preferred the tone of the older, slimmer, sweeter flutes and it was this conviction that finally convinced Tillmetz to change to a ring-keyed flute. Tillmetz noted in his memoires of the Parsifal performance that ‘as a consequence of this and with advice from Hermann Levi, the Royal General Director of Music, I decided to convert to the conically bored ring-keyed flute, a decision that I have never regretted’.
Tillmetz chose a flute made by J. M. Bürger in Strassburg [an instrument now on display in the Deutsches Museum] and wrote of it that ‘ owing to the fact that the holes are stopped direct with the fingers, I found that I could master the techniques of the instrument with the greatest ease and security, and without the unpleasant noise produced by the keys. Trills sounded more elegant. Staccato was produced cleanly with the minimum of effort. But the thing that charmed me most was its mellow tone, its responsiveness and the opportunities for colour throughout the range. Another thing I noticed was that the ring-keyed flute, as a consequence of the conical bore, made far less demands on the breath, and that the mechanism requires repairs much less often.’
Soon Tillmetz had convinced his colleagues also to play on conical ring-keyed flutes, starting a tradition in the Hoforchester that lasted well into the twentieth century.
Tillmetz was an exceptional flute player, especially famed for his interpretations of Baroque and Classical music. Together with his colleagues Franz Strauss (horn) and Ernst Reichenbacher (oboe), he established a chamber music organisation which lead to his appointment as Royal Bavarian Chamber Musician and he was awarded the Royal Ludwig Medal for Science and Art.
Tillmetz composed many works including a lovely piece for flute, horn and piano. He in turn had a concerto written for him by the gold medal winning flute player and composer, Julius Manigold. Tillmetz is a most interesting composer and evidence of the influence of modern Romantics like Wagner is noticeable in his work. Observe how at the opening of Es will das Abend werden [Soon Night will fall] the tonic chord of F sharp minor is followed immediately by chromatically falling thirds over a pedal F sharp that prepare the way for an enharmonic slide into E flat minor before the music continues along its twilight route of 7th chords to reach a bright patch of F sharp major at bar 9. But this ray of sunshine lasts for only half a bar before the tonic minor key returns and the music drifts on through the gloaming with more chromatic steps. The music is well written for both instruments and pianists will enjoy their impassioned solo bars from 55 - 59. The work was first published in 1906 and is dedicated to the painter Hans Bertle who provided the illustration for the front cover.
Tillmetz was an enthusiastic teacher who recognised the ‘ lack of a German Method for the Boehm flute and felt compelled to write one’ although in its introduction, he notes rather wryly that Emil Prill apparently had also been engaged in writing one at the same time - another case of waiting years for a bus and then two come along at the same time! In any case, the result of Tillmetz’ efforts is an excellent, if somewhat lengthily entitled Method for learning to play the Theobald Boehm cylindrically-bored and ring-keyed flute [op.30,1890]. As well as being a progressive workbook, it also gives many work-arounds, playing techniques and advice for fingerings such as for the famous rapid passage in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, and clearly is based on his own experiences as a player. Reading the book, I felt it could well have been entitled ‘A practical guide for the orchestral flute player’. The technique for flutter tonguing is described, with Tillmetz writing that it ‘has only quite recently been employed by composers in orchestral works’. He emphasises the point that rr~~~~~~~~~~ must not be interpreted as a trill but must instead be performed by rolling the tongue and adds a fairly difficult flutter tonguing study. I was interested to see that many of the studies start on or employ low B which was available on open G sharp instruments at that time. Especially interesting was to find the answer to a question that I had posed a year or so earlier in an article about R.S. Pratten regarding a bar of apparent ‘double stopping’ for the flute player in Marie Stuart. Tillmetz book demonstrates that the lowest note would have been performed as an acciacatura before the upper note - mystery solved!
Tillmetz died in Munich 100 years ago on January 27, 1915.
(thanks to the Deutches Museum and Di Lorenzo for some of the information contained in this article)