by Leonard Garrison, Associate Professor of Flute, The University of Idaho
Copyright©2014 by Leonard Garrison
To view my teaching video of this piece, please visit my YouTube Channel.
Henri Büsser (1872-1973) was a long-lived French composer, organist, and conductor with important connections to the nineteenth century. He studied organ with César Franck, was friends with Jules Massenet, and was chosen by Claude Debussy to conduct numerous performances of the latter’s opera Pelléas et Mélisdande. His orchestration of Debussy’s Petite Suite is widely performed. For most of his career, he taught composition at the Paris Conservatory.
He wrote many operas and much chamber music, fortunately including several delightful works for flute. Best known is his Prélude et Scherzo, a 1908 Paris Conservatory contest piece included in Louis Moyse’s popular collection of Flute Music by French Composers. His flute works include another contest piece for the Conservatory, Andalucia sur des thèmes Andalous, Op.86 in 1933, and beautiful intermediate-level pieces, the Petite Suite, Op. 12 for flute and piano (not the same as Debussy’s Petite Suite) and Deux morceaux: Les Cygnes et Les Écureuils (“The Swans and the Squirrels”), published by Leduc in 1927 that one must purchase individually.
Les Cygnes et Les Écureuils function as useful stepping stones on a student’s path to the famous French contest solos, as this little pair of pieces introduces the challenges encountered in more advanced works: beauty and flexibility of tone in all registers in Les Cygnes, and clarity of articulation and coordination between tongue and fingers in Les Écureuils. The National Flute Association difficulty rating is G.
Les Cygnes (The Swans)
Most of Les Cygnes is in A major, a key unfamiliar to many young flutists, so start by practicing this scale in two octaves. Use the right-hand ring finger (R3) for F-sharp, not the middle finger (R2). Practice not only for technical command but also for intonation. The C-sharp in the staff tends to be sharp, the E at the top of the staff flat, and the high E, F-sharp, G-sharp, and A, sharp. Avoid raising the air or pulling the corners of the lips back as you ascend. Practice also the A major arpeggio (A, C-sharp and E) in all octaves, concentrating on tuning.
Andantino is slightly faster than Andante or walking, and of course moderato is moderate speed; the composer’s suggestion of quarter=100 is a perfect tempo. There is no printed flute dynamic at the beginning, but dolce espressivo (“sweet and expressive”) suggests not too loud but with some intensity of vibrato, shaping each four-measure phrase according to the line.
Swans glide elegantly across the water, so play with a beautiful legato or connected style. The fingers must synchronize perfectly, and each finger movement should be quick and light. Another aspect of legato is direction in the airstream. Blow between the notes, making sure the air never stops or slackens. Think and move horizontally, not vertically. In music like this, one never needs to beat time. Yet another component of legato is how one uses vibrato, which needs to be continuous, independent of the individual notes. Take care not to restart the vibrato at each note change.
Follow all of the many detailed dynamic shadings. The phrase after letter A is particularly difficult because of the diminuendo to the end. Start by practicing a long-tone high A-flat at a medium dynamic. Then try this note starting forte and tapering al niente (to nothing). As you taper, keep the air fast, bring the lips together without tensing, and move the lips out and up. Once you develop control of A-flat, you can put this phrase together. Do not diminuendo too early; in fact start your diminuendo one measure after it is written.
In the next phrase, there is an A-double-flat three and five measures before letter B. A-double-flat is enharmonically equivalent to G natural. While this note might sound odd to you, it is not a misprint. It is a deliberately exotic note, so lean into or color it.
At letter B, the tempo is a little faster, about quarter=108. At the sixth bar of this section, à l’aise means “at ease” or “relax,” and en retenant peu à peu means “gradually slow down.” In the measure before letter C, start with a full tone in the low register to make room for a lovely diminuendo as you ascend while slowing.
The main theme returns at letter C, this time in the high register. Try to match your dynamic and color from the beginning, in other words, not too loud or strident. A good vowel to use is U as in “truth.”
The ending features another difficult taper on a high note. Although the flute’s last four bars are marked an octave higher at one’s choice (ad libitum), it really is more effective in the higher octave. Take a good breath before the pianissimo trilled E. Take your time on the two pickups to the last note. When playing a soft high A, put your right-hand pinky on the C-sharp key rather than the D-sharp key; the tone is clearer and easier to control.
Les Écureuils (The Squirrels)
The mood changes completely in this companion piece. To achieve the desired playfulness, perform close to the indicated tempo of 128 to the beat. This piece is in ternary or ABA form, with the staccato outer sections in D major and the legato and slower middle section in B-flat and then A-flat major.
Follow all of the details of articulation and dynamics; thus, practice slowly at first. Employ a clear but light staccato (leggero means “light”). Tongue with a D, not a T. Take particular care with the third line, which starts loudly in the low register and proceeds with softer playing in the high register.
In this style, grace notes should be played quickly and just before the beat. In meas. 7, use the trill fingering for F-sharp, the middle finger (R2). The best fingering for the high G-A-G in meas. 16 is a trill from G; to play A, add the G-sharp key (L4) and both trill keys simultaneously. Play meas. 17 in the written octave, as the ottava marking ends in meas. 16.
At letter A, Moins vif means “less brilliant” or slower. The printed tempo of 120 to the beat is not sufficiently relaxed; a more effective tempo is 104 to the beat. Play as legato as possible to contrast with the style of the first section. Since the first measure of letter A is in the low register, start a little louder than mezzoforte to set up the piano contrast in the second bar. In the fifth bar of this section, add the right hand ring finger (R3) on the final high F to correct pitch, and in the tenth bar, add the right hand middle and ring fingers (R2 and R3) to high A-flat. Cédez literally means “yield” or slow down, so ritardando gradually in the four bars before letter B.
At letter B, the original theme returns. The most difficult part of this reprise is the penultimate measure, a rapid D major scale. In beats one and two, practice in four-note groups, and subdivide beat 3 into three groups of three. For the final high F-sharp, substitute the right hand middle finger (R2) for the ring finger (R3). Practice the last two measures with the metronome, starting very slowly and only progressing to a faster tempo when consistently even and clear. My favorite method for practicing this type of passage is “beat to beat” as follows:
Good luck, or bonne chance!