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, Deux morceaux: Les Cygnes et Les Écureuils (“The Swans and the Squirrels”) and the Petite suite, Op. 12 for flute and piano (not the same as Debussy’s Petite suite).
The Petite suite, originally published by Durand in 1924, functions as a useful stepping stone on a student’s path to the famous French contest solos, as this little piece introduces the challenges encountered in more advanced works: beauty and flexibility of tone in all registers, clarity of articulation, and coordination between tongue and fingers. The National Flute Association difficulty rating is G.
The work is also available in a version for piano four hands. Its subtitle is Divertissement Watteau, a “divertissement” being a lighter and less serious piece. The French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) set scenes of Fêtes galantes or courtship parties; his paintings depict idyllic scenes of the nobility at play in the countryside. Büsser’s Suite captures this charming atmosphere.
A. En Sourdine (“Muted”)
The first movement moves at a relaxed pace: Andante poco adagio (“Walking, a little slow”); a pulse of 63 to the beat is appropriate. While the flute alternates between common time and 12/8, the piano is consistently in 12/8, so the beat is the same, and the flute plays in contrast to the piano’s triplets. For instance, in meas. 3, the flute’s second note (sixteenth-note B) should strike a little later than the piano’s third triplet. In the second half of meas. 3, the flute plays two notes against the piano’s three. To prepare for rehearsals with the pianist, practice with a metronome set on triplet subdivisions.
Büsser intended the piece also for violin and piano, and the violin puts a mute on for the entire first movement. Thus, the flute should play with a delicate sound imitating a muted violin, with less vibrato than normal.
Play a bit slower at the tranquillo, and emphasize the first note of each two-note group. Then, hasten at serrez un peu (“quicken a little”). Stretch the beat at the next tranquillo and sing out with a full sound, bien chanté. To prevent sharpness, add the right-hand ring finger (R3) to the high E-sharps in the first measure. Finger the G-sharp-to-A-sharp trill by depressing the lever and moving the left-hand middle and ring fingers (L2 and L3). The second bar of the tranquillo is an echo, so do not add R3 on the high E-sharps here. Please very expressively on the E-naturals in the third bar, as these require a different color than the previous E-sharps. The courtesy accidental in this third bar leads to confusion. The trill is actually E-natural to F-sharp; finger E and move the right-hand middle finger.
Sans presser means “without hurrying,” so play a little slower, about 56 to the beat. Subdivide for accurate rhythm. Plan breathing carefully; I breathe after the E on beat four of the first measure and after the A on beat four of the second measure.
The most difficult part of this first movement is the high B with a taper. Start this note mezzoforte to set up the diminuendo. Maintain airspeed throughout the B, feel the lower lip supporting the air like a shelf, keep the lips relaxed.
Enchaînez is the French equivalent to the more common Italian word attacca. Avoid a large break between movements the first and second movements and the third and fourth movements.
B. Valse lente (“Slow Waltz”)
A good tempo for this movement is 54 to the measure. Follow all of the subtle dynamic shadings. Büsser uses his favorite directive, bien chanté or “well sung,” three times here. Note that after the poco accelerando, a tempo slows down to the main tempo. Take a little time at ritenuto poco and even more at cédez un peu.
C. Vielle Chanson (Old Song)
Büsser has masterfully manipulated simple material to provide a world of color and contrast, so the perform needs reflect harmonic changes with tone color, vibrato, and dynamics. As très expressif is “very expressive,” use a more intense vibrato here. Pace yourself so that your loudest point is the più forte four before the Andante poco adagio.
A perfect setting for Andante is quarter=72. Listen to the piano’s thirty-second notes at Andante poco adagio; the tempo is a little slower here than in the opening.
A scherzo is a light and playful piece, and scherzetto means “little scherzo.” The tempo should be as brisk as possible without inaccurate or sloppy playing; I play at 84 to the bar. Même movement means “the same tempo,” so although the style become more legato, avoid slowing down. Cédez un peu is a little slower, and retenez un peu requires a little ritardando. At the end, push the tempo a little more to provide a brilliant finish.
Practice slowly to master the various keys the Büsser explores, especially on the last page, where the addition of G-sharp, D-sharp, and A-sharp signals B major, and the further addition of E-sharp signals F-sharp major.
Good luck, or bonne chance!