Many of the eighteenth-century composers whose names are still familiar today came from Vienna, Europe’s cultural capital at that time. It is therefore ironic the François Devienne (1759-1803), whose last name literally translates as ‘from Vienna’ was in fact a fabulous classical composer from Joinville, France. Devienne is famous, not only as a composer, but also as a virtuoso player on both the flute and the bassoon – naturally, many of his concertos feature these two instruments. His virtuosity in conjunction with his dramatic compositional style has led some contemporary scholars to nickname him “The French Mozart.”
Little is known for certain about Devienne’s early musical life. There has been some speculation that he studied music with his elder brother in the town of Deux Ponts, but perhaps this theory is a bridge too far! The earliest detail known for certain is that, by 1779, he was playing with the Paris Opéra orchestra as the last chair bassoonist. During this period, he was also studying the flute with the orchestra’s principal flautist, Félix Rault. Devienne remained with the opera for only one year, after which he entered the service of a private patron, Cardinal de Rohan. Following his entry into the freemason fraternity, he became a member of the Concert de la Loge Olympique, a masonic orchestra led by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Many of Devienne’s early compositions received their public debut at the Concert Spirituel, one of the earliest public concert series. In 1782, Devienne appeared there as a soloist, performing a flute concerto that was likely his Flute Concerto No. 1. He went on to perform at the series at least seventeen more times, often playing virtuosic works of his own composition that featured either the flute or the bassoon.
At age 31, Devienne joined the military band of the Paris National Guard, a decision that would eventually help him transition from a struggling artist to a central figure in Parisian musical circles. In this role, he began teaching at the Free School of Music of the National Guard, an establishment for the musical education of the children of soldiers. This institution would later be renamed the National Institute of Music and eventually go on to become the Paris Conservatoire, one of the most prolific music schools in Western musical history, producing future icons like Nadia Boulanger and Claude Debussy. Devienne was amongst the Conservatoire’s original faculty and was its first Professor of Flute.
Though Devienne’s music was enthusiastically received in his own time, his status was eventually eclipsed by the Western world’s obsession with the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. It wasn’t until the 1960s that his music was revived by Jean-Pierre Rampal who succeeded in inspiring later generations of flute players to take up these wonderfully virtuosic works. The SSO is overjoyed to have its very own principal flautist, Allison Miller, rise to the challenge of Devienne’s music with a stunning performance of his most famous piece, his Flute Concerto No. 7.
While the concerto fits the standard model of three movements in a fast, slow, fast configuration, the music itself is anything but standard with its quick mood changes and fabulous demonstrations of the flute’s extensive range of capabilities. The concerto is also one of only three that Devienne wrote in the darker minor mode. The first movement loosely establishes two thematic centres, one melodramatic to the max, the other more lyrical and understated. The incredible balance that Devienne finds between these two themes keeps the listener engaged and on the edge of their seat. Movement two, while being more pastoral in temperament, still manages to have some weight to the music, augmented by Devienne’s imaginative ornamental writing and the not one but two extended cadenza sections for the soloist. The third movement is a rondo form with its repeated theme displaying a mischievous energy, interspersed by a carnival of magnificent musical colours and moods that run the gambit from idyllic to triumphant. If you’re looking for a uniquely exhilarating musical experience, Devienne’s Flute Concerto No. 7 is certain to deliver!
Written by Kieran Foss