Mr Braun, could you first tell us a bit about your life and your family history?
Certainly. I'll try and keep it brief. I was born in 1941 in Timişoara/Romania. This city, whose population has long included a large proportion of people of German origin, has had a chequered history. It belongs to Banat (in Austria/Hungary), where from the 18th to the 19th centuries many German farmers and craftsmen settled in several waves. Ever since the new border was set as a result of the First World War, i.e. as from 1920, it has belonged to Romania.
Our 'Anton Braun' workshop was founded in 1896 by my grandfather, the violin maker Anton Braun senior, who had learnt violin-making from his father Johann Braun in Szeged. Because at that time violin makers unfortunately received relatively few orders for new, high-quality violins, my grandfather began making various wind instruments in his workshop. Upon my grandfather's death in 1928 my father, Anton Michael Braun, took over the business and expanded the repair and instrument-building workshop, so that by 1944 he had about 30 employees. It was a heavy blow when towards the end of the war our business was plundered and devastated by Soviet troops. Between 1945 and 1958, i.e. during my childhood and education, my father continued to manage the business as a small workshop with only 2-3 employees, specialising in saxophone building. In 1958 private workshops were banned, and we converted into a state business. Within a few years under state auspices our workshop had grown, reaching a level of about 70 employees. In 1973 my father retired, passing management on to me. At this time I had been working in my father's business for many years and was a qualified instrument designer with a diploma in mechanical engineering. As I could see no future for myself in Romania, in 1977 I fled across the 'green border', which was patrolled by guards with orders to shoot, then through Yugoslavia
and towards Germany. To be precise, I fled across the 'blue border'. One icy night in October, under a full moon, the time was ripe. There is a river that flows from Timişoara across the Yugoslavian border. I covered the first few kilometres of no man's land on an airbed, protected by the shoreline vegetation. I had to do the final crucial kilometres under water, using a special home-made oxygen breathing apparatus that allowed a long dive without any telltale air bubbles on the water's surface.
With the aid of UNHCR I eventually ended up in Frankfurt, and settled in Egelsbach. In Frankfurt an ERP loan allowed me to take over a music shop, where I sold and repaired wind instruments.
You told me that you play clarinet and saxophone, and that you grew up building saxophones. How did you come to build flutes and piccolos?
In my Frankfurt shop/repair workshop I sought out every opportunity to gather experience with flutes and piccolos, as I was hatching a plan to make my own instruments. I had already considered how the dream of having my own woodwind-instrument production could best be realised, and decided to devote my efforts to the piccolo. There were two reasons. Firstly, I had no capital and I still had part of a loan to pay back. The smaller the instrument, the smaller the tools you need and the less workshop space you require. Secondly, piccolo players had approached me, saying I ought to start on the piccolo, as it was actually more problematic for flautists than the concert flute.
In 1984 my rental contract for the music shop expired and was not extended. The building was to be demolished.
I then again took a leap into the unknown. The plan was to stop selling instruments and just build new ones, and I realised it in Egelsbach.
I still remember your small stand at the 1985 Frankfurt Trade Fair, where you exhibited your first piccolo. The new Braun piccolo immediately convinced the experts. From then on your piccolos had the reputation of being amongst the best in the world. From nought to a hundred – how was that possible?
What happened, in detail, was that I built my first piccolo for Michael Hasel (then still a member of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra). He was convinced by it. He had just successfully auditioned for the Berlin Philharmonic. At this time the Berlin orchestra, still under Karajan, used a very high pitch (A = 445 Hz), which he could hardly manage on his old piccolo. So he commissioned me with building him a piccolo that was if possible to have at least the same qualities and be easily playable at the high pitch. I realised this was a big opportunity, though at the same time also a big responsibility, and I accepted the commission and started work, but I told him that during the genesis of the piccolo I would not simply make a 'high version' of the instrument but would undertake changes. He was very open about this, and said I should by all means do so, and that the main thing was that it should play well and be usable at high pitch. I thus built my first piccolo.
Michael Hasel and his then teacher and friend Willi Schmidt, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra's former first flute, visited me often and tested the instrument exhaustively. Michael Hasel played a lot of difficult passages from the piccolo literature and tested response, tone and intonation, and Willi Schmidt listened attentively and made suggestions. And time and again extreme pianissimi in the top register – that nearly drove me mad! I worked on the piccolo and made corrections until they were satisfied. It was ready in time, and Michael Hasel used the instrument – Piccolo No. 1 – for the Berlin Philharmonic's 1984 New Year's concert.
Word got around in Frankfurt flute circles, and I immediately received four orders all at once: three piccolos for the Frankfurt Opera and one for Thaddeus Watson - Michael Hasel's successor in the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.
After three months Piccolo No. 2 was ready, and on display at the Frankfurt Trade Fair.
The branch manager of my bank incidentally talked me into applying for an (expensive) patent for Germany and the USA - at that stage I'd never considered making any further investments.
The most striking external feature of your piccolo is the thumb key. How did you hit on the idea?
Before I built my first piccolo I had already done a lot of work on the Boehm piccolo. With the piccolo, just as with the Boehm flute, the most important task was to replace the two tone holes for the B thumb key with a single tone hole. Theobald Boehm had himself taken this same step in switching from the conical ring-key flute (double tone hole for the B thumb key) of 1832 to the cylindrical Boehm flute (single tone hole) of 1847. The piccolo with two tone holes for the thumb key has basically remained a miniaturised (conical) Boehm flute of the 1832 type. A new scale with a single tone hole for the thumb key promised to rectify the acoustic inadequacy of g-sharp3 associated with the double hole and simultaneously render a high g-sharp mechanism superfluous.
To illustrate this I need to go into somewhat greater detail. The fingering for the third octave is based on one tone hole always being open at the right place as a vent, in order to create or stabilise a wave node. With some notes the design makes this impossible, and two tone holes have to be opened – one in the correct position and the other in the wrong position. The result is that such notes do not speak easily and tend to be less stable than other notes. This affects e3 in flutes without an e-mechanism, and f-sharp3 and g-sharp3 in all concert flutes and piccolos. With g-sharp3 on the Boehm piccolo three tone holes (the thumb key with its two tone holes and the key for the left index finger) are in fact open instead of a single hole, causing considerable response problems. A partial remedy for this problem has hitherto been provided by the high g-sharp mechanism, whereby the g-sharp key is linked to the thumb key in such a way that the thumb key with its two tone holes is half-closed for high g-sharp. This is ultimately just a makeshift solution, as adjustment is difficult and the mechanism endangers c4, for which the thumb key has to be open. My piccolo has a Briccialdi thumb key with a single tone hole, thereby rectifying the acoustic inadequacies of g-sharp3.
It's said that most 'inventions' have already existed at some stage. Are you aware of any historic model for the single tone hole under the thumb key?
Because a patent application is extremely expensive I first carried out some very extensive research. I then submitted my patent claim and simultaneously also paid the patent offices in Germany and the USA to thoroughly research the matter again. As it transpired that my invention is patentable, I was granted a patent by Germany and the USA.
This idea or wish has existed since Theobald Boehm, who built the concert flute with one thumb tone hole, but an idea is not a patent. Only a feasible solution or execution can be patented.
Do you have any idea why in the 150 years of the history of the Boehm flute this concept was not realised by any other maker?
Maybe there were attempts. It is after all not a problem to drill one large hole instead of two small ones, but in practice it transpired that changing the thumb hole messed up the intonation in the left-hand area. That was the main problem I had to resolve. Through a mixture of new calculations and trial and error I succeeded in finding a solution that met the tough requirements. But the new key is only an external factor. The more important development is invisible.
Pre-war German flautists played with a very tight embouchure, in line with that period's tastes in orchestral sound. To put it bluntly they used the Prussian-style embouchure, which stretched from ear to ear and was known as the 'frog's mouth' embouchure. A somewhat looser embouchure emanating from France, with its more relaxed lifestyle, then became the norm. To put it simply, this embouchure was similar to that used for whistling. (I beg the professors of flute to excuse my unprofessional explanation of the embouchure!) This changed embouchure has a noticeable effect on the flow characteristics of the airstream, and thus on the instrument's intonation. My piccolo was conceived for this relaxed embouchure, and it allows a contemporary, colourful playing style. I find this the far more important innovation.
How do you test your instruments? Can you play the flute and piccolo so well that you can test them yourself, or are you totally reliant on the assistance of flautists?
I used to play clarinet and saxophone, and I do play the flute a little, but not to professional level. With my first piccolo I was arrogant enough to adjust the intonation myself using a tuning machine. I was really happy to have got the instrument so well in tune, but then came the rude awakening! Though it sounded fine in the workshop, together with the other orchestral woodwinds it turned out to be dreadful. Since then I have never again attempted to assess intonation myself and base designs on such assessments. I have instead based both intonation and tone on the wishes of the professionals. At the end of the day it is they who have to be happy with the piccolo and use it for their tough job. So whilst I can test whether the piccolo works, I cannot assess whether it is in tune. For this very reason, and so I don't lose any sleep, I have developed very special and exact devices and tools with which I can reproduce the perfected scale and intonation with 100% precision and reliability.
In 1993 you added wooden concert flutes to your range. What is it that is so special about your wooden flutes?
My wooden flutes are also the result of many years of development work. My starting point was as follows. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the orchestral sound, and thus also the sound of woodwind instruments, gradually became more brilliant, in line with contemporary tastes. Later, orchestral pitch also rose. The clarinets and oboes sounded more brilliant, but the wooden flutes were unable to keep up with this development, and thus had to be replaced by metal flutes. I have had contact with flautists of the older generation. Many of them were unhappy about no longer being able to play their wooden flutes in orchestras, but an old-style wooden flute is not suited to the modern orchestral sound. Whilst it mixes fairly well with the other woodwinds, it is unable to take over a line from other woodwind instruments and dominate on that line. I sought to resolve this problem with my wooden flute. My objective was for it to blend well with the woodwind sound and yet stand out and, if necessary, dominate. I designed and realised the instrument with this aim in mind. My wooden flute is thin-walled and as light as a solid-silver flute. It also proved important for the (patented) lip-plate chimney to be made of gold, so as to create the requisite brilliance. Flautists cannot create brilliance - they can merely utilise (existing) brilliance. My food friend Rolf Bissinger, flautist and principal piccolo at the Frankfurt Opera, was a great help in this development work.
As with the piccolo, one of my first wooden flutes went to Michael Hasel of the Berlin Philharmonic. At the behest of the then chief conductor Claudio Abbado the entire Berlin Philharmonic flute section subsequently bought wooden flutes from me, after which a big fashion for wooden flutes kicked off. Flautists got their old wooden flutes out of cupboards and drawers and took them in to play in the orchestra. Thanks to modern microphones and recording technology these old wooden flutes sounded good in TV and radio broadcasts, but in concert performances the old, already forgotten problems of wooden flutes once again came to the fore, and this greatly damaged the reputation of the wooden flute. My wooden flutes were tarred with the same brush as for the old wooden flutes that had been retrieved from storage.
In February 1993, i.e. shortly after I went onto the market with the wooden flute, as part its 'Forum for New Music' Hessen Radio in Frankfurt broadcast a performance of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen's work 'Lucifer's Dance'. Stockhausen noticed that Vladislav Brunner, then principal flute of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, had taken out his (Braun) wooden flute. Stockhausen at first expressed great surprise that Brunner wanted to play his new music on a wooden flute. And no wonder - the wooden flutes Stockhausen had experienced were old-style instruments. Mr Brunner apologised and got out his gold flute, but Stockhausen had become curious. So he could decide which flute should be used for the concert, Stockhausen had Mr Brunner play to him on both flutes in succession. On the basis of this comparison Stockhausen unwaveringly decided on the wooden flute, and he was so taken by the sound that after the concert he presented Mr Brunner with a personally dedicated composition - a work for solo flute entitled 'In Friendship' (Opus 46 1/2).
By way of a further example, in 1994 the conductor Yehudi Menuhin (who as a violinist had personally witnessed the decline of the wooden flute) approached Vladislav Brunner, who was playing first flute with the orchestra 'Solistes Européens Luxembourg', expressing his great surprise that the wooden flute came through so well against the horns.
Is it correct that you have actually turned down orders for wooden flutes?
If during initial discussions I have noticed that someone has false expectations of the wooden flute, e.g. they only want to use it for Mozart or Bach and not for modern works, I have made an effort to clarify the situation. In extreme cases I have turned orders down, because I don't work for money alone. It is not a good idea to only get a wooden instrument out occasionally and then play it intensively. No oboist or clarinettist would be stupid enough to let their instrument dry out and then only take it out now and again and let rip on it. If the instrument is subjected to such treatment the wood may warp, and at worst it might crack.
I am not motivated to lavish great care on building a high-quality instrument if I know the owner will not value it, has false expectations and ignores the instrument's actual tonal advantages. My wooden flute does not sound wooden! To completely dispel this myth, on our website I list the discography of pieces played on my flute.
A further problem is the need to get used to the wooden flute, which has a different overtone composition to that of the metal flute and does not create the volume of the metal flute in the ear of the player. The sound of the wooden flute carries better, and as with a good violin it only fully develops at some distance - a factor that has made many flautists uncertain when first using the wooden flute in the orchestra. They have been afraid of not being heard. This has prevented many flautists from switching to a modern wooden flute. It was a similar situation with the gold lip-plate chimney. Close up, the gold creates a slightly metallic edge, but this component of the sound does not carry, and is not heard at a distance. It instead serves to give the sound certain frequencies/overtones that ensure that the wooden flute's timbre stands out better against the other instruments.
In 2008 I ceased serial production of wooden concert flutes, and now only make one-off instruments.
A few years ago what was originally a one-man business turned into a two-person business.
That's correct. My daughter Antonia Eva has been working with me in the workshop since 1988. She has so to speak grown up with this profession.
Even as a small child she played in my workshop, and she later started helping with the work. So she has grown up with music and has had a musical education: piano, voice and flute. In 2001 she graduated as a woodwind-instrument maker from the College of Instrument Making in Ludwigsburg, and one day she wants to lead the company forward into the fifth generation.
The move to your new workshop took a while, didn't it?
Yes, but it was absolutely vital. Our workshop used to be divided between the cellar and other rooms in our house, and we sometimes worked in the living room. So I had a two-storey extension built onto the house. The move took a long time, as we were unable to interrupt the instrument making for long, but in autumn 2009 we did it. The office and precision work is carried out downstairs, and the preparatory work such as woodwork, turning, milling and polishing is done upstairs.
Looking back on everything, I'm very grateful to fate for the fact that I've ended up here in Germany, at the centre of the classical-music world, and for the fact that I've been able to develop my instruments in collaboration with excellent flautists and in accordance with contemporary tastes in sound.
Mr Braun, thank you very much for the conversation.
Further information is to be found on the website (also created by Anton Braun himself):www.braunflutes.com
Press Interview from "Flöte aktuell" 1/2010 - the magazine of the German Flute Society
*William Sleath - flautist & translator
Cornwall TR26 1BW
Tel +44 1736 799374
Mob +44 7946 515 538
- • Will Sleath is a professional flautist with wide
experience of performance in orchestras, chamber ensembles and shows, and as a soloist. He has a duo
with pianist Tim Carey, and his special interests include traverso and ethnic flutes.
- • Will has also worked as a Swedish-English and
German-English translator for the past ten years, focusing on musical topics, as well texts in the fields of medicine, pharmacy, telecom and IT.
Copyright:© 2010-2017 A. Braun. All rights reserved.