Wednesday, 30 January 2019


I woke this morning to snow on the hills and Baroque flute music on the radio.  A perfect combination!

The music was one of Johann Joachim Quantz's flute concertos.  It is Quantz's birthday today.  He was born on 30 January 1697.

There's a wonderful poem by W S Graham called 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons'.   A poem about a should-be-better known composer by a should-be-better-known writer.  (Though Graham's work did get a bit of a boost last year with various birth centenary celebrations - see my post 'Listen!' 19 November 2018).

Quantz was a prolific composer and teacher (one of his pupils was King Frederick the Great of Prussia) and he wrote a manual on flute playing Essay on Playing the Flute, still well-known by flute players today.  Graham was fascinated by the book and composed his five verse poem in the voice of the composer.  When I included the poem in a course entitled Words and Music my students suggested that I write a companion poem in the voice of the pupil.

Here it is, in honour of Quantz's birthday today:

Karl’s flute lessons
After “Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons” by W S Graham

A traverse flute of boxwood and ivory –
I had to touch it with my fingers, my mouth,
discover each note’s temperament.
I worked my way through his Flute Book.
I made a dance for my aunt and uncle –
their clogs clomped along the galley kitchen
as the onions boiled on the stove.

My uncle met his father once – a thick-ribbed farrier
fettling metal till his hands were frayed.
On the barges the winter ropes are stiff as iron.
Herr Quantz was so careful about fingers.
I liked that.

“Pay me in kind”, he said, and each lesson
he would ask me for something – coal,
a bottle of bols, or, for the last lesson,
five herrings.

“When you blow, you must excite
the air in the cylinder.  Now,
let me hear you play.”

Every lesson was a surprise.
He asked me once to play barefoot
so I could feel the floorboards
bounce back the music.

“The sound you make must be so real that they can
touch it, that they will put down their wine glasses
and thirst for your playing.”

Once he played for me – one of his flute sonatas.
It was joy and laughter and dancing –
as I listened I was closer to him
than I would ever be again.

“Remember Johann”, he said. 

© Mary Robinson 2019

Search  Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons Graham and you should be able to find the complete poem (

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