Interview with flutist Benedek Csalog

by Laura Chislett

Have you ever sat on a plane for nearly 8 hours then got back on board for another 13 hours? That’s how long it took me to get from Sydney to Rome via Singapore. After that investment of time Australians usually stay for a longish period at their destination before having to do the whole trip again in reverse. I spent four wonderful weeks in Europe last August and September: there were friends to visit who I hadn’t seen in a long time, the statue of Marcus Aurelias to see in Rome, a Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage to do, and the opportunity to interact with some wonderful flute players through the interviews. 

The foundational idea for the series of interviews was to investigate the diversity of roles and careers which independent and creative musicians are making for themselves at the moment in varying societal conditions. 

The interviews are not scholarly in style. They were recorded in cafés in a very relaxed and conversational way. Essentially they are conversations rather than interviews. The order in which they are going to be published reflects the trajectory of my travel around Europe, and then my arrival back home in Sydney.

A big heart-felt thank you to each of the interviewees. You are inspirational.

Laura Chislett

Hungarian early music specialist, Benedek Csalog, is one of the leading players of the baroque flute. Benedek has held masterclasses in Japan, Brazil, and in many European capitals. He’s been a guest professor at various European institutions and has held teaching positions at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Leipzig, and the Bydgoszcz Academy of Music in Poland. He participated in three international early music competitions, and won all of them.

Benedek has recorded 12 CDs as soloist including the Complete Flute Sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (on the ‘Ramée’ label). He has also made numerous other chamber music recordings such as the complete harpsichord concertos of C.P.E. Bach as a member of the Concerto Armonico ensemble (for BIS).

In collaboration with French flute player, Alexis Kossenko, Benedek Csalog has co-developed The Quantz Project, with the aim of recording the whole catalogue of J.J. Quantz’s compositions (about 300 flute concertos, and 200 sonatas):

Interview with Benedek Csalog, 14 September 2022, Budapest

Laura Chislett: What do you see as the role of the creative independent flute player in society at the moment?

Benedek Csalog: My case is very specific. In Hungary most musicians are employed in orchestras or in music schools. So if you are not employed that way you are not regarded as a serious musician, especially when you make your money through something else. I never had the need to earn money with music. I did it: I taught at the Leipzig Conservatory for 17 years, and I did many recordings as a session musician and for ad hoc concerts, but I really hated that type of situation. In Germany it’s a very hierarchical system so either you are a so-called professor, or you are in a lesser category with a very small salary. If you are a professor, it’s paradise. I did as good a job as my colleagues, the professors, in terms of my students getting good results, and I had as many students as they had, but I was paid much less. In Hungary it’s even more like this: maybe there are more possibilities to get a job in a music school but you have no chance to survive with the sort of money that you earn. It’s very badly paid here. But then you are a serious musician doing that…

Benedek Csalog (traversflöjt) & Orpheus Baroque Stockholm

Now I’m doing many things: I teach and I do concerts. I don’t have to do a performance every day with a so-called “baroque orchestra” or a session gig. I really refused that. I prefer to be free. Here that isn’t seen as something positive. It’s more like a negative. On the other hand, when you make music with early instruments, with baroque instruments, you have fewer possibilities than the instrumentalists who have a traditional education and play in orchestras. The Baroque orchestra is a sort of alternate scene, but still there is a hierarchy. For instance, there’s a Baroque orchestra here where everyone can play and make good money. Everyone wants to do that if they are good enough and if they are a good friend of the conductor. I don’t feel like trying to get there. Then it’s difficult. There are some other colleagues of mine who live in Hungary but go abroad to make money and travel back to be with their family. Near me there is a very good violinist, a lady who has all her concerts abroad in Italy with different orchestras and chamber music groups and when the project is finished, she comes back to enjoy her life in Hungary. So it’s like this, but I’m happy with my life.

LC: It sounds as though you’ve made it work for you.

BC: Yes, and you know if I were employed by an orchestra, I would not have time for my own projects or to practice for my special projects. Teachers like my wife, she’s a flute teacher, she’s happy when she has a little time per day and the energy to practice. It’s not easy, but on my free day I do what I want. At the moment I’m working on this Quantz project which needs a lot of work and money so I have to make that money with other things. 

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773)
(unknown 18th-century artist)

LC: Is there a government or institutional support in Hungary for independent projects like you are doing?

BC: Yes, there’s one fund where you can apply for money for your projects. I would say that if you are a serious musician and good enough you can get some funding, but only for a part of the budget, and it takes at least half a year between applying and receiving the money. And you must decide on which day and where and what you will be playing and with whom. You must promise that you will have income from ticket sales. In most cases this isn’t possible as you can’t charge a lot for tickets here. So then people just make a sort of fictive plan knowing that it will surely be something different. The commission giving the money knows this. Of course there are less official ways to get money but for that you have to be a good friend of someone in the know, or you have to have good connections to someone in politics. It’s really like this. This is a small country. Budapest has about 2 million people and everything is concentrated here. There are some other towns in the countryside but with much smaller music scenes. We can say that Budapest is really the centre of everything. it’s not like Germany which is much more decentralized, it’s unfortunately not like that.

LC: Can you compare the situation now for musicians in Hungary regarding working conditions and funding with conditions in time of JJ Quantz?

BC: I can because I have totally different values and different needs compared to others, so I’m used to almost starving. My situation is really special (Ed. laughs). 

LC: So, because you are independent you have the possibility to choose how you’ll involve yourself with music, whereas Quantz was locked into his employment and he therefore had very little choice regarding his lifestyle?

BC: Yes, but it was his choice. Before Berlin he was employed at the Court in Dresden which was a much more open society where he would have had much more contact with the world at large. He was employed there, he received a salary, but he was a free man. At that time musicians had no chance to do it differently, so Quantz’s job was basically the same in Berlin and Dresden, but in Dresden he was allowed to publish his works, and he was allowed to play outside of the orchestra. He visited Paris, and London, he met Alessandro Scarlatti in Italy, so he had some personal freedom. Then he went to Berlin, to be the court composer and the private teacher of Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia. He wasn’t permitted to publish the works which he wrote for Frederick the Great. An average of three handwritten copies of all his concerto and sonata manuscripts were made by the court copyists, then they were delivered to archives in various locations in Berlin and its surrounds, and when Frederick the Great turned up he could pick up a nice piece and play it if he felt like it. But those pieces were not published. No-one else made copies of them, or very rarely.

Fortunately almost all of his works are very well preserved so most of his sonatas can be found in the handwritten copies, but Quantz’s original scores are lost. That was quite common. Once the copies were made the original was thrown away as it had no value anymore because you couldn’t play from it: the handwriting was messy, and it was up to the copyist to make a fair copy from which it would be possible to sight read. But it was Quantz’s choice. He had a very good salary there. He was famous. People knew that he existed. This gives me encouragement: okay Quantz was a nice composer and especially important for me because he was a flute composer, but there was another composer at the Court much better than Quantz, and that was CPE Bach, and he wasn’t even employed as a composer but as a harpsichord accompanist. He was the greatest composer and the greatest keyboard player in Europe at that time. He was internationally recognized: everybody knew about him but only a few people had heard him play, and in that way he became world famous, because people came to Berlin and to Hamburg to hear him. For example, the great English traveler/musicologist, Charles Burney¹: he was travelling through Europe to hear all the important musicians and he went to Hamburg to meet CPE Bach. However, CPE Bach tired of his situation in Berlin after a while and he escaped to Hamburg where he was able to publish some works for the free world. If it was okay for them, then it must be okay for me too.

LC: I can see certain parallels between what you are describing and the situation that some musicians are in now, having to do jobs that are not fulfilling in order to be able to pay the bills.

BC: One of the most famous musicians who was not in tenured employment, who was freelance in other words, was Mozart. He made his money with piano lessons, and he knew he wasn’t a piano teacher. Perhaps there were others before him, but he is the first famous one. He was always complaining about his very precarious financial situation. He wasn’t as poor as you might think. This is just legend, but he didn’t feel really safe or supported.

LC: Do you have a favourite composition by Quantz?

BC: I have one, but it’s not the very well-known flute concerto in G major. Everyone plays it. By the way, it’s a great concerto and I really love it, but a lot of the other concertos are really great too. Quantz composed ca. 300 flute concertos and many of them are really excellent. I would mention a little piece called ‘Adagio’ in C major which is in his flute treatise. It’s to demonstrate how to play appoggiaturas, grace notes, and to play ornaments and Quantz has added a lot of instructions about the correct performance. Regarding each note you can find specific remarks in his treatise. But that’s not the interesting part. The music is beautiful. It’s really fantastic. I love it. It’s very touching, very simple, but also very well composed music. By the way it has a lot of similarities to the Sonata in E major by JS Bach, the first movement, and maybe that isn’t just chance, because it was more or less composed in the same year that JS Bach visited Frederick the Great in Potsdam. Maybe Bach already knew that piece: perhaps it was published before, perhaps CPE Bach who was a very close colleague of Quantz had sent a copy to his father, then he was sort of trying to make a flute sonata in the same style. Something like this because there are very strong similarities. But it’s a beautiful piece. I just recorded it for my project and I’ve already uploaded it, so you can listen to it. It shows something that I was always convinced of, that Quantz was an inspired composer and not just a sort of dry ascetic formulaic composer. Many flutists are convinced of this, it’s a sort of legend. I think he had very nice and very personal ideas, and very good fundaments so he knew how to compose. He’d had a very good musical education and very good teachers.


Quantz Project on The Babel Flute:

Laura Chislett

Website | YouTube | | Apple Music

Australian flute player Laura Chislett has established herself on the international stage as a performer, educator and recording artist across a wide range of musical styles. Her recordings, on ten different labels and multiple streaming platforms, range from Bach and Boulanger, to Ferneyhough and Dench.

It’s perhaps in the extraordinary solo flute repertoire of the 20th Century onwards that Laura has especially made her mark, forging her way through daring sonic journeys and seeking to extend the expressive capabilities of the flute. She has long been a champion of Australian music, and music by female composers.

Laura has become known for her inspiring and rigorous performances, described as the “Rolls Royce versions” by the legendary composer Horatiu Radulescu.

Laura Chislett