Félix Vigor

What is theTxistu?





Why create a "Txistu" page on Internet? For many years, I have been very lucky to participate with the group of Giants ("Gigantes") from Pamplona during "San Fermin" Festivals. Every morning we go along the streets accompanying the last giant, called "The American Queen", playing the "txistus"; and almost every day some of the visitors, who enjoy our festivals, ask about our instrument, some of them to satisfy their curiosity, others interested in its technique, construction, origin. From time to time, we have met people who, for several reasons, emigrated to other countries and even from a distance, they have made an effort to maintain their customs and identity. People who appreciate receiving information and types of music which reminds them of their origins.

To all of them, and those who, for any reason, show interest in the "Txistu", we dedicate these pages. My purpose is to increase, as long as my free time permits me to do it, not only written information, but also music and scores.

A web page is, by definition, something interactive. I expect to receive your E-mails with your opinions, news, and as much as you appropriately consider to send. I would like, above all, to make contact with "Txistularis" (Txistu players) who live away from "Euskal Herria", also, with people who play similar instruments from all parts of the world. In case someone intended to perform some of the enclosed music, I would thank him for letting me know.[§]


In ancient times, a primitive inhabitant from the Basque mountains made his first "Txistu" out of a bird bone, this instrument, by adapting itself to the taste and manufacturing techniques of every moment has been symbol of the Basque country. This isn’t by coincidence, but to the estimation Basque people have had through times towards our instrument. J.I. Antsorena

As it is well-known, the three-holed flute has been known and used by the majority of cultures and civilizations, even today it exists in many places. As one hand is necessary to make it sound, the musician still uses the other one to percuss a rhythmic instrument, constituing in this way what it has been called "a one man’s orchestra".

Very often, the attunement and the sizes of these flutes are only approximate. This fact has prevented these flutes from being able to be integrated into larger musical formations, restricting its use to the rural and folkloric ambit.

There isn’t any doubt that the "txistu" followed this similar path but something happened: in the eighteenth century, a group of noble Basque people, led by the Count of "Penaflorida", created a movement of encyclopedist inspiration known as "Basque Illustration", which proposed to rescue the "txistu" and the Basque dancing from the rural ambit in order to integrate them into courtesan salons. Of course, it couldn’t have been done, logically, without changes. To begin with the noble people remodeled the "txistu" dimensions to obtain an instrument capable of emiting a scale of two octaves correctly tuned. They invented a bigger "txistu" called "Silbote", which enabled them to compose using polyphonic writing, performed by several voices and, of course, this group of people tried the composition and adaptation of great works to the new improved "txistu". Therefore, it is hardly surprising that a lot of music for the "txistu" has a remarkable baroque character, which can be appreciate in the well-known "Reverencia" pertaining to a dancing cycle called "Aurresku"..

Jean Baudoin,
and ttun-ttun.

Nevertheless, all these changes didn’t effect the rural musicians, as they adapted to the new instrument and at the same time, continued performing their traditional melodies. Therefore, there are two different traditions: on one hand, the rural drummers, generally without any musical teaching, who performed music through generations, on the other hand the

tradition of "txistularis" from large cities instructed at "txistu" schools who performed music composed for the "txistu". Of course, although we aren’t dealing with "watertight compartments", mutual influence has always existed. The division still remains in outline

It is worth mentioning the case in Zuberoa and Soule, where a variant of the txistu has been preserved, the "txirula". This instrument is smaller with a mouthpiece made of wood or bone, which is accompanied by a six-stringed psalter called the "ttun-ttun". It has been used to accompany dancing, although, nowadays by being tuned for concerts it has been frequently seen in "folks" groups, where its cheerful, highpitched timbre stands out.[§]


A modern txistu with all its elements.

As I have said before, the ancient "txistus" had to be of different sizes but only three standardized formats have survived to now: the "txistu" itself (tuned in "F"), the "Silbote" (tuned in Bb, B or C), that’s to say, a quarter or fifth lower than the "txistu", and the "Txirula" (tuned in C), an octave higher than the "silbote". The fingering is the same for all the instruments, although, each of them presents its peculiarities..

Apart from the "txirula", which is made of wood and manufactured in one piece, the rest of instruments are made articulately with a changeable inferior part depending on the tune needed to perform. The most commonly used wood is ebony, although boxwood, walnut or even plastic and metal materials have been used. As for the metal parts, these are usually chromium - plated or, silver for the best instruments.

The attunement of the instrument in the "txistu", which lacks keys and composed by three holes, becomes complex, depending, to a great extent on the performer. Nevertheless it is essential to tune the instrument accurately, that’s why a great number of investigations and rehearsals have been carried out so as to obtain actual instruments capable of performing any tune with the right tone [§]


This chapter has been copied from "Txistu, tratado de
flauta Vasca
" by P. Hilario Olazarán de Estella

It could be believed, observing the reduced means of the Basque flute, that the music created for this instrument limits itself to few rural melodies. However, the ones that have been published until now and those which are still unknown may add up to a total amount of one thousand melodies. The preservation of such valuable treasure, transmitted faithfully from parents to sons, is due to humble "txistularis" without any musical instruction, mainly in Navarre.

The most ancient "txistu" melodies are characterized by its mode in G maj with a natural F, same as the brilliant seventh mode in the Gregorian chanting. It can be assured that the entire Basque dancing has been created in the major G tunes with the F either natural or sharp and sometimes with C. There are some surprising tunes, for example, major F melodies with natural B. The minor tunes can be found transitory modulations, almost never as the general tune in a work, unless it is of recent creation.

A rich variety of original rhythms, among them the "Mutil- Dantza" stands out from Baztan and some performances of "ezpata-dantza" from Bizcaye and Onati, which highlight these gracious melodies. [§]


RELIGIOUS PROCESSIONS. - There are traditional melodies in religious processions like the "zortziko" on Corpus Christi’s day, another one in "San Juan" (Tolosa) and Onati. Procession dancing of "San Fermin" (Lesaka), "San Roque" (Deba) and "San Esteban" (Vera de Bidasoa).

On "San Pedro’s" day, an "arrantzale" (fisherman) who belongs to the Fraternity of Lekeitio, dances in front of his Patron Saint, and agile dancing called "Kaixarranka". He is on the coffer of his Fraternity, held by eight strong members (brothers).

One of the most characteristics works in the religious processions is the dancing in honour of the village flag, turning round and humbling itself in presence of the Blessed Sacrament in time to the music. Very popular the procession of Corpus Christi in Doneztebe (Satesteban), Lesaka, Aranaz, and other villages situated near the Navarre basin along Bidasoa River. Sometimes it is performed in front of their Patron Saint, as in Beasain and some other village, where this is one of the most characteristic musical compositions.

GROUPS OF SERENADERS.- In first place the beautiful, original "eztai-soinu" (Wedding dancing) from Baztan (Navarre): as well as the "Karrika-Soinu" or "biribilketa" as it is known now, in which the agile marches in a 6/8 time, entirely dominate the piece. Other more ancient compositions follow a 2/8 time; the dawn-songs, announcing a feast, and in general any march that accompanies civil processions.

We can also classify among these civil feasts: the "Sagar-dantza" (Apple dancing) in Baztan, which is danced along country houses asking for presents in order to celebrate a great afternoon snack during the Carnival days; "Miel Otxin", a kind of masquerade including several bizarre characters dancing along the streets of Lantz during the Carnival.

DANCING GAMES.- The entertainment forms for the youth accompanied by "txistu music" could be denominated Dancing games as both modes participate. These modes are usually celebrated in public, around squares and streets. For example, the "aintzara-yoku" (The goose game), in which some young fellows on horse-back, crossing under a huge frame from which a goose hangs. The young people try to win by pulling at the animal’s neck as fast as possible. It is very popular in Leiza and Betelu (although nowadays, a dead goose is used). "Zagi-dantza" (the wineskin dancing), from Goizueta and Doneztebe; an inflated wineskin, after having cheered young people who drank its red liqueur, is beaten with "makilak" (sticks) making the rhythm of music.

There are other great number of private entertainment forms, which light up the long wintry gathering around roomy kitchens in country houses also in "Ostatu" (Inns).

SOLEMN DANCINGS.- The villages and authorities assist in these dancings on the most notorious weekdays and Sundays. They can be classified into three groups:.

Warring Dancing: Like "ezpata-dantza", "brokel-dantza" and "makil-dantza" in Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa and Navarra (Vera, Lesaka, Otsagi or Cortes) with a different way of dancing.

Masculine Dancing: (Only men), for example the "mutildantza" (fourteen different ways) in Baztan, "Muxiko" or "Mutiko" (Laburdi) and Zuberoa. In Benabarra we have the "Yantza-Luze".

Mixed Dancing: Girls take part as the outstanding figure, receiving a tribute and participating with boys as couples. For example, the "Aurresku" in Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa, "Soka-Dantza" in Baztan and the region of Bidasoa and, above all, the "Ingurutxo" in Leiza, Ultzama and Larraun, without forgetting the "Larrain-dantza", the most brilliant mixed dancing. From all the Basque dances, we can observe the great variety of music created and performed by the beautiful "Euskalduna flute". Pleasant music, whose originality and personality are truly ethnic.[§]


Exactly, as father Olazaran used to say, it seems surprising the number and variety of music types which have been incorporated into the traditional repertoire for the "txistularies". It isn’t less important the fact that all the composers from the Basque country have dedicated some of their compositions to our instrument. In most cases, we deal with minor musical pieces, suitable for amateur musicians, although sometimes we discover little great masterpieces.

As I’ve said previously, "txistu" compositions began to be written in the eighteenth century. Obviously, they were compositions in relation to the taste of the period, therefore, it is frequent to find "Contrapases", "Minuets", "Boleros" and so on. Precisely, Juan Igncio de Iztueta lived in that period, who compiled the most popular dances of Guipuzcoa and some songs. He complained about the preferences of the "txistularies" as the musicians played modern melodies, instead of popular compositions.

It is convenient to point out that, in that period of time, the flute and drum enjoyed certain fame in France, composers like Jean Philippe Rameau dedicated his music to these two instruments, they were called "Tambourine" based on music types performed by Provenzal flute players.

Jesús Mª Bilbao: Basoon,
Ruperto Lekue: Keyboards,
Sabin Bikandi: Txistu

Through these years, cities and some big villages in the provinces of Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya and the north of Navarre were forming their bands of "txistularies" who, dressed up in colourful uniforms, offered solemnity to all the celebrations and gave life to popular feasts. Some of them reached an authentic virtuosity on the instrument, which encouraged the composers to write more and better pieces for themselves.

In general, small villages had a couple of "txistularies" and a drummer, whereas bigger towns used to add one "Silbote" to the formation, constituing little by little the actual band of "txistularis": two "txistus", one "silbote" and drum (usually called "atabal"). These musicians were on the pay roll of the village, to get to one of their posts, had to take several public examinations which proved their musical skills.

Normally, with the purpose of getting a more penetrating sound, the "txistus" were tuned in "brilliant F", (its fundamental note sounded a little higher than F) that’s why it was difficult to integrate them into formations with other instruments.

In general, small villages had a couple of "txistularies" and a drummer, whereas bigger towns used to add one "Silbote" to the formation, constituing little by little the actual band of "txistularis": two "txistus", one "silbote" and drum (usually called "atabal"). These musicians were on the pay roll of the village, to get to one of their posts, had to take several public examinations which proved their musical skills.

Normally, with the purpose of getting a more penetrating sound, the "txistus" were tuned in "brilliant F", (its fundamental note sounded a little higher than F) that’s why it was difficult to integrate them into formations with other instruments.

Lately, however, the instruments in "natural F" have been imposed, which enables any type of formation. There are plenty of pieces for the "txistu" accompanying on the piano, organ, wind instruments, strings and so on, and there are also a great number of compositions for the "txistus" and voices. As, an example, during the Musikaste Music Festival of 1994, it was first performed the Txistu and Orquestra Concert, composed by Tomás Aragües Bernard and brightly performed by José Ignacio Ansorena as txistu soloist and the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Urbano Ruiz Laorden. [§]


Logically, the majority of folk music groups have used the "txistu"; although the "txistu" in F isn’t played but the "txirula", due, on one hand to its tune in Do, and on the other hand to its high sound, which stands out from the rest of instruments.

Groups like "Izukaitz", "Txanbela", "Fanfare Xut", "Azala" and above all "Oskorri" have known how to mix the sound of our popular instruments with the most modern ones, obtaining a personal, unique sonority.

"World Music"composers as Tomás San Miguel in his work "Txalaparta" have used our instrument too.


It seems that at the beginning of this century, the tradition of organizing multitudinarious concerts of "txistu" in the villages feasts and cities in the Basque country was extended.

"Txistularies" from all the Basque country participated in these concerts ("Alardes"), therefore these concerts were an important point for meeting and exchange.

A few years ago, only "txistus" (organized between 1st and 2nd voices) and "silbotes" participated in them, but lately other musicians, chorus or soloists also take part whenever it is required. This aspect and the high level of performance of "txistularies" make these concerts become something really pleasant to listen to.[§]


This association was founded in 1927, and nowadays have around two thousand members. This institution has acted as an essential part in the development of "txistularis" activity. Through these years, expect for an interruption during Franco’s dictatorship, it has published the magazine "Txistulari" every three months, including news and scores, has collaborate in the celebrations of concerts ("Alardes"), organized conference cycles, courses and so on. Nowadays there are one hundred and seventy-three published magazines and more than five thousand pages of printed music, this gives an idea of the enormous work load which has been developed by this association through the years.[§]


It is commonly said by "txistularies" that this instrument has lost ground in the past few years. We mean by this, that it is listened to less and less "in the street", as it has given away to groups of "trikitixas", "txarangas", "bands" ... or perhaps young people prefer the energy and vitality of rock or the rhythmic magic of Djs in Discos. Of course it is understood logically. We cannot try to make our modern, industrialised (or postindustrialised) society use the same ways of entertainment as our ancestors villagers or shepherds did. However, the "txistu" has obtained, in my opinion, its own place in chamber music, this Basque flute has compiled a rich and varied repertoire. The "Txistu" can substitute the recorder in our society. It means that this instrument, without too many technical difficulties can make their wish of making music come true.

According to José Ignacio Ansorena, txistu teacher and manager at the Conservatory of San Sebastien:

I consider the instrument deserves time, work and dedication. There are three main reasons. Firstly, a reason with an historic component exists, the txistu is a traditionally integrated element in the Basque country. Not because the first flute was discovered in Basque territory, as some ingenuous people believe, but for centuries, the Basque culture has been shaping a very precise instrument, with a particular appearance, a peculiar sound and a personal fingering. For those who believe that tradition is an element which links villages, this is one important reason but not the only one.

There is also a social reason. Because of its manufacturing simplicity, the txistu is kept away from economical circuits. I believe it will always be a cheap instrument.

The third reason is strictly musical. The txistu is a valid instrument of musical communication. I can offer as proof my personal experience as well as the ones from other txistularies which proves what I have just explained. Through the years I have been dedicating myself to txistu teaching at the Conservatoire of San Sebastian. A lot of students have attended my classes, discovering the txistu as the most adequate form of expression. In some cases, these students studied other universal instrument at the same time. However, the txistu didn’t represent a second instrument or a minor instrument. On the contrary, it was their favourite one. I don’t intend to point out the txistu has more or fewer possibilities than other instruments or, perhaps better or worse then the universal ones. In other words, my purpose is to explain that as certain instruments are used for musical expression, our wooden flute can also be suitable for this purpose.[§]

English Translation by 'Cambridge English School'