A rarely documented even in wind instrument development is the appearance of a true “Bass” Flute* in Italy in 1910. The instrument was invented by Professor Abelado Albisi and thusly called the Albisiphone. Albisi was the principal flutist at La Scala in Milan one of the premiere opera companies in the world. It reasons to follow that some composers who were closely affiliated with La Scala were keen to use the new Bass Flute.
For the purposes of this article, I will use the term “Bass Flute” to refer to the instrument pitched in C one octave below the C Flute. Holst confusingly called the Alto Flute a “Bass” Flute in his Planets. I myself (as have others) have called for a complete nomenclature overhaul of the flute family whereby this instrument should be known as a Tenor Flute.
Riccardo Zandonai is best known for his opera Francesca da Rimini. This work is one of the first works to make use of the Bass Flute. Zandonai calls for the instrument to be played by the 2nd flutist in the orchestra (the section of comprised of one Piccolo and two Flutes). The Bass Flute (he never calls the instrument an Albisiphone) only appears twice in the whole of the opera. Once is early on in the First Act and the second is in the Third Act. Both of these passages are very short. The First Act passage is 5 measures long and doubled by the voice, soli Violin and muted Bass. The passage is one octave in range from the written low D upwards to the D in the staff. The part is written traditionally in the treble clef one octave above sounding pitch. The second passage in the Third Act is all of ten measures long. It uses the instrument in a different range from the C-sharp in the staff upwards to the B-flat above the staff (slightly under two octaves). The passage starts off as a solo, but by measure 5 the English Horn joins in in harmony a third above the Bass Flute. Accompaniment for this passage is soft tremolo strings, muted Horns, and Piano and Harp notes. Strangely, this passage can be played in its entirety on the normal C Flute, so it is clear that Zandonai chose the Bass Flute for its timbral possibilities and not its range extension. However, the use for only 15 measures in the work seem to defeat the purpose of including the instrument.
Zandonai seems to have also used the Bass Flute two years earlier in 1912 in his opera Melenis. I can find almost no information on this work at the present.
In 1913, Pietro Mascagni called for the Bass Flute again in his opera Parisina. This work is causing me frustration. The full score is not available, and there are tantalizing hints that the use of low flutes is extensive. I found one reference that states the the score not only calls for a Bass Flute, but also for an Alto (called charmingly “the nightingale flute”) and an F Tenor Flute. I can only assume that the F Tenor Flute is a flute pitched one step lower than the G Alto. Three low flutes in one piece is enough to make me want to research this piece more.
It also leads me to an odd observation. When dealing with opera, particularly Italian opera, scholarship is almost never done on the orchestral efforts and is confined only to the libretto and storytelling. I can find nowhere on the internet the exact orchestration of this work, but it is very easy to find the libretto.
I can find only one more tantalizing mention of the Bass Flute from the instrument’s earliest days, and this is of the obscure German composer Frederich Klose who apparently score for the instrument in his oratorio Der Sonne-Geist. I can find little information on the composer and virtually nothing on the work in particular.
Early use of the Bass Flute is centered around Milan and La Scala. Like the Contrabass Clarinet (Paris) and the Bass Oboe (London), we can see that the early use of these instruments is highly local. Expansion outside of their local sphere only comes some years after their first use. Some of these instruments may be singular instruments made for a specific purpose and not mass manufactured like most of today’s instruments.
While we think of the Bass Flute as an instrument that only came into being in the middle of the 20th century (1950s and 1960s) it is odd to find its use as early as 1913. It clearly did not take off as a viable instrument at this time. I’ve read reports that the Albisiphone had some inherent problems and was not as usable as performers would have liked (the bore of the instrument was far too large acoustically).
Once I’m able to get my hands on full scores to Parisina and Der Sonne-Geist I will update this post further.