What to Do with New Instruments – Part 5 – The Alto Flute

It’s been a while since I explored the early literature for some unfamiliar instruments. This time, I will be taking a look at five early works for the Alto Flute.

The earliest Alto Flutes were made by Theobald Boehm in around 1855.  It was said to be his favorite instrument, and he composed many solo and chamber works for his new invention.  However, it is not until 1889-90 that we get the first use of the Alto Flute in an orchestral work.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada (1889-90, suite c. 1894)

Sadly, I cannot access the full score to the opera-ballet due to it not being present on IMSLP at the current time, but I can access the suite the NRK extracted from the work.  The suite (and the whole opera) open with solo flutes and clarinets including major solos for the Alto Flute.  We can already see NRK’s economics of orchestration at hand.  As he is considered one of the great masters of orchestration, it only makes sense that he uses the new instrument brilliantly.  The soft Alto Flute is presented first unaccompanied so that the listener can fully embrace its unusual and otherworldly tone color.

In the suite, NRK only uses the Alto Flute in the first movement.  The player then switches to C Flute for movements 4 and 5 (movements 2 and 3 are tacet). The range used is primarily in the lower register of the instrument from a written low C4 to A5.  This is a very conservative range, but nonetheless effective.

Weingartner’s Das Gefilde der Seliegen (1897)

This is a rarely performed, but quite lovely piece.  For the performance, Weingartner had constructed, my the Berlin firm Moritz, an Alto Flute in F.  Herein does lie a problem as all Alto Flutes today are in G.  There are a few instances where Weingartner writes low Cs and C-sharps that are below the range of the modern Alto Flute.  These notes can only be played by an instrument with a B/B-flat foot (which is unheard of) or be taken by a Tenor (Bass) Flute.  At the upper range, the part ascends to a written A-sharp6 – a nearly 3 octave range.  The part is fully integrated into the whole orchestra, and it is clear that the instrument is not an afterthought addition or there just for the effect.

One of the most lovely effects in the works is the first iteration of the melody, which is presented my unison Alto Oboe (as Weingartner calls the English Horn) and the Alto Flute.

The player stays on Alto Flute for the duration of the entire work.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1909-1913)

What more can I say about what is considered one of the pinnacles of orchestration.  Ravel only ever uses the Alto Flute in this work, which has a similar theme to Weingartner’s work (Greek mythology).  Once again the Alto Flute is integral to the whole of this sumptuous work with many solos and exposed parts.

One unusual thing Ravel does is the nomenclature of the instrument, he calls it Flute en Sol (Flute in G) unlike the other composers.

He uses the full range of the instrument and not just for its lower notes, though the few exposed solos (which are rare for any instrument in the work) all highlight the lowest notes of the instrument. If anything, Ravel is far more conservative than Weingartner in his range rarely going above C6.

The player plays exclusively Alto Flute.

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printempts (1913)

Yet another one of the great works of the symphonic literature relies heavily on the early use of the Alto Flute.  Stravinsky has the Alto Flute as the leading solo voice of the flute section (1 Piccolo, 1 Piccolo/C Flute, and 2 C Flutes), as such, it contains the bulk of the flute solos in the work.  It’s part is slightly less complex than the higher voices, but this is to be expected as it is the lowest member of the family.  The part ranges over 2.5 octaves from C4 to G6.

The player plays exclusively Alto Flute.

Holst’s The Planets (1914-16)

Our final work is yet another tour de force of the orchestral literature.  Holst’s The Planets is one of the most belovéd works in the orchestral canon, and once again ,features the Alto Flute.  However, Holst strangely calls the instrument a “Bass” Flute.  This is a strangely British phenomenon and one that is found nowhere else.  The Alto Flute is assigned to the Flute 4 part which is required to play Piccolo, C Flute, and Alto Flute (a triple part).  The Alto Flute only plays in Movement 5 (Saturn) and Movement 7 (Neptune) as well as a single note in Movement 6 (Uranus).  Of all the works I’ve looked at, The Planets has the most limited range for the instrument at only an octave and a fourth from a written C4 to F5.  Nearly every passage for the Alto Flute is exposed and soloistic.  When not needed, Holst has the player play C Flute (or 2nd Piccolo).

Conclusions

The Alto Flute features strongly in its earliest entries into the orchestra.  In fact, some of its first forays are some of the most important works ever written for the orchestra, which solidifies the Alto Flute in history unlike some of the other rare woodwinds.  The Alto Flute was used early on in Russia, Germany, France, and England, so there is no one center of its use unlike the other rare woodwinds, which usually indicated a single player/instrument in one location.  It took 40 years from creation to inclusion in the orchestra, but once introduced it was one of the most sought after voices. In every case, save for the Holst, the Alto Flute is used over its entire range and as an integral member of the flute section and the orchestral ensemble and not as an interesting add-on for an effect.

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