Flügelhorn or Soprano Tuba
Most of us think of the Flügelhorn as a big, fat trumpet, but the reality is that it bears no relation to the trumpet family whatsoever. The Flügelhorn is a Soprano Tuba, as it possesses the constant increase in its bore from mouthpiece to bell that signifies a true tuba. While the Flügelhorn may be a member of the tuba family, it is always played by a trumpeter. This relates to the rule of thumb of brass players doubling not members of their instrument’s family, but other instruments of the same pitch class.
Most modern Flügelhorns will use piston valves, but some older instruments, and many used in Europe, will use rotary valves. To me, the rotary valve instruments come closer to the instrument being aligned with the tuba family than do the piston valve instruments. Rotary valves usually have a smoother, more fluid sound.
Most Flügelhorns have the traditional three valves, but some modern manufacturers will include a fourth valve. This fourth valve secures intonation when the third valve is used, and it will extend the range of the instrument down to a written D (sounding C). It is still uncommon to find a four-valve Flügelhorn, so it is best not to write notes below the standard written F-sharp.
The Flügelhorn has been a regular member of the wind band on and off since its invention in the early 1800s. In fact, early German bands were led by a Flügelhorn player called the Flügelmeister. Flügel in German means wing, and the Flügelmeister played his Flügelhorn in the wings (that is the far corners) of the band. Today, we see the instrument as a rare visitor to the band. The most famous example of the Flügelhorn in the wind band repertoire is the third movement of Lincolnshire Posy. However, the solo Flügelhorn part is almost never played anymore, as the second version with solo Soprano Saxophone is preferred (as per the instructions of Grainger himself). A better example would be Warren Benson’s Solitary Dancer, which uses a pair of Flügelhorns most beautifully.
In the orchestra, the Flügelhorn is an extremely rare visitor. The best example of its use is from Vaughan Williams Ninth Symphony where the Flügelhorn gets one of the most beautiful brass solos in all of the orchestral literature. Yet another example is the offstage Flicorni parts in Resphigi’s Pines of Rome. However, these parts are sadly never played on the correct instruments (2 Flügelhorns, 2 Baritone Horns, and 2 Euphoniums), but rather on whatever brass instruments are available. The name Flicorno in Italian translates to English as flying or wing horn. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever as to what instruments Resphigi meant to play these parts. Gustav Mahler also wrote for the instrument in an offstage solo in his Third Symphony. However, here we do have some doubt as to what instrument should be used. He originally wrote for Flügelhorn, but later changed this to Posthorn, an instrument more akin to a cornet. Various recordings will use all sorts of creative means for the solo in this symphony.
The sound of the Flügelhorn is warm and fluid. To me, it is the most melodious of all brass instruments. In some regards, the Flügelhorn is more like a woodwind in sound that it is a brass. Brass instruments we think of as being noble and majestic, but the Flügelhorn is quiet and retiring. It can blend in seamlessly with a myriad of other sounds (notably clarinets and Horns). I have used a Flügelhorn to reinforce Horn passages that are in its highest octave where intonation and note reliability is sometimes suspect. The two instruments blend perfectly, and the Flügelhorn can extend the range of the Horn upwards a few notes without a noticeable difference in sound quality.
When I score for the Flügelhorn, I always place it at the top of the tuba choir. By doing this, I can separate the sound of the Flügelhorn from that of the trumpet. It also creates a unified family sound from soprano to contrabass when the whole family is utilized as a unit. Some composers will choose to place the Flügelhorns at the bottom of the trumpet choir, as they are always played by trumpeters.
Traditionally, when a Flügelhorn is present in a band, it is as a solo instrument, but there is no reason not to have a section of them. Why not have a pair, or even three parts just like we would have with trumpets or cornets? The Flügelhorn is far more suited for melodic passages than either of these instruments. In such a section, they can serve to bridge the divide between the tone colors of the brass and the woodwinds.
With its wider bore, the top notes of its range are much harder to produce, but the wider bore also means that the pedal notes are easy to produce (unlike the trumpets or cornets).
While most instruments are in B-flat, a few rare Flügelhorns exist in C. I once owned one of these rare C Flügelhorns. It was a poor instrument out of tune with itself. It is best to just write for the B-flat Flügelhorn and forget the C exists.
One final note, I chose to write Flügelhorn with the umlaut, both other spellings (e.g. Flugelhorn, Fluegelhorn, Flugel Horn) are acceptable. I just prefer the use of the original German spelling, and the use of a diacritical marking usually unknown in the English language.
Mozart Horn Concerto on Flügelhorn (note, this instrument uses 4 valves).
2nd Movement of Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony. Opening solo is for Flügelhorn.
Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy Movement 3 version A. (Version B uses Soprano Saxophone as the solo instrument over the Flügelhorn. Today, version B is the more performed.)
Respighi’s Pines of Rome last movement. This recording is one of the rare ones that makes use of the Flügelhorns and not offstage trumpets, which is normally done. However, the offstage Baritone Horns and Euphoniums have been replaced with Wagner Tubas and the on-stage Bass/Contrabass Trombone has been replaced with a tuba.