Sub-Bass and Contrabass Flutes (Sub-Contrabass and Double Contrabass)

Sub-Bass Flute (Double Contra-Alto or Sub-Contrabass)

Sub-Bass Flute in G range

Contrabass Flute (Double Contrabass)

Contrabass Flute range

These two Brobdingnagian flutes I will treat together, and are the lowest flutes out there.  The Contrabass Flute is the same pitch as the Contrabassoon.  The Sub-Bass is in G  and the Contrabass is in C.  These instruments are only seen in the largest of flute choirs and make more of a visual impact than an aural statement.  Depending on manufacturer, these instruments may or may not possess a low B foot.  I would advise against writing this note.  In fact, as of the writing of this treatise, I would advise against using these instruments altogether.

The sounds produced by these instruments are soft and barely audible.  Doubling would be advisable, but, as the availability of even one is a long shot, the possibility of two or more is nigh impossible.  Some performers employ so-called “beat-boxing” techniques.  These breathy, harmonic sounds are one of the only ways to project sound, but belie the true depth of the instrument.  Due to the immense size of these instruments, response is extremely slow, so fast passages are ill-suited for them.  Held notes are best for ensemble use, though not of too long a duration, as the player will tire quickly.

As for use, these instruments are probably best when doubled at the octave by another voice.  Their unique sound will only be apparent in the most minimal of situations.  Any voices other than flutes or light percussion, harp, or piano are likely to drown out the sound of the Sub-Bass and Contrabass.

Another factor to remember is that these instruments must be played standing or seated upon a tall stool.  It is advisable to keep them towards the back of the ensemble for this reason (which will in turn diminish the sound of the instrument… so in other words, it is probably best not to use them to begin with!).

A modern composition on the Sub-Bass Flute in G

Local TV spot showing the Contrabass and a small bit of the G Sub-Bass.

Bass Flute (Contrabass)

Bass Flute (Contrabass)

Bass Flute range

This instrument, two octaves lower than the C Flute and one octave lower than the Tenor (former Bass), has been growing in popularity over the past two decades.  It provides a true bass for the flute ensemble.  In pitch, it is equal to the Bassoon or Cello.  Its sound is rather weak but haunting.  Response is somewhat slow, so the fast passages associated with the C Flute are not advisable on the Bass Flute.

Scoring for this instrument must be done very lightly.  Higher flutes, light percussion, harp, and piano are preferred.  In octaves with the Tenor Flute, the Bass Flute is at its best.  A lightly played Bass or Alto Clarinet or even Horn could make effective combinations with the Bass Flute.

This instrument is still quite rare, but I can foresee a day in a few years when we will see them as commonly as the Tenor Flute – an unusual, but not endangered species of woodwind.

Three Philosophies, concerto for low flutes

Baritone Flute (Contra-alto)

Baritone Flute (Contra-alto)

Baritone Flute in G range

Baritone Flute in F range

In traditional nomenclature, this instrument is referred to as either a Contra-Alto/Contr’alto or as a Bass in F/G, but as the flute family skips over the tenor and baritone voices, these names are rather silly.

It is pitched one octave below the Alto Flute in either F (Kotato) or G (Kingma).  The G instrument, seems to be the most common.  If writing for this instrument, it is best to include parts in both keys and only write down to the lowest concert G (and not the F that would be the lowest note on the F instrument). A low B foot  (sounding F# or E) is available as an option from the makers, but is not standard.

This instrument is far more unusual than either the Tenor or Bass, but is increasing in use.  Its role is rather ambiguous, and so far it has been found to be best at doubling bass lines (like all of the flutes below the Tenor).  Therefore, if I had to choose only one flute below the Tenor, I would prefer the Bass over the Baritone, but if both are available, then more interesting passages can be concocted.

Duets between either the Tenor or Bass are quite effective.  It has more projection than does the Bass, so would be more useful in solo passages, but light accompaniment is stressed.

Debussy’s Serenade for Flute, Alto Flute, and Baritone Flute in G (Contra-alto)

Bach on Baritone Flute

A duet between a Baritone (F) and a Bass Flute

Tenor Flute (Bass)

Tenor Flute (Bass)

Tenor Flute Range

This is the largest commonly encountered flute and is pitched one octave below the C Flute.  It is the same pitch range as the Viola.  It has a soft and mellow sound, and is quite often haunting.  Most technique from the C Flute can be transferred to the Tenor, though passages in the third octave tend to be challenging.  It is best to keep this, and all lower flutes, out of their very top ranges.  Some Tenors do possess a low B foot, but their availability is unknown, so it is best to avoid this note altogether.

Typically, the Tenor Flute is the lowest voice in a flute quartet (2 C Flutes, Alto, and Tenor).  In larger flute ensembles, the Tenor Flute is sometimes doubled an octave lower by the Bass Flute.  This doubling helps to ensure that the bass line is audible and adds considerable warmth (akin to Basses doubling Cellos in the orchestra).

A special note: from the Tenor Flute on down to the Contrabass, all low flutes benefit from amplification.  A player who specializes in the low flutes will almost assuredly have a small speaker and microphone set up as part of their gear.  I would greatly advise the use of amplification with all lower flutes.

Jean-Pierre Rampal playing a jazz etude on the Tenor Flute

Three Philosophies, concerto for low flutes

Alto Flute

 Alto Flute

Alto Flute

The Alto Flute has become an almost common sight nowadays.  Many high schools now possess Altos.  The sound of the Alto Flute is well-known from such pieces as The Rite of Spring, Daphnis and Chloe, and The Planets.  It is warm and somewhat haunting, especially in the lower register.  To my ears, it is a far more pleasing sound than the C Flute.  Unlike the C Flute, the Alto never possesses a low B foot.  An interesting note to remember, the Alto is the exact pitch as the Violin, while the C Flute can never match the Violin’s depth.

The sound is slightly weaker than that of the C Flute, but not drastically so.  A good player should be able to project all the way to the bottom C of the instrument.  Some smaller players may find the instrument tiring, so longer breaks for this (and all lower flutes) are advised.  Also, smaller players may prefer a curved head joint as opposed to a straight one.  The choice of head joints should be of no concern to the bandestrator.

Creative uses of the Alto Flute can range from simply playing the 3rd or 4th voice in the traditional flute ensemble to more elaborate uses.  Strong instruments (e.g. Trumpet) are probably ill suited for mixing with the Alto.  High range Bassoon is quite effective, as is Soprano Saxophone, all clarinet voices, and Horn.

Usually, only one Alto Flute will be available for a band, but if multiple Altos are to be had, then more creative approaches can be found.  A duet between two Alto Flutes at piano and accompanied lightly, is a beautiful sound not to be forgotten.

A movement of a Bach Cello Suite on Alto Flute.

Debussy’s “Syrinx” on Alto Flute

Three Philosophies, concerto for low flutes

Flute d’Amore or Mezzo-Soprano Flute

Flute d’Amore or Mezzo-Soprano Flute

B-Flat Flute d'Amore

A Flute d'Amore

There are two odd flutes that go by the name Flute d’Amore.  One is pitched in B-flat while the other is in A, respectively a major 2nd and a minor 3rd below the C Flute.  These flutes are rarely seen, though, recent research has shown that a considerable amount of Baroque Traverso music was written for the Flute d’Amore in mind.  Both the B-flat and A instruments are being manufactured, and can be obtained fairly easily.  However, I fail to see where either instrument would be an advantage over the C Flute or Alto Flute.

The Habanera from Carmen by Bizet.  A B-flat Flute d’Amore is playing the 2nd flute part.

Hasse Concerto in F for Flute d’Amore in B-Flat

Ravel’s Pavane.  An A Flute d’Amore is playing the 2nd flute part.

Comparing the two videos by the same performers, the A has a slightly mellower sound than does the B-flat.  The A is closer to the Alto and the B-flat is closer to the C Flute.

E-flat Soprano Flute

E-flat Soprano

E-Flat Soprano Flute Range

Like the G Treble Flute, the E-Flat Soprano Flute is pitched midway between the C Flute and the Piccolo.  It is the only member of the modern flute family not pitched in either C or G.  The pitch of E-flat is a relic of a time when bands sometimes used a small flute to replace the small E-flat Clarinet.

Jazz saxophone plays sometimes will use this instrument due to its key being the same as the Alto and Baritone Saxophones.  In this same regards, some manufactures will make a B-flat “Tenor” Flute* pitched a second below the C Flute (and a minor third above the Alto!) for use in jazz.

The best of my research leads me to believe that this flute is no longer being manufactured by any companies, so any instruments will be older (though, by no means unserviceable).  I would generally advise against the use of this instrument.  Being pitched only a minor third above the C Flute, it does not provide much of a range difference, only four or five notes higher, and those are questionable in response.  The sound is also fairly similar to the C Flute.  If, however, you find yourself having this instrument available, then its technique will be the same as the C Flute.

Were I to have to choose between the G Treble and the E-flat Soprano, I would always choose the G Treble.

[*Flutes pitched in either B-flat or A below the C Flute are more properly known as Flutes d’Amore.]

2 E-flat Flutes with a C Flute playing a Scottish melody.