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

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).


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.

What to do with new instruments? Part 3 – Bass Flute

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.

Zandoni 1914

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.

Mascagni 1913

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.

Klose 1917

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.

Flutes Part 4 – Flute Technique



            The technique of the flute family is probably the highest and most refined of all the woodwinds.  The bandestrator is thereby free to write nearly anything within the standard range of the instrument.

The only limitations are the bottom third of the instrument.  With the exception of the combination of the low C to low D, all combinations of notes E-flat and lower require the sliding of the little finger.  The D-flat to E-flat trill is the only impossible trill on the entire instrument.

For the entire flute family, the written low C is the standard bottom note.  There are a few exceptions to this rule:

1. First, all Piccolos only descend to the low D.  There are no exceptions.

2. The G Treble may or may not stop at the D, but this depends on the maker.

3. The C Flute itself is often equipped with a B-foot that allows the production of the lowest B natural.  You should be fairly safe in the writing of this note as all professionals and most amateurs possess this extension.

4. The low B may or may not be present in the larger flutes.  It is never present on the Alto and very rare on the Tenor.  Consult with your players before using this note.

The upper written range for all flutes is given as the C three octaves above middle C, but again there are some exceptions.  The top B and C on the Piccolo are extremely difficult to produce (owing surprisingly in part to the lack of the Low C) and can only be produced in forte.  Advanced technique on the C Flute has pushed the range upwards to around an F, but in practicality, only the D above the high C should be used.  The larger flutes are best kept out of their upper register (though the Alto has full use of all three octaves) and these notes are suspect and uncharacteristic of the instruments.

All flutes, from Piccolo to Contrabass, have the same sound signature.  That is, their sound is soft in the bottom of the register and gradually gets louder as the pitch ascends.  The softest sound in the flute family is a Contrabass on its lowest C (or B), while the absolute loudest sound is a Piccolo on its highest C.

By the way, the modern flute family, with all its new members, is the only family of winds that can cover virtually the entire range of the Piano (minus the low B-flat and A of the Piano).

One curious aspect of flute technique is that, as flutists are able to master the technique of their instrument fairly quickly (compared to most of the other woodwinds), many flutists venture out into performing works with extended techniques.  These include quarter-tones, multiphonics, beat-boxing, glissandi, breathy sub-tones, and many more.  Most of these techniques are used primarily in flute solos, and only rarely do they make their way into ensemble music.

When in doubt, ask a competent flutist.

Flutes – Flutes in the Band

The Flute in the Band


            First remember that you will only have C Flute and Piccolo at your immediate disposal.  You can basically ignore anything I said about the exotic species of flutes.

As I alluded to in the subsection on the C Flute, the flute family as a whole is alone in the band world.  As we only use the small members of the family, and the larger members are weak and powerless, we have an oddball situation on our hands.  Traditionally, orchestral woodwinds have been seen as thus:

Flute                Soprano

Oboe               Alto

Clarinet           Tenor

Bassoon           Bass

But, this arrangement really belies the instruments’ true capabilities.  If we were to really look at what their roles are it would be something like this:

Flute                Sopranino/Treble

Oboe               Soprano

Clarinet           Alto

Bassoon           Tenor/Baritone

Notice in this arrangement, the flue is move up one level to sopranino/treble and all other instruments shift up one spot.  Part of this is due to the flutes role.  Like the Basses doubling the Cellos at the octave lower, the flute is best at doubling the soprano voice at the octave higher.  This reserves the oboe, and not the flute as the true soprano of the woodwind section.  The flute now becomes the icing on the cake and not the cake itself.  Bands have yet to figure this out.  The C Flute is not your primary melody instrument.  It is best at countermelodies, descant lines, and octave doublings.  These roles allow for their part to also become more florid and embellished.

The Piccolo is yet another extreme.  It doubles the soprano, not at the octave, but at the double octave!  Less is more here.  The less you use the Piccolo, the more effective it becomes.  You do not have to have every single player playing in every single bar.  In fact, this is one of the great crimes of band music in general.

This leads me to a very curious example of orchestral efficiency.  It is Mahler’s Symphony 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand.”  No one in their right mind, you say, would call a symphony that is known for using 1,000 performers efficient, but I am making that case.  Mahler may use an exorbitant amount of players, but he uses them in a very selective manner.  The entire symphony is well over an hour long, and for one beat, only one single beat, does the entire ensemble play together.  This occurs just as the final moment comes crashing down, as the three choirs sing their final note and the brass band begins their triumphant paean.  Only by holding everything back until that moment, does this one moment of triumph have its dramatic impact.  Remember this in your own writing.

(By the way, there is a stunning Piccolo part in the last movement of Mahler’s 8th that bears looking into.  It is one of the very quiet moments, just before the Chorus Mysticus, where a solo Piccolo is accompanied by of all things a Harmonium and a Piano.  The result is magical!  The gentle Piccolo at its finest.)

The above performance starts at the Piccolo solo and culminates in the grand finale.  It is also of special note that all of the orchestral musicians are children!

I am going to lay out a very typical high school flute section.  I will make the assumption that there are roughly eight players in the section.  This is an average number for an average sized band.  The typical band music will have three parts for these eight players.

  1. Piccolo (player 1)
  2. Flute 1 (players 2-4)
  3. Flute 2 (players 5-8)

To me, this is a rather inefficient system.  Players 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 are pretty much pointless.  They are there to beef up the sound of players 2 and 5.  A creative bandestrator can come up with some clever ideas.  Why not eight individual parts?  As I said in the subsection on the Alto Flute, many high schools I know now possess an Alto.  Why not have player 8 play the Alto?  In doing this we would even out the numbers of Flute 1 and Flute 2 to three players on each part instead of three on one and four on the other.  Flute 1 and Flute 2 can now be further subdivided.  Not necessarily into Flutes 3-6, but more along the lines of desks in a string section.  Use the term “one on a part” liberally.  Quiet sections greatly benefit from reduction of the clutter (and it helps with the overall intonation of the band).

With this new arrangement we have now three tone colors, four parts, and subtle gradations of two of those parts.  We have gone from three colors in our crayon box to six.

We can get even more colors if we have doubling.  Every flute, of any size, plays approximately the same as the C Flute.  Every flute player should be able to play the Piccolo.  Think of the terrific sound of eight Piccolos playing either together, or more horrific still, eight individual, contrapuntal lines!  What a wondrous sound that could be.

Next we could bring in our rare species of flutes.  The Tenor Flute is the first choice as it is by far the most common, but if you are assured of some of the rare species, by all means, plunder your riches.  The rare flutes should really be thought of as double instruments.  There is no reason in the world to have a Bass Flute playing when the full band is at fortissimo.  Reserve these rare flutes for quiet moments to reap the most rewards.

With just eight players, we really can have a whole palate of sound.  But remember, the flute family is only one flavor of sound; the ear needs more than just flute to survive.  If I had the option of eight players, all of whom can double on various instruments, I would probably choose an arrangement like this:

Player 1 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 2 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 3 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 4 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 5 – C Flute, Alto Flute

Player 6 – C Flute, Alto Flute

Player 7 – C Flute, Tenor Flute

Player 8 – C Flute, Bass Flute

This is of course a pie-in-the-sky scenario, but let’s think of the possibilities.  All eight players play multiple instruments.  At any one time we can have eight C Flute playing between one and eight different parts.  For forte sections, four first and four seconds would give the most impact.  Also at any one time we can have four Piccolos.  This scenario is useful for loud, bombastic, and terrifying passages.  (Think how much more terrifying this would be if all eight players switched to Piccolo!)  At the bottom end, we could see ourselves with a soft, low quartet of two Altos, a Tenor, and a Bass.  Would could have two Piccolos and six C Flutes; two Piccolos, four C Flutes, and two Alto Flutes.  The combinations are immense and exciting!

Here is what a full choir of flutes can do.

Flutes – Introduction




            The flute family is the highest voice in the band.  The C Flute, and its close kin the Piccolo, carry the top notes, and indeed are sometimes the only instruments capable of playing in the top soprano range with delicacy.  The flute, however is a loner in the band world.  It is a woodwind with no reed.  Its sound production is unlike any other instrument, and thus it becomes the one unique voice in the ensemble.  This fact, however, has gone unnoticed by most arrangers and bandestrators.  The traditional role of the flute is a simple soprano, but this role may be changing.

The Flute Family has recently undergone a massive expansion.  The popularity of flute choirs has seen a rise in the so-called “harmony” flutes.  When we think of the flute, we picture the traditional C Flute, but this is now only the tip of a much larger family.  These new voices are just waiting to be explored by creative orchestrators and bandestrators.


Nomenclature – Traditional flute nomenclature does not work.  For years the standard C Flute and Piccolo were the only flutes available for use, and then came along the slightly larger Flute in G, which we know as the Alto Flute.  However, the earliest composers to use this instrument, like Gustav Holst, called the instrument a Bass Flute.  Hence we have confusion already.  When a flute an octave lower than the C Flute was finally constructed, it was christened the Bass Flute entirely skipping over the terms tenor and baritone.  Over the past two decades, flutes even lower than the traditional “Bass” have been constructed and are seeing wider use.  In this volume, I am trying to do my part to rectify this situation.  I am using the terms Tenor, Baritone, Bass, etc. to refer to these instruments in their proper role.  What we generally know as the Bass Flute, now becomes the Tenor Flute.  The new Bass Flute is now the instrument pitched one octave lower (what we generally call the Contrabass Flute).

Traditional Name

Revised Name

Piccolo Piccolo
G Treble G Treble
E-flat Soprano E-flat Soprano
Alto Alto
Bass Tenor
Contra-alto Baritone
Contrabass Bass
Sub-Contra-Alto Sub-Bass
Double Contrabass Contrabass

Many of these flutes are rare and not widely used, but I am including them for the sake of presenting the complete family.  Ten years ago, some of these instruments were represented by only a few individual specimens, but today can be seen more regularly.

For the majority of band writing, the bandestrator need only to familiarize themselves with the Piccolo, C Flute, and perhaps the Alto Flute.  All others are rare visitors.


D-flat Piccolo

C Piccolo

G Treble

E-flat Soprano

C Flute

B-flat Flute d’Amore

A Flute d’Amore

Alto Flute

Tenor Flute (Bass)

Baritone Flute (Contra-alto/Contr’alto)

Bass Flute (Contrabass)

Sub-Bass Flute (Sub-Contrabass)

Contrabass Flute (Double Contrabass)