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

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 – 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)