“Composing for the flute”
by Michael Finegold
Artistic Director of the Essex Chamber Music Players
Recording artist with Navona Records.
As a flutist who has performed and recorded new compositions for flute I would like to give some tips for composing for the flute and the flute family.
First we need a reference to concert pitch. I will identify middle c on the piano as c1. See the chart below.
The Concert “C” Flute
The C flute is in concert pitch. It is notated at its sounding pitch. The lowest pitch and written note is b, 1/2 step below middle c1. Most flutes have a b-foot extension for playing the pitch especially professional flutes. Student flutes often have c1 as the lowest pitch. The low notes on the flute are considered very warm and lush.
The highest standard pitch on the flute is c4, which gives the flute approximately a three-octave range. From the late 19thcentury onward the range of the flute was expanded above high c4 to include c#4 thru f4.
The timbre characteristics, volume and durational capability of playing from the lowest flute pitches to the highest varies. In general the higher the flute plays the louder it becomes. The lowest pitches from bto about f1 are softer in volume than higher ones. It is best to score this range carefully, perhaps with a sparse texture or as a liner for a group of timbres, unless specially amplified. Of course dynamics can be controlled by the player and high notes played soft and sweetly. Once however in the range above approximately b3 it takes some effort to play softly. This is because to play the highest notes you need to blow with some force. To make the note quieter you have to squeeze your lips together tightly so as to get force with a small amount of air. It is also harder to play vibrato on these notes; so then the sound becomes plain and piercing. From c#4 and higher it becomes increasingly harder to sustain a pitch for a long duration and playing softly is nearly impossible. A d4can be held 7-8 seconds. An f 4 can be held 3-4 seconds. Above d4the character is a hard piercing sound. I particularly like these notes for short accented high point notes. Allow the players to get breaths in between. Subtract the durations of notes leading straight to a high note from the high note. If there are melodies from b3 to f 4 and higher consider having the flutist switch to piccolo for the passage(s).
The piccolo is also in concert pitch notated in the treble clef but an octave below where it actually sounds. The piccolo’s lowest pitch is d2 and it highest pitch is c5 an octave above the highest c4 on the flute. In my opinion the pitches from d2 to b3, especially c3 to b3 sound like a little flute, very beautiful. From c4 to c5 the piccolo really projects it high sound. The low register d2 to c3 on the piccolo doesn’t project as well as higher pitches and it should be part of a transparent and lighter texture.
The Alto Flute
The Alto flute register is from g below middle c1 to g3spanning three octaves. It is written in treble clef but transposed a fourth upward when notated so that for example the low g (the lowest pitch played) becomes a middle C. In other words it is the written C a ledger line below the lines of the treble clef staff. The alto flute generally is a softer instrument than the C flute and piccolo but its low notes are rich and beautiful. It needs a light and transparent texture to be heard well. Two alto flutes do better. The alto flute requires more breath volume so notes are held a maximum duration of pitches slightly less than the C flute
The Bass Flute
The Bass flute sounds and octave below the C flute and is notated on the treble clef an octave above where it sounds. It has a range of three octaves up to c3. Its lowest note c would be notated on the ledger line below the treble staff’s five lines. Its lowest pitch is c.
The Bass flute is even softer than the Alto flute. The bass flute maxmum duration of pitches is slightly less than the alto flute.
There are certain trills that are impossible on the flute unless the flute has custom made extensions. This also means that rapid passages are not easily played. They can however be fingered singularly but and as slow trills. They occur particularly on the lowest pitches. These are b to c1, b to c#1, c1 to d#1 and c#1 to d#1. The tremolo is the bto d#1.
I hope these tips do help you.
There will be more to come on harmonics, multiphonics and extended techniques of the flute.
Wishing you the best with your composing,
Michael Finegold, flutist