H. Macaulay Fitzgibbon on flute characteristics (1914)

The following is Chapter IX of The Story of the Flute by H. Macaulay Fitzgibbon, published in London in 1914.



by H. Macaulay Fitzgibbon

Popularity of the flute—Its tone—Various registers—Its agility— Harmonics—Double tongueing—The glide—Vibrato effect— Shakes and turns—Tremolo—Best keys—Hygenic aspect.


THE flute excites more enthusiasm among its votaries than any other instrument. There is a kind of free-masonry among flute-players. "Can any mortal mixture of Earth's mould breathe such divine, enchanting ravishment?" cries one. Mersenne says that "if the concert of angels had not the sole right to be called 'ravishing,' the flute would merit this superlatively admiring epithet." An American enthusiast writes: "'Tis so elegant, so stately, so powerful, so gracious, that I can think of nothing to liken it to, except a tall, slender, grey-eyed, manifold- cultured young Queen, pure with all the reverend characteristics of maidenhood, and at the same time eloquent with that instinctive understanding of the whole humanity of life, by which genius gives expression to emotions it does not need to experience." (!) The Paradisical pleasures of the Mohammedans are said to consist largely of playing on the flute.

Macfarren in 1837 found in the Isle of Man sixteen flute-players to a single violoncellist and clarinetist. Special journals, such as The Flutists' Magazine and The Flutonicon (1842), containing music and critical notices of the great players of the day, were issued by Mr. James for the delectation of the countless amateurs of the instrument. Whole operas were transcribed for two, or even one flute. Schopenhauer mentions in his Table-Talk that he possessed all of Rossini's operas arranged for the flute, and that he played them for an hour daily; luckily he never required—or even permitted—any one to listen to him! The Musical Monthly for 1820 complained that accompaniments "for the German flute" were added to every piece of music. The climax was reached about 1820–50. It Was followed by a decline in popularity. Of late, however, there has been a very perceptible increase of interest taken in the flute, due in a great measure to the skill and high artistic standard of some of the present-day solo players, and to the good class of compositions favoured by them. Several notable soloists have given successful flute recitals in London and elsewhere; their programmes have included much really good music, and the public are discovering that, as Hamlet says, "There is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ."

Tone of the FIute

The most obvious feature of the flute is the limpid sweetness and clearness of its tone. This liquid sound is quite peculiar to it; even the organ cannot exactly reproduce it. It rather resembles the human voice, especially that of a boy. There is something particularly fascinating about the soft, velvety, so to speak, "glassy" tone of the flute, which "falls upon the ear like flakes of snow." Though passionate, it is quite devoid of the rough, tearing tone of the reed instruments. Many orchestral players produce a hard, mechanical tone like a clarinet or oboe; others strive apparently to rival the cornet or trombone, but this is not the true flute tone. The old flute had undoubtedly more of this characteristic mellifluous sound than the modern Böhm. The cause of this peculiar tone-quality is not known with certainty, but it probably arises from the absence of a mouthpiece of any kind. Flute tone requires gentle treatment, is limited in power or quantity, and is unsuited for large concert halls; but is capable of the most delicate effects in skilful hands, when the player becomes, as it were, united sympathetically to his flute. Too many play forte throughout. Goethe says, "To blow is not to play upon the flute; you must move the fingers "; he might have added, " and vary the strength and manner of your blowing." Its real character is too often sacrificed to rapid execution, calculated to show off the technique of the player rather than the beauty of the instrument.

Its various Registers

The tone varies very considerably in the various registers. The characteristic notes of the lowest octave (especially if played piano and in a minor key) are invaluable in soft, mournful, elegaic passages, expressing, as Berlioz says, "an accent of desolation, but of humility and resignation at the same time." They are admirable in solos, but require careful treatment in orchestral writing, being easily rendered inaudible. They can also infuse a certain tinge of mystery into the music. On the whole, the best part of the instrument is the middle register: there the notes are mild, sweet, plaintive, and poetic, admirably suited to convey the dreaminess of love. Walckiers mentions melancholy as one of the chief characteristics of the flute; hence Sir Henry trying, at a dinner of the Royal Society of Musicians, once humorously referred to the flute as "perhaps the most conspicuous interpreter of all the melancholy of these damp islands. What a stimlilus to charitable impulse ought to be given by the flute!" The upper register is brilliant, bright, gay, lark-like. In an orchestra it tells out and penetrates the whole mass of the strings. The flute has been termed "the diamond of the orchestra"; and Gevaert says, "Les flutes, grace et ornament de 1'orchestre, créant au dessus de la masse sonore une atmosphere de lumiére azurée." Schumann speaks of the "ethereal tones" of the upper register, which have been compared to a delicate light blue in painting.

Some one has spoken of the "fatal facility" of the flute. It certainly is much the most flexible and agile of all wind instruments. Rapid sequences, scales, arpeggios, and octaves in all keys, skips from high to low notes and vice-versâ, all are easily playable on it. "Harmonics" are also possible in the hands of skilled players, and they occasionally use them even in orchestral compositions, in order to simplify difficult passages. Sometimes they are used (especially by continental flautists) for the purpose of varying the tone-colour and expression, and Terschak, Doppler, and others have introduced these "flageletto" notes into some of their solo compositions. The tone of harmonics produced from the lowest C natural and C# (and B, if on the instrument) is very remarkable. Drouet objected to the use of harmonics, owing to their being always accompanied by a very slight sound of a fifth below.


A peculiarity of the flute is that very rapid staccato passages can be played with great distinctness by means of "double-tongueing" and "triple-tongueing"; the only other instrument on which this can be done is the cornet. This effect, which was known in the days of Hotteterre, is produced by the rapid enunciation of such syllables as "dou-gou" or "too-coo-too," in which the tongue strikes alternately on two different parts of the palate. This is, no doubt, more or less of a trick—James terms it "Babylonish gabble " (which it too often is)—and should only be used when absolutely necessary. It is very usual in old-fashioned flute solos, but is not very frequently employed in orchestral music. Raff, however, uses it in his Third Symphony, Saint-Saens in his ballet in Ascanio, and Rimsky-Korsakow, in his Grande Paque Russe, produces a tremolo effect by very rapid double-tongueing on a piccolo and two flutes.

Drouet and Richardson excelled in this device. Good "double-tongueing" can only be acquired by constant practice. One Dothel Figlio is said by Southey to have slit his tongue that he might excel in it. Mr. Taylor mentions a player who always carried the head-joint of his flute with him on solitary walks in the country and practised his "double-tongueing" as he walked along. I have known a flautist to silently practise this action of the tongue (but, of course, without the flute) during the sermon in church! In the hands of a skilful player a single flute can produce the effect of two, one playing the melody and the other the accompaniment. The extraordinary performances of one George Bayr (c.1810) created a great sensation in Vienna, and to this day it is sometimes stated that he played double notes on the flute. Mr. Broadwood tells an amusing story of a Dutchman who was noted for his power of sustaining chords on his flute:—

"I was present," he says, "at the Philharmonic rehearsal [in London], and well remember the brilliant and rapid staccato articulation with which the special wonder was ushered in. Presently came a pause; then amid deep silence and breathless expectation, the player emitted three several simultaneous sounds, . . . which were greeted by the orchestra and its conductor (Sterndale Bennett) with one vast, irrepressible shout of laughter. When this subsided the Dutchman had fled."

The name of this magician was Koppitz; he composed a concerto with a long cadenza in these doublenotes.

Other Effects

Another trick much used in old times, when the holes of the flute were directly covered by the fingers, was entitled the "glide," a kind of sigh created by sliding the fingers slowly off the holes and thus producing quarter-tones, as in strings. Nicholson and Richardson were much addicted to this trick, which, according to an old writer, "is used to express great tenderness or pity, or anguish or despair." It is now happily Impossible on modern flutes with solid metal "touches." The vibrato effect can also be produced on the flute, and is sometimes extremely effective if Introduced sparingly.

Shakes, etc.

Turns and graces of all kinds, especially trills and shakes, are perhaps more effective on the flute than on any other instrument. Prolonged shakes have been frequently Introduced by the great composers, Auber in his Bronze Horse has one twenty bars long. They are highly effective also on the piccolo. Wagner often introduces them; in Siegfried two piccolos have one for twenty bars, and in the Walkure's ride the flutes shake on the topmost notes of their compass. Strauss in Til Eulenspiegel has a long piccolo shake.

Two flutes playing in thirds or sixths (if not too high up on their compass) are peculiarly effective, as has been noticed by all the leading composers since the era of Bach and even before it; but tremolo passages in thirds, etc., although occasionally used, are not so effective on the flute as on strings, and are sometimes very difficult, especially if on the top register.

Suitable Keys

Certain keys are peculiarly suited to the flute; thus the flat keys, especially Db and Ab, are most effective in pathetic or elegaic adagio movements. In lively brisk movements the sharp keys, especially E and B, are brilliant, sparkling, and effervescent. Drouet's favourite key was G, a rather difficult one on his old German flute; Nicholson preferred F.

Hygienic Aspects

The ancients used the flute in cases of certain complaints, epilepsy, sciatica, gout, and to cure the bite of a viper; and Galen advises that the instrument be played on the suffering part. It was supposed also to soften the rigour of punishment, and the Tyrrhenians scourged their slaves to the sound of flutes. The medical profession has in recent times recognised that flute-playing (in moderation) is decidedly beneficial to the health, and is especially valuable as strengthening the chest and lungs, owing to the deep but not excessive inhalations it necessitates. Flute-playing has often been ordered by doctors as a cure for a tendency to pulmonary disease, as in the case of Böhm himself.