Berlioz on the Flute in the Orchestra

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)

The section on the flute in Hector Berlioz's Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes is schizophrenic and confusing. He starts out by praising the perfection of the new Boehm flute and urging its adoption. Soon he is waxing poetic about the sadness of the "veiled and weak" sounds of the flute in the middle register, particularly the medium F and of the Bb above the stave in Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Only the flute could impart the right effect, the right "expression of desolation to a sad melody", he explains.

But wait. The Boehm flute does not have a veiled and weak f'' and b''b. Not even on the mid-19th century multi-keyed flute are these notes normally veiled. It is the one-key flute that has a veiled sound on those notes, because of its forked fingerings.

What is going on? Berlioz originally published his treatise in 1843/44. He presumably added the introductory material praising the Boehm flute in 1855 when he revised and expanded his treatise. He had, in the interim, been captivated by the silver Boehm flute with its "soft and crystalline quality"; see his report on the instruments in the London Exhibition of 1851 on this Berlioz Website. But Berlioz, I assume, just left much of this chapter on flutes as he originally wrote it (and even then seems to have been recalling the flute from an earlier time).

Would Berlioz, in 1855, have wanted to hear Gluck's "sublime lament of a suffering and despairing spirit" on an even-toned Boehm flute, or would he still want to hear the sadness imparted by the veiled f'' and b''b on an early flute? I don't know. He does not address this question.

Berlioz's chapter on flutes tells us something of what a 19th century orchestral composer expected of an orchestral flutist. In 1904, Richard Strauss was asked to revise and update Berlioz's Treatise for a new publication. Strauss chose not to rewrite Berlioz, but to insert his own remarks in clearly indicated sections. Thus we also have some idea of what a composer at the turn of the century thought about the flute and its capabilities, and the contrast with the earlier views. We reprint here the text from Theodore Front's translation of Richard Strauss' edition, taken from A Treatise on Instrumentation, Berlioz and Strauss, Dover, New York, 1991.

Berlioz's original text is in black. Strauss' addenda are indented, in blue italics. [My own comments are in dark red, between brackets.] Musical illustrations, scores, and references to them are here mostly omitted. I have changed the notation for notes and pitch. There is also a chapter on the piccolo that we do not discuss.

Berlioz knew flutes well; he studied the flute (and guitar) as a youth. He probably played the one-key flute, and perhaps, later, multi-keyed flutes. It seems a bit strange to me that many of Berlioz's comments concerning keys (modes) would appear to apply more to the older one-key flute than to the mid-19th century simple system flutes he would have worked with professionally (see the section on French simple system flutes). For example, when he mentions the "soft timbre of the instrument" in the keys of Eb and Ab.

Strauss would have worked with all kinds of flutes, including simple system flutes, reform flutes, and Boehm flutes. He does not appear to distinguish between simple system and reform flutes, but, I think, includes both as "old flutes".

Berlioz was much enamored of Gluck and many of the scores are from Gluck's works. Strauss in turn was much enamored of Wagner and admits that Wagner's scores are "the alpha and omega of [his] additions".

The Flute (from Berlioz's Treatise on Instrumentation)

The Ordinary, Large Flute

This instrument, for a long time so imperfect in many respects, has now achieved such perfection and evenness of tone that no further improvement remains to be desired. We owe this to the skill of some manufacturers and to Boehm's method, following Gordon's discovery. [Berlioz evidently subscribed to the now discredited idea that much of the Boehm flute's design was first conceived by a certain Captain Gordon.]

The same will soon happen with the other wood-wind instruments. The purity of their tones remained far from perfect as long as the holes were placed according to the natural distance of the fingers instead of the rational division of the sound-tube, i.e. a division based on the laws of acoustics and determined by the nodal points of vibrations. Gordon and subsequently Boehm* started by boring the holes of their wind instruments at the points fixed by acoustical laws without considering whether the fingers could reach these holes with ease, with difficulty, or perhaps not at all. They felt sure that the difficulties thus created would be resolved in the course of time through some new contrivances.

After the instruments had been bored in this fashion and thus tuned to correct pitch, they invented a mechanism of keys and rings which could easily be reached by the fingers of the player. This device opened or closed the holes which otherwise would not be accessible to the fingers. This necessitated a complete change in fingering; but the difficulty was soon conquered. In view of the compensations offered by the new instruments built according to Gordon's and Boehm's system, we have no doubt that they will displace the old wood-wind instruments within a few years.

Unfortunately, this is still not so in Germany. Some of Boehm's flutes as well as the old flutes have the b below middle c', but flutes without this low B are said to have a better intonation. The b'''b and b''' can still be produced in piano, the c'''' only with caution. In forte c''''# and d'''' can also be played.

Wooden flutes have a finer tone than metal ones (silver or gold), but the latter respond more easily. [By 'wooden flutes', does Strauss mean 'wooden Boehm flutes' or 'simple system flutes'? I don't know.]

[Berlioz was wrong about Boehm wind instruments displacing the other systems. Though a footnote remarks "In France, there are also Boehm clarinets, bassoons and oboes in use", the full Boehm system instruments, other than the flute, never became standard—because the loss of "character" entailed by that system was judged too great. And even for the flute, it was more than "a few years" before the Boehm flute displaced all others outside of France, as Strauss' remark of 1904 shows.]

Just a few years ago the flute had a range of only two octaves and a fifth: d' to a''', chromatically. Two semitones below and three above were gradually added to this scale; this increased the range to three complete octaves: c' to c'''', chromatically.

However, not all flutists having instruments with the device necessary for producing the lowest C and C#, it is usually better not to use these tones in the orchestra. [The five-key flute with a D-foot was still common in mid-19C France.]

This restriction is no longer valid. I must not fail to warn the composer against using the high C as in my "Heldenleben."

The end of Act 2 of "Meistersinger" is also extremely difficult for the flutes, especially in staccato; in legato the figure b#-c'#-d'#-e' is easier. Compare also the end of "Goetterdaemmerung", which is very difficult for the flute. The trill a'''# with b''' etc. in the "Ride of the Valkyries" is very difficult to execute on the old flute. [The figures that appear in "Ride" are not really trills, but are fast alterations of two notes. The quick alteration of a''' with b''' is also extremely difficult on the old flute.]

The two highest tones, b''' and c'''', are rather difficult to produce and sound somewhat shrill; they should not be employed in pianissimo. High b'''b , however, can be sounded easily and sustained in the softest piano without any danger.

The number of tones permitting trills was rather limited on the old flute. Thanks to the keys added to the new flute, major and minor trills are practicable over the greater portion of its range:

[I beg to disagree re the third staff. The trills involving two notes up to g''' can be done acceptably on a mid-19C simple system flute, and are not particularly hard, and there is an acceptable g'''#/f'''# trill as well if one doesn't mind using three fingers. By the way, the trill b''/a''# seems to be missing from the table above.]

The trills marked * are all practicable today; the two marked + in a circle impracticable on the old flute unless a special key is provided for them. [I don't know why Strauss says a'''/g'''# is impracticable on the old flute while a'''/g''' is OK. I find the former much easier, as long as one has a low C# key. Both are easy with Schwedler's first trill key.]

Up to the trill g'''#/f'''#, the modern mechanism also permits the execution in piano.

On the flute built according to Boehm's system all trills are practicable up to the extreme high range (i.e. from low D# to the highest C); moreover, their intonation is much purer.

The flute is the most agile of all wind instruments. It is just as suitable for fast diatonic or chromatic passages—slurred or detached—as for arpeggios and figures with wide jumps, e.g.

Even repeated notes, like those played staccato on the violin, can be played by means of double-tonguing: [illustration omitted].

A special effect on the flute is the Flatterzunge (flutter-tonguing). (Cf. my "Don Quixote"). It is applicable to the oboe and clarinet. The player pronounces "drrrrr" during a moderately fast chromatic scale. The effect is something like the sound of birds fluttering through the air, or — in pp — like the soft chuckling of frolicsome girls in the distance.

The keys of D, G, C, F, A, E, Bb, Eb and their relative minors are the favorite keys on the flute; the others are much more difficult.

On the contrary, keys with flats are easier. [...on the Boehm flute.]

However, on Boehm flutes the key of Db is almost as easy as D.

The sound of the flute is soft in its medium range, rather piercing in its high notes, and very characteristic in its low register. The medium and high tones have no especially characteristic expression They are suitable for the most varied melodies and accents; however, they do not possess the artless gaiety of the oboe or the noble tenderness of the clarinet. One might, therefore, assume that the flute is an instrument almost devoid of expression, and that it may be used anywhere and for any purpose because of the facility with which it executes rapid passages or sustains the high tones so useful in the orchestra for filling out the high harmonies.

Generally speaking, this is true; yet a closer scrutiny will show that the flute is endowed with a character peculiarly its own and with a special aptitude for expressing certain feelings, in which it is matched by no other instrument. For instance, if one desires to give an expression of desolation to a sad melody, combined with a feeling of humility and resignation, the weak medium tones of the flute, especially in C# minor and D minor, will certainly produce the intended effect. As far as I know, only one master knew how to avail himself of this pale tone-color—Gluck. When listening to the D-minor melody of the pantomime in the Elysian-Fields scene in "Orfeo", one is immediately convinced that only a flute could play this melody appropriately. An oboe would be too child-like, and its tone not sufficiently clear. The English horn is too low. A clarinet would doubtless have been more suitable, but it would have been too strong for some of the passages; for even its softest tones cannot be reduced to the weak and veiled sound of the medium F and of the Bb above the stave, which imparts so much sadness to the flute in the key of D minor where these notes frequently occur. Finally, neither the violin, nor the viola, nor the violoncello—solo or in groups—could express this sublime lament of a suffering and despairing spirit. It required precisely the instrument selected by the composer. Moreover, Gluck's melody is conceived in such a way that the flute can follow every impulse of this eternal grief, still imbued with the passions of earthly life. The voice starts almost inaudible, seemingly afraid to be overheard; then its sighs softly and rises to the expression of reproach, of deep pain, to the cry of a heart torn by incurable wounds: gradually it sinks back into a plaint, a sigh and the sorrowful murmur of a resigned soul. Gluck was, indeed, a great poet!

An effect remarkable for its tenderness can be achieved by two flutes playing successions of thirds in the medium range in the keys of Eb and Ab, which are so favorable to the soft timbre of this instrument. A beautiful example of this can be found in the cavatina of the duet in "La Vestale": "Les Dieux prendront pitie". The tones Bb, Ab, G, F and Eb, linked together in the flutes in this fashion, have something of the sound of a harmonica. Thirds in the oboes, English horns or clarinets could not produce a similar effect.

Very few composers know how to employ the low tones of the flute advantageously. However, Gluck in the religious march in "Alceste" and later Weber in numerous passages of "Freischuetz" have shown how effective they are in harmonies of a serious or dreamy character. As mentioned above, these low tones blend very well with the low tones of the English horns and clarinets, providing the more subdued shade of a dark color.

Cf. the passage in the second act of "Lohengrin" in Ortrud's scene, where three flutes sustain an E unisono as the bass for the oboes and English horns.

In his later works Wagner employed the flute very rarely, but always very characteristically, as, for instance, in the third act of "Tristan"—the fluttering of the flag on Isolde's boat; in the second act of "Walkuere"—the expression of frivolous voluptuousness with Fricka's words "wie des Wechsels Lust du gewaennest"; in the third act of "Tannhausser"—the expression of holiness.

One can see from these brief examples how varied are the expressive possibilities of even so soft and relatively neutral an instrument as the flute—in the hands of a great musical poet utilizing it for his symbolic language.

Compare also the previously quoted example from Weber's "Freischuetz" [omitted]. There is something wonderfully dreamy in the low, sustained tones of the two flutes as Agatlie, during her prayer, beholds the tree tops in the silvery light of the moon.

The modern masters generally keep the flutes too persistently in the higher ranges. They always seem afraid that they will not be sufficiently clear amidst the mass of the orchestra. Consequently the flutes predominate in the ensemble instead of blending with it; the instrumentation thus becomes hard and sharp rather than sonorous and harmonious.

(very true indeed!)

The flutes constitute a family just as numerous as that of the oboes and clarinets. The large flute—with which this chapter deals—is the one most frequently used. In normal orchestras it is generally used in two parts, although soft chords sustained by three flutes would frequently produce wonderful effects. The combination of one high flute with four violins in a high, sustained five-part harmony sounds very charming. Although it is natural to assign the highest tones of the harmony to the first flute, there are many occasions where an inverse arrangement would be equally satisfactory.