The sound of the flute
The sound of a flute is special; it is a sound loved by musicians and non-musicians alike.
As flute players we compare our sound with other flute players’ sounds and we tend to develop a consensus among ourselves about what constitutes a good sound. But what about the broader musical community? How does the flute fit into the wider sound world of orchestras and chamber music? Many years ago when I was guest editor of The Flute magazine for the May 1994 issue, I decided to ask the musicians who work with us, players of other orchestral instruments, accompanists and conductors, what they thought about the flute.
I devised a questionnaire. Thirty-nine questionnaires were completed. Here is part of the article I wrote based on the response I received. I think the comments are still relevant and a reminder that the flute can express many colours and emotions.
Here are the questions I asked my colleagues:
What words would you use to describe the flute
a) as a solo instrument?
b) in an orchestral context?
What are your favorite pieces which showcase the flute?
As you would imagine there was a big range of perceptions about the sound of the flute. Many people noted the wide range of potential sounds ‘feathery and harsh by contrast’, ‘shrill to fluffy’, ‘reedy soft or bright’, ‘warm to cold’.
The most popular adjective was ‘silvery’ (nine times). One person said ‘like mercury’. Also in this vein were ‘liquid’, ‘fresh’, ‘bright white’, ‘like white wine’, ‘sparkly’, ‘dazzling’, ‘shiny’ and ‘clear’.
The second most popular adjective after silvery was ‘warm’ (seven times). Also mentioned were ‘woody’, ‘rounded’, ‘breathy and sexy’, ‘sensuous’ and ‘mellow’. One conductor quoted the poet Sidney Lanier with ‘cushion of velvet’.
Another conductor thought that the modern orchestral wind section had lost a certain colour with the passing of the wooden flute. He thought the tendency of modern flute players to go for brilliance and vibrato rather than purity meant that the flute does not always blend as part of the wind section.
Most respondents did not differentiate between solo and orchestral contexts in their comments. However two people used the words ‘icing on the cake’ to describe the sound of the flute in an orchestra. Other comments were ‘… incisive…coming through the texture’ , ‘…floats above the orchestra’ and ‘… ethereal when combined with violins’.
Two people found the flute ‘haunting’. Another wrote ‘quite enchanting’ and another ‘spooky’. ‘It always captures my attention’ wrote a horn player. However a pianist said that orchestral flute solos ‘… move me less than other wind solos’ and thought that this was probably because there is less ‘struggle’ in the sound. These sentiments were echoed by two other people. A bassoonist griped ‘No reed problems … too damned easy to play … it has it’s place in the colour chart (just!)’.
Other criticisms were mainly about the shrillness of the flute, mentioned four times. Three other people said that the sound was piercing for those who have to sit close by. Two people thought that the flute sound lacked a clear attack or accent.
A clarinetist found the flute ‘… only just tolerable’. A different clarinetist thought the flute was ‘… all air, hardly and note’. Another three people, two of them clarinetists, found the flute dull or bland ‘… many flute players produce a fairly bland tone that makes listening for any length of time rather tedious’. (What’s wrong with all these clarinetists?)
‘Only flute players have favorite flute pieces’ wrote one percussionist, but he was mistaken. Here is a list of the most popular pieces in descending order.
Debussy L’apre-midi d’un faun 7x
Ravel Daphnis and Chloe 7x
Donizetti Mad scene from Lucia 6x
Gluck Dance of the Blessed Spirits 5x
Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite 4x
JS Bach obligati from Cantatas 3x
Brahms solos from symphonies 3x
Martinu Sonata for flute and piano 3x
Messiaen Le merle noir 3x
Mozart Concerto for flute and harp 3x
Prokofiev Sonata for flute and piano 3x
JS Bach Sonatas 2x
Bizet Entr’acte from Carmen 2x
Ibert Concerto 2x
Jolivet Chant de Linos 2x
Nielsen Concerto 2x
Prokofiev Classical Symphony 2x
Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf 2x
Ravel ‘anything by Ravel’ 2x
Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals 2x
Villa Lobos Jet Whistle 2x
Many other pieces were mentioned just once.