It’s not that complicated.
Lauren Bacall said it best, in To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together . . . and blow.”
Which may be why the flute is the oldest musical instrument known to humanity. Flutes going back 40,000 years or so have been unearthed in Germany. They were carved from smallish animal bones, hollowed out and given fingerholes. Players simply blew across an opening at either end of the bone. Such “edge-blown aerophones,” common to many cultures, evolved in two varieties: side-blown or transverse (like the Western concert flute but also the Chinese dizi and Indian bansuri) and end-blown (like the Arabic ney and Japanese shakuhachi). Don’t confuse end-blown flutes with fipple flutes like the recorder and pennywhistle. They are constructed from tubes plugged at one end except for a hole you blow into. That fipple directs your breath across a built edge, making it harder not to produce an acceptable sound. You still have to put your lips together, but only to cover the fipple hole.
Why have flutes survived all these years?
For one thing, they’re easy to play. What’s more, they sound simple. My beloved CU orchestral master Abe Chavez once told me, regarding a flutist we both knew, “Larry, she’s just like her instrument: no overtones.” (I took his words to heart.)
Flutes have limited dynamic range. Their low notes don’t project well, although really high flute notes can drown out everyone else on stage. What flutes do have is that pure, folk-like sound, plus jaw-dropping facility in rapid passagework. A good flutist can tear through a whole bunch of notes faster and cleaner than any trumpet, trombone, bassoon, or marimba. Listen to recorder-player extraordinaire Kathryn Montoya ripping up some “divisions” on John Come Kiss Me Now:
(Ensemble Galilei, From Whence We Came, Sono Luminus DSL 92194)
You can do a lot with a flute. No sound better sums up a shepherd’s idle afternoon, a deep forest hidden in shadow, or fairies flitting through a Shakespeare comedy. A few Romantic and Modern composers have expanded their horizons further. Listen to the pastoral, yet somehow eery effect that four flutes—four!—can produce in Mahler’s Fourth:
That sort of creative scoring was more the exception than the rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Romantic era, ever more dedicated to heroic, singular gestures, pretty much sidelined the flute as a virtuoso solo instrument, turning instead to violins and pianos, which offered wider pitch and dynamic ranges, also more impressive timbral flexibility.
But flutists are a hardy bunch. They keep playing, keep improving flute technology and technique, keep pestering composers to write them something. Nowadays we are awash in excellent recordings of the flute repertoire. In fact, thanks to a rare alignment of the stars—BIS Records’ founding producer Robert von Bahr and the very talented Sharon Bezaly—you can more or less one-stop shop right here. (If you want downloads, you’ll be directed to von Bahr’s worthy eclassical.com. So, two stops.)
Bezaly’s dominance of the high-res flute landscape would be scandalous if she weren’t so good. Seriously, if The Times (UK) called you “God’s gift to the flute,” wouldn’t you include that in your bio? In her case, it’s not hyperbole.
Bezaly’s most recent release (BIS-1849) consists entirely of two concertos, one of which is a transcription of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto. Your response to that will depend pretty much on whether you like the original, and many people do. I found the other work, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Flute Concerto Op. 69, “Dances with the Winds,” more engaging. Bezaly gives us two versions, which is one version more than most music lovers will need. (Apparently flutists asked Rautavaara to provide a three-flute version instead of his original four-flute scoring, so he did.) They’re virtually identical. And no, three flutists are not needed. Just one Bezaly.
If you’re only getting started with flute literature, it might be better to go with Great Works for Flute and Orchestra (BIS-1679). It includes three main courses: an orchestrated version of Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano plus concertos by Carl Reinecke and Carl Nielsen. Like his Clarinet Concerto, Nielsen’s 1926 Flute Concerto is a central work of the 20th-century solo repertoire. Nielsen dramatizes the proceedings by setting the “pastoral moods” and “mild character” of the flute against cruder, more aggressive actions by other instruments. It’s very effective; Bezaly stays in character, but her energy and alertness make it clear that this particular forest sprite is no pushover.
Also in the album: Cécile Chaminade’s lovely Concertino (1902). Trust me, if you’ve ever hung around flutists, you’ve heard this one. It’s a student exam piece, commissioned by the Paris Conservatoire’s great flute teacher Paul Taffanel. Chaminade, incidentally, was one of the few women in her time fully respected as a composer.
My other favorite work here is the Poulenc Sonata. We can thank James Galway for the orchestrated accompaniment: he asked composer Lennox Berkeley, who knew Poulenc well, to try his hand at re-scoring the “entirely pianistic” original piano part. Berkeley’s restless imagination led him to solutions that sound in no way keyboard-ish. Best of all, Poulenc’s wit and melodic gifts survive, clothed now in gorgeous new colors:
Interested in the original? Get Champs Hill Records’ recent Francis Poulenc: Complete Chamber Works, which includes an exquisite rendition of the Flute Sonata by Daniel Pailthorpe, Co-Principal Flute of the BBC SO.
Ready to go further? I like Bezaly’s 2006 Bridge Across the Pyrenees (BIS-SACD-1559), with music by Joaquín Rodrigo, Jacques Ibert, and François Borne, accompanied by conductor John Neschling and the São Paulo SO. Further still? Try Nordic Spell (BIS-1499), concertos by three Scandinavian composers, or Bezaly’s all-Mozart album (BIS-1539). It is entirely possible that Mozart was not fond of the flute, but you wouldn’t know that from hearing what’s on this album.