The bass flute is a fascinating instrument, occupying the tenor range of the flute ensemble.
While repertoire for the bass flute is quite rare, its increasing popularity over the last several decades makes it a good point for discussion.
Here, we’ll go through an overview of the bass flute, its origins, and some repertoire for the instrument.
While the bass flute is a beautiful instrument, its application in ensembles is actually quite limited.
The bass flute doesn’t bear very much power, which means that in most orchestral situations, or when paired with brass instruments and other naturally loud instruments, it tends to get buried.
This said, the bass flute really shines in smaller chamber settings, where the bass flute is either the solo instrument or a member of a standalone woodwind choir, such as a flute choir.
While the written range of the bass flute is identical to the standard C flute, it actually transposes down an octave.
Here is the bass flute’s range compared to the C flute:
If you ever have trouble remembering the transposition of the bass flute, just remember that it’s the opposite of the piccolo. The piccolo transposes an octave up from the standard flute, and the bass flute transposes an octave down.
The bass flute also tends to have a J-shaped headjoint, although variations with a T-shape are relatively common.
Brief history of the bass flute
The modern concert bass flute is a relatively recent invention, dating back to the 1930s.
However, there have been previous iterations of bass register flutes that date back to the Renaissance, although they vary quite a bit from the standard bass flute we have today.
The invention of the modern bass flute is credited to the British flute manufacturer Rudall & Rose, although other versions were developed soon after by Kotato & Fukushima, as well as Jupiter and Eva Kingma.
While we only received our official bass flute in the last 100 years, the term “bass flute” was frequently used as an alternative name for the alto flute.
If you’d like to learn more about the alto flute, feel free to click here to read more about the instrument.
Bass flute repertoire
As you can probably imagine, bass flute repertoire is relatively rare compared to the other auxiliary flute instruments.
While its use in the orchestra is quite hard to come by, there are actually several instances of the bass flute’s implementation in the concert wind ensemble, an ensemble which originated around the same time as the bass flute.
A solid example is John Mackey’s iconic wind ensemble piece The Frozen Cathedral, which features the bass flute at several moments:
Several composers from the last 50 years wrote pretty innovative pieces for the bass flute, such as Brian Ferneyhough’s new complexity work Mnemosyne:
The bass flute also made a few appearances in jazz, as it was taken up as a secondary instrument by saxophonists Henry Threadgill and Brian Landrus, among others.
The bass flute is an incredibly fascinating instrument, and with its recent implementation in chamber ensembles it’s exciting to see where its performance practice and repertoire will go in the future.
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