We all know the flute for its soft, delicate sound that can multiply in its high register and sing like birdsong.
But are you familiar with the complexity of tone that the alto flute brings with it?
Here, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to familiarize yourself with the alto flute and the beautiful sound it projects.
(Cover image: Altus Flutes)
The alto flute is, as you would assume, a member of the flute family, but it sits much lower in register compared to the standard flute.
Here is the flute range compared to the alto flute range:
Unlike the standard C flute, the alto flute is actually a transposing instrument pitched in G.
So when you see a note on the staff for an alto flute, the real (sounding) note is a perfect fourth below the written note.
However, it is still written in treble clef, just like the standard C flute.
Alto flute with a curved head
There are two standard versions of the alto flute, both of which vary in their headjoint shape.
The first version is the alto flute with a curved head, which is super helpful for flutists who might not have as far of an arm span. However, this comes at the cost of slightly worse intonation.
Check out this recording of Chris Potter playing the curved head alto flute:
Alto flute with a straight head
The alternative to the curved head is the straight head alto flute.
While this instrument is not as accessible to flutists with larger arm spans, it carries the benefit of more of a control over intonation.
This makes it a go to for many flutists looking for something a bit tighter.
Here is Christian Le Délézir playing the straight head alto flute:
Brief history of the alto flute
The origins of the alto flute go back to the great inventor Theobald Boehm, who is known as the inventor of the modern C flute as well as the Boehm system, a revised keywork system for the flute that involved larger key holes, and a subtractive key system (all of the keys being open by default).
The invention dates back to the mid 1850’s, less than a decade after his invention of the modern C flute.
This instrument was one of his first applications of his new Boehm system after his application of it to the C flute, which allowed players ease when switching between his new C flute and the alto flute.
This design of the alto flute is a proportional downscale from the modern C flute, which means the instrument retains a lot of the musical richness that the C flute has while sitting in a lower range.
Alto flute repertoire
Ever since the alto flute's rise in popularity in the 20th century, there have been several amazing pieces added to the instrument’s repertoire, both in chamber settings as well as orchestral writing.
Most notably, the alto flute is shown off in the orchestral writing of Stravinsky and Ravel, who both capitalized on the instrument's dark tone.
Check out this luscious alto flute solo from Suite No. 2 of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, originally composed in 1912:
Even more notable is the role of the alto flute in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, or The Rite of Spring, composed in 1913:
The alto flute has even more of an opportunity to shine in its chamber writing, which is excellently displayed in Toru Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea, a duo for alto flute and classical guitar:
Another contemporary piece that stands out is Kaija Saariaho’s Couleurs du vent, a 9-minute piece for solo alto flute composed in 1998:
I particularly love Saariaho’s comment on the nature of this piece and the origins of its title:
“In the face of a fatal disease in my family, the blowing of the wind became the symbol of life to me, and the piece became a story of breathing… “
The alto flute is an instrument with an extraordinarily unique sound, that which is beautiful and occupies a musical character like no other instrument.
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