Brief background & history of the bass flute

The bass flute was for many years the lowest member of the flute family. However, in recent years the rise in popularity of flute choirs and developments in low flute design have resulted in the addition of contrabass and subcontrabass models in G and C.

Pitched in C, the bass flute sounds one octave lower than the standard concert flute (C flute), and the standard bass flute has a workable range of almost three octaves from the C one octave below middle C.

Different makes of standard-model bass flute are relatively similar to each other in terms of design; all have curved headjoints, to reduce the amount of arm stretch required of the player, and the vast majority are held horizontally to the side of the player. The basic design of a standard-model bass flute is the same as the C flute, with the specifications proportionally larger and extra levers and touchpieces added to some of the keys to allow for more comfortable hand positions. The standard model has a C footjoint and closed holes, and may not have trill keys. As a result, there are many constraints in terms of extended techniques, especially in the area of multiphonics, which often need additional venting in order to sound. The tube length is around 146cm and the instrument requires a large capacity of air at slow speeds. The instrument can be slow to respond, especially when cold, and it is not unusual for the bass flute to be amplified in performance, especially when heard with large ensembles.

The bass flute developed in a time of invention. Boehm's alto flute in G, with its design completed in the mid 1850s, was the most successful of a number of experiments by different makers to create lower pitched flutes, often with extended footjoints to increase the pitch range, and using different sizes of tube. The quest for a workable bass flute continued into the twentieth century, with limited success. Dayton Miller says that at the Paris Exposition of 1900: "there were four bass flutes in C, of different models. One flute was supported at its lower end on a tripod stand similar to the common metal music rack. On all of these bass flutes the tone holes were far out of reach of the fingers, and the keys were manipulated by long extension rods. The speaker tested each of the bass flutes; the keys were closed with difficulty. While one instrument was being tried, its maker stood by and used his two hands to press down certain keys as required to secure closing; even then the tone was produced with difficulty." (Dayton C Miller, Modern Alto, Tenor and Bass Flutes, American Musicological Society Annual Meeting, 1938 pp8-15)

A more successful foray into bass flute design came from Abelardo Albisi, an Italian flute player who created the Albisiphone in 1910. This was an upright bass flute with a low B which had a range of around two and a half octaves. According to Miller, the instrument used standard Boehm system fingerings, had a length of 50 inches and a bore of an inch and a half (op. cit. p13). Albisi was the first flute at La Scala, Milan, and a number of composers wrote for his new instrument, including Mascagni, Puccini and Leoncavallo. There are also reports of the instrument being used in Vienna.

The modern bass flute, as we know it today, is the result of a surge in British flute bands, and a demand for flutes of different sizes to cover a wider pitch range. Developed by Rudall, Carte and Company in the 1920s, the instrument features prominently in their catalogue of 1931 (Rudall, Carte and Company, Catalogue of Musical Instruments, Military and Orchestral, London, 1931). The instrument had a curved headjoint and was held diagonally to the body, in a combination between Albisi's upright design and the horizontal design which is most prevalent today.

The Kingma System bass flute, in its most recent upright design, was developed in 2007 and demonstrates the potential for the creation of a wide-ranging repertoire using the full functionality that the Kingma System provides.

A note on nomenclature

It was commonplace, especially in Britain in the early Twentieth Century, to refer to the alto flute as a bass flute in G, as it was the lowest member of the flute family at the time. The term 'bass flute in C' was adopted for the Rudall Carte instrument of the 1920s, and after a while the term 'alto flute' came into common usage for the G instrument. As a result of this, confusion can sometimes arise, as parts scored for the 'bass flute' (for example, by Holst in the Planets Suite), are intended for what is now known as the alto flute.