The Magic Toot: Reflections of a Casual Flautist

NEWTON F. I OLMAN, a New England Yankee, is now operating a tree farm in New Hampshire and enjoying the perquisites of a bucolic life, which include fishing in the spring, hunting in the fait, tooling on his flute in the winter, and writing whenever the spirit moves him.

WATCHING the televised Boston Symphony one day last winter, I was startled when the camera swung toward the musician trilling out an intricate cadenza for first flute. The close-up showed a very pretty woman. When I was young and still spending two hours a day attempting to conquer the hemidemisemiquavers, a female wind-instrument player was rarer than a female plumber. Ladies took up strings or piano.

Though I am no virtuoso, there was a day when I had a youthful dream of earning a living with my flute. Looking back, I am glad that this was at the time that the saxophone craze, aided by the Six Brown Brothers, was sweeping the country. Wherever I went, there was always a blaring sax to drown me out. But I was just stubborn enough to cling to the flute as a hobby. And all through life it has proved a handy way of getting rid of unwanted callers. It also provides an emotional outlet, and one never knows when an emotional outlet may be needed in my house.

A century ago, musical instruments began to increase everywhere, led by the eternal duo of violin and piano. But for a long time the flute lost ground; it seemed to be following its cousins, the flageolet and chalumeau, into gradual extinction. Only in very recent years, with the uprising of all minorities — and the aid of microphones — have flute players begun to be heard again.

While there has never been much love lost between violinists and flautists, my own reaction to fiddles was aggravated by years of unavoidable exposure to square-dance musicians. Firmly lodged in my memory is the comment of one of the early Bachs in a letter I came across while poking around for flute lore in Vienna. It was written when woodwinds, particularly flutes, were still supreme. Here is a loose translation: “Violinists, besides obtaining the clear, true tone of which they are reasonably capable, are constantly given to vibrato, tremolo, swelling, diminuendo, quavering, shaking, quivering, sobbing, wailing, plucking, clucking, plinking, twanging, groaning, moaning, and squeaking, whilst flautists follow the score in a dignified manner, blowing either loud or soft as called upon, and leaving further intricacy of tone to its proper province, that of the vocalists.”

Unfortunately, as time went on the balance of power shifted. It got so bad that most composers would toss off only a few trifling notes here and there for the gaunt and hungry flute players. Some composers came right out and showed their true colors. “The only thing worse than a flute is two flutes,” said Cherubini.

This trend accounted for the endless lines of rests that I sat through in my orchestra days — page after page of the degrading little things, while everybody else was blowing and scraping and pounding away like mad. It is noteworthy that this kind of music is always written by secondraters. Great composers always give the flute its due, as witness Bach and Mozart, Stravinsky and BartÓk.

It was in Beethoven’s day that large orchestras, ancestors of today’s symphonies, first began to assemble. The strings got in on the ground floor somehow, in spite of Sidney Lanier’s prediction that flutes would gain in popularity until they would outnumber strings in all orchestras. Soon flutes were snowed under, twenty to one, by violins alone. Ever afterward, the poor flute player was always crouched somewhere in the background, nursing his small piece of plumbing and his neurosis. He could play or not; nobody ever knew the difference.

Without the mike, the soft and fluid lowest octave of a flute is no match for louder instruments, even in a quartet or quintet. The middle octave can hold out against a slightly larger group, but this takes an aggressive nature and the lungs of a pearl diver. Orchestrations traditionally confine the flute player pretty much to his highest octave, where he is about as happy as a pianist with the lower two thirds of the keyboard out of action.

He is further bedeviled by eyestrain, trying to read up to “six lines above.”and cramps from the hopeless fingering combinations of the top scale. This upper-register fingering, eliminated on other woodwinds by merely pressing an octave key, breaks the hearts of most serious flute students early in the game. They turn to clarinet, sax, or horns; almost anything seems easier.

As a youngster of nine, I began an all-out attack on Wind Amongst the Trees. This ornate melody was obscured by triple tonguing, runs, octave jumps, and arpeggios, finally ending with an anguished shriek on high C. After seven or eight years, I had the first movement somewhat whipped. Then I quit and turned to an easier masterpiece, the piccolo obbligato in The Stars and Stripes Forever.

This repertoire did not take me as far as a Petrillo man. But it led to some insight into the general character of flute players. As Frederick the Great remarked severely when a careless courtier said. “Out of twenty-nine flute players here in town, only twenty-eight are eccentric enough to be noticeable”; “lch bin ein flöte-spieler!”

Flute players are perhaps not more peculiar than their instruments. Tones do not come out of the end, as with any respectable woodwind or horn, but right from the lips. And the flautist’s ears are only five inches from his mouth, where the sound emanates. It may be that the internal reverberation affects the mind. Anyway, once he has got well into habitual playing, the flautist begins a gradual retreat into his mysterious, solitary world. After a few years, he seldom emerges entirely. He does not even care much when nobody is listening to him. But if deprived of his instrument for long, his sinuses fairly scream for their accustomed doses of vibration.

Mention the instrument casually, and someone is likely to pipe up. “How about George Washington — didn’t he play the flute?” True. He didn’t indulge very deeply, but it shows that, like all great men, he had at least one psychotic habit. Even my own modest research proves that flute playing is apt to denote genius. Watching the ranks of politicians, we find that ukeleles and pianos mean little. What we need is another President who plays the flute.

THE pipes of Pan were nothing but a simple double-barreled flute. Pan had goat legs and horns on his human head. So we may assume that, like all flautists, he was considered somewhat odd, even among his mythological confreres. But the effect of his music was scientifically logical. The low notes of a flute are as soothing and enticing as the high notes are blood-curdling. And the precisely engineered silver tubes that we play today are perfectly capable of producing the same results attributed to Pan’s instrument.

In younger days, I tried an experiment along these lines, after some research on Pan’s mode of operation — moonlit nights, black he-goats, nymphs, and so on. It worked. One night I caught an enormous contralto. I managed to get away from her, but I gave up pastoral fluting on moonlit nights. It is too risky.

The recorder craze gives rise to a popular misconception. It is time to set the recorder straight: it is not an early, simplified form of our present-day flute. These gurgling, cooing wooden spouts are rather ancestors of clarinets and oboes. Take a recorder out on a moonlit night, and if you attract anything, it will be an elderly spinster with a passion for morris dancing.

It is true that, before 1700, the recorder was often included in the general family of flÛte-à-bec, blockflÖte, fipple flute, and heaven knows how many kinds of flute. However, when the transverse flute, our present type, was adapted to modern pitch with chromatics, the recorder was as good as dead. Dead, that is, until recent tonedeaf dilettantes began exhuming every old contraption they could find, from virginals to serpents. Dickens was probably thinking of the recorder when he had Dick Swiveller call flute playing a “good, sound, dismal occupation.”

Around 1915, prima donna Galli-Curci drew attention to the flute with her famous soprano and flute duet. Unfortunately, it did little for the musical standing of flautists. Every music-loving home had the recording; it was the talk of the day. The celebrated coloratura’s warblings were said to be such a perfect imitation of the accompanying flute you couldn’t tell one from the other. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the flute player was imitating Galli-Curci — a feat no less impressive because she often sang a little flat.

Many of us remember the diva as clearly as if she had sung only last week. But who remembers the name of the remarkable flautist who could duplicate her voice? This is the kind of thing flautists have always been up against, and it is why we are so moody.

Some reason can be found to explain why the orchestra flute player was treated for so long like Wayne Morse in the Senate. A flautist can also play a piccolo, just as a violinist can double on viola. And the piccolo is a real menace. A fountain-pen-sized flute, it has all the volume its big brother lacks. Turn a couple of piccolos loose in a symphony orchestra, and the whole string section might as well pack up and go home.

Aware of this, composers and conductors have long toadied to the string-dominated majority, telling the public some guff or other about tonal groupings — a mere smoke screen hiding the flautist’s basic urge to be heard. How did so many wailing violins, cellos, and bass fiddles get into the symphonies in the first place? And why is first violin always chosen concertmaster? Pure jealousy is the answer.

There may be those who hesitate to accept the unsupported word of a humble flute player; luckily, there is at hand the Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia (Rupert Hughes and Deems Taylor, Doubleday). This work includes a “Dictionary of Musicians,” seven to eight thousand names — violinists, singers, pianists in droves. Every fiddler who ever drew bow, except perhaps Jack Benny. But I can’t find a single one of several top-rank contemporary flute men. Important violin makers have all been listed, back to Amati, Stradivarius, and Guarnerius. And there is Sax, inventor of you know what. But Boehm, the originator of the modern flute, is dismissed with a couple of lines. The authors do better by a forgotten character who, around 1690, devised an instrument called a rackettenfagott. Just wait until the recorder tootlers discover the rackettenfagott!

So much for research, having proved our point: the flute player always gets the short end of the fagot.

So-called brass bands have also flouted the flautist. Bandsmen love noise, and they can never be sure when a flute player will take to his piccolo. One tiny piccolo can shrill out above a hundredpiece band. This infuriates the rest, chuffing and puffing into such heavy equipment as trombones and tubas. So, ignoring an audience which always loves to hear it, the piccolo is allowed only a few mean little trills and peeps, with an obbligato only when all hands are blasting away fortissimo. In the flute chair, you know what it is really like to feel alone.

Flute prestige hit bottom early in the twentieth century. Professional flautists, found only in the largest orchestras, were thin, furtive-looking chaps who went around with their instrument cases held under their coats like concealed weapons. Defensively cynical, to a man, they all played with a repressed technique, shunning all tonal diversity — a technique we still hear too often.

This was known as the classical approach: thin, clear tone without color or expression. My teacher was fanatical about it. He was no less abnormal than most flautists. He spent his last twenty-five years whistling away like an old B&M locomotive, all to himself, locked in his bedroom.

For years I accepted the classical style without question. Then, some twenty years ago, I heard a flute featured in Cab Calloway’s band. The performer thawed all the ice with which his instrument had been encrusted in the hands of symphony flautists. He played like a Heifetz, though the vehicle was jazz. And I declared a personal war on the traditions of flute playing.

I am still some way from Carnegie Hall, but now when I romp into Mozart’s Concerto in G Major, people do not start climbing out the windows. And far greater flautists, here and there, are starting to swell their lungs with free air and deliver. There is Hubert Barwahser, with the Vienna Symphony; listen to his recordings if you wish to hear a flute really sing.

But perhaps no flautist can ever gain the following of a Menuhin or a Rubinstein or a Casals. We who whistle are a strange lot, as I have intimated. But strange or not, when I sit down with my flute all the small children in the neighborhood gather around. They are my public. Television forgotten, they give me an attention that more skilled performers, with any other instrument, could never hold. The Pied Piper may be a legend, but it did not come out of thin air.