5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Flute


In the past, we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, the violin, Baroque music, sopranos and Beethoven.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the flute. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

The flute is one of humanity’s oldest ways of producing a beautiful sound, and it is based on the most fundamental sign of life: breath. Made from bones, wood or reeds, the earliest specimens date from the Paleolithic era. The flute is often associated with things elegiac, poetic, angelic — with purity — but also with the world of magic; in mythology, Orpheus seduces the underworld playing the flute. In this excerpt from Gluck’s Orpheus opera, the flute is extremely sensual, and, with its lyrical soaring, takes us from earthly pleasures to heavenly ones.

Johann Joachim Quantz was a German flutist and flute maker who composed hundreds of sonatas and concertos for the instrument. Every time he wrote something, Frederick the Great, his student, would pay him a high sum, equivalent to the price of a cow for every concerto. He died immensely wealthy. This is the third movement of Quantz’s Concerto in G, a piece I learned when I was a child.

Twenty-odd years ago, I made the acquaintance of a protégé of the renowned flutist James Galway. The youngish upstart was Andrea Griminelli, who invited me to participate in a concert — an adventurous union for a serious classical soloist and a noisy, irreverent rock musician. I wrote, and we recorded, a duet, “Griminelli’s Lament.” We still perform it, and Andrea often does a beautiful piece written by his other pal, Ennio Morricone: “Gabriel’s Oboe,” the theme from the movie “The Mission.” In this tune, Andrea combines his impeccable nuance and technique with a pop sensibility that many classical players lack.

Dai Fujikura, the composer of this haunting soliloquy for bass flute, likens it to “a plume of cold air which is floating silently between the peaks of a very icy cold landscape, slowly but cutting like a knife.” Listen to Claire Chase cast a spell with sounds that seem to belong to a different geological age, like gusts of wind strafing the mouth of a cave. Some notes splinter in two or dissolve into thin air, while, here and there, you can hear the ghost of a human voice channeled through the instrument.

Hubert Laws is best known as a jazz flutist, but he was classically trained at the Juilliard School and has long included interpretations of classical music in his repertoire. This joyful Bach arrangement, from his 1971 album “The Rite of Spring,” is great for people who like jazz but aren’t much into classical — or if you’re not into either, it could make you fall in love with both! Listen for the beautiful and original cadenza at the beginning, after which you will recognize Bach, sometimes in a jazz vein, sometimes straighter. (And if you have nine more minutes, check out his haunting then soaring take on Ravel’s “Boléro,” which starts with a rare bass flute passage and follows through with a blissful Chick Corea piano solo.)

C.P.E. Bach’s flute concertos date from his tenure at the court of Frederick the Great, who was also a flutist, and they’re brilliant representations of the Sturm und Drang movement of the 18th century, which sought to heighten the emotional impact of art. In the final movement of the Concerto in D minor, the orchestra surges violently, setting the stage for five minutes of unrelenting flute virtuosity, often interrupted by dramatic silences and startling harmonic twists. When I perform it, I love observing the audience’s astonishment; it brews a storm unlike any other flute concerto.

The piano, my instrument, was perfected in the 19th century; hence, it can be challenging for contemporary composers to reinvent it. It is different with the flute, which has not always been in wide use as a solo instrument. In his five Études, from 1974, Isang Yun expanded the possibilities of the flute by drawing inspiration from both contemporary Western approaches and traditional Korean music, including ancient instruments like the piri and daegeum.

It’s best to take the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez at his word: “The flute of the Faun brought new breath to the art of music; what was overthrown was not so much the art of development as the very concept of form itself.” If Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune” did, indeed, represent the start of musical modernity, what a start: sinuous, shapely, sensuous. The flute comes to the fore in music that enchants in its ebb and flow, that makes you fall in love with the orchestra, and the flute, all over again.

I’m often drawn to the remarkable warmth of the flute’s lower register — for example, the opening of Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune” — and I particularly love the bass flute. Marcos Balter’s “Pessoa,” for six of them, shows off this instrument in an unusual and beautiful way: It weaves a sighing quality with vocalizing and pitches that bend, throat fluttering and key clicks that shift in stereo effect, and multiple pitches stacked to create resonant pads of sound.

No matter the style of the music or the cultural context it sings from, it’s the flute’s ability to pierce the heart that moves me most. “The Price of Everything,” from “Suite for Frida Kahlo,” is one of my favorites from the phenomenal James Newton. He is celebrated as a jazz flutist, but, like many creative musicians, also has an active career composing for orchestras and classical ensembles. In this piece, he sings with his huge sound through the upper register with effortlessness and grace. In our times of strife, his brilliant playing and the piece’s title remind us what’s really important: to seek humanity in one another.

Fresh out of college with a degree in flute performance and starting graduate school in music history, I first heard the shakuhachi at a house concert and knew I had to pursue that penetrating sound. But when I tried playing one that day, I could not make a noise. I borrowed a shakuhachi, found my first teacher and have devoted the last four decades to its study, performance and teaching. It is a rigorous tradition, remarkably compatible with Western classical music. A formative recording for me was Kohachiro Miyata performing “Honshirabe.” It led me to the understanding that music is not only sound, but also silence.

These exhilarating four minutes hooked me to this little tube of metal when I was 13, and they keep me hooked to this day. By turns aching, luring, wailing like a siren and bursting into lyricism, this is music that grabs the listener and refuses to let go. There is no solo flute piece like it. “Density 21.5” unfurled genre-dissolving possibilities for the instrument and its repertoire, inspiring performances by titans of avant-garde jazz and classical music alike; Harvey Sollberger’s 1975 rendition still shakes me with its honesty, brutality and grace.

You could put together a list of flute highlights drawing solely on Claire Chase’s “Density 2036,” her astonishing project to commission new solo programs each of the 23 years leading up to the centennial of Varèse’s “Density 21.5.” These premieres have already offered an encyclopedic vision of the instrument — sometimes even within a single piece, like Marcos Balter’s “Pan.” This is myth told through music, but it’s also a tour of the flute family (panpipes included, of course) and the possibilities of full-body performance, leading to the final “Soliloquy”: an ending at once chattering, claustrophobic and darkly sensuous.

One of the most luscious flute solos in the repertory actually depicts the creation of the first flute. Near the end of the ballet “Daphnis et Chloé,” Daphnis is pretending to be the god Pan, who formed reeds into pipes — panpipes! — to musically mourn the loss of a nymph he was pursuing. But in Ravel’s sultry score, the song that emerges is at least as seductive as it is melancholy. And even playful: This Pan can’t help but dance.

After the voice and the drum, is the flute our most ancient instrument? Blowing across a hollow tube creates a timbre that reaches deep within our souls. Our modern flute can do it all: rapid repeated notes, huge leaps, dynamics that range from a whisper to a scream. But even at its mildest, it’s that sound that makes the flute irresistible. The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu wrote his exquisite “Air” for solo flute in 1995. You hear every color of the instrument: intimate as a lullaby in its low register, ethereal as the wind on high.

Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 23C” offers a memorable amalgam of musical languages. If at first the mutual appearance of trumpet and bass suggests a jazz combo, their melodic partnership with Mr. Braxton’s flute reveals clever misdirection. By traversing steady repetitions and gradually unfurling motifs in lock step, the group, with the added benefit of some improvised percussion, is playing a gloss on Minimalism. This was an aesthetic Mr. Braxton had early access to as a sometime member of the Philip Glass Ensemble. But the jaunty concision of his take on the style is its own singular, joyous experience.

In 1943, as World War II raged, Prokofiev took a break from his brash film score for “Ivan the Terrible” and wrote his Sonata for Flute and Piano in D. On the surface this piece may seem genial. But right in the first movement, after the flowing, lyrical main theme, the music goes through episodes of dark, wandering harmonies and unsettling turns. Soon after its premiere, the violinist David Oistrakh pressed Prokofiev to repurpose the piece for his instrument. But I much prefer how the bright, piercing tones of the flute in the original version stand out from — and even take on — the piano.

I met Karlheinz Stockhausen at the conservatory in The Hague in November 1982, when he was giving concerts and master classes. During that month I performed several of his works. One week after he left, I got a phone call asking if I would like to come to Kürten, Germany. Stockhausen wanted to write flute music for me, and “Kathinkas Gesang,” the second act of the opera “Saturday From Light,” was born. After that, he dedicated many works for flute to me. One is “Thinki” (his nickname for me), a birthday present in 1997.


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