Sir Thomas Beecham, the great English conductor, is supposed to have quipped, “Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away.” But he might have liked the flügelhorn.
A brass instrument resembling the cornet, the flügelhorn has a mellow tone described as halfway between a trumpet and a French horn. Think Madagascan vanilla rather than Key lime.
In Britain the flügelhorn is primarily a brass-band instrument, whose player is a soloist. But in other parts of Europe, notably Germany, it is a standard military band instrument. The German word Flügel translates into English as wing or flank. Originally used for hunting, the instrument found its way on to the battlefield and was used to communicate with the flanks of an army.
The flügelhorn is also well known in jazz bands. Most jazz flügelhorn players use the instrument as an alternative to the trumpet, but in the 1970s the American musician Chuck Mangione gave up playing the trumpet to concentrate on it. In 1977 he released the chart-topping jazz album “Feels So Good”, whose title song is played on the flügelhorn.
The instrument is conspicuous by its absence from orchestral music, although one would have thought its mellow singing tone ideal for certain kinds of melody. There are guest appearances in at least three orchestral works: Threni, Igor Stravinsky’s setting of verses from the Book of Lamentations; Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony; and Michael Tippett’s Third Symphony, whose finale is a set of vocal blues interwoven with instrumental “breaks”.
Vaughan Williams wrote an amusing note about his Ninth Symphony, published in The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964), the landmark biography by music critic Michael Kennedy, who died at the end of 2014. The reference to the flügelhorn is worth quoting:
“The usual symphony orchestra is used, with the addition of three saxophones and flügelhorn. This beautiful and neglected instrument is not usually allowed in the select circles of the orchestra and has been banished to the brass band, where it is allowed to indulge in the bad habit of vibrato to its heart’s content. While in the orchestra it will be obliged to sit up straight. The saxophones, also, are not expected, except possibly in one place in the scherzo, to behave like demented cats, but are allowed to be their own romantic selves.”
Vaughan Williams hardly makes the best possible use of the flügelhorn, in the way that Rachmaninov, for example, writes for a solo alto saxophone in Symphonic Dances thus justifying its nickname of the “sexyphone”.
Some think the flügelhorn is neither fish nor fowl, but today’s composers are becoming aware of its potential and sooner or later there will be a concerto to lift it out of a misplaced nostalgia for colliery life.
To while away cold and blustery Sunday afternoons on rain swept band stands, players have devised fanciful collective nouns to describe those that afflict them:
- A deity of conductors
- A squeal of sopranos
- A shrill of cornets
- A lateness of horns
- A rubato of euphoniums
- A rasp of trombones
- A persecution of percussionists
- A deafness of adjudicators
- An absence of audiences
- A half-breed of flügelhorns.
Sir Thomas Beecham may not have liked brass bands, but he hated bagpipes. Asked by a lady what was the easiest instrument for her son to learn, Beecham replied, “Madam, I have no hesitation at all in recommending the bagpipes.”
“Why, Sir Thomas?” asked the astonished lady.
“Because, Madam, they sound exactly the same when one has finished learning them as when one starts!”