Author’s Note: When I was asked to write this article (originally for The Flutist’s Quarterly), I never dreamed that it would be this fascinating, or this complex!! It never occurred to me that it would take hours and hours of phone conversations, emails, letters, and simply digging through old files, in addition to a lot of ideas and memories popping up in the middle of the night! (If only I’d worked this hard in college!) I know that the activities of the NFA have been well documented over the years, but thought that investigating the attitudes and activities of those involved could be very enlightening. As the flute choir movement really began prior to the NFA years, exploring this relationship has been important in establishing a true historical perspective. To this end, I have contacted many, many people that have had flute choir connections over the years, as well as many that have been very influential in the NFA. The result is that there are numerous personal opinions expressed as part of this article, including mine. I endeavored to interview as many people as I could, but am aware that there are some who are no longer with us, were unavailable, or of whom I have no knowledge. I would also like to thank Flute World for their assistance in providing dates and copyrights for some of the early pieces. This article is presented from my vantage point, although I tried to include as many others as possible. I apologize in advance for any omissions or errors. Events have been remembered as well as possible, and it has certainly been entertaining to recall the many pleasures, frustrations, and triumphs that we have all had in our pursuit of the Flute Choir! I sincerely hope that you will enjoy this bit of flute history.
Flute Choirs and the National Flute Association - Coming of Age
Flute Choirs are a rather intriguing phenomenon. They have actually been around for a long time, although most people would never know. Perhaps this is because they weren’t known as a ‘flute choir” per se. Fife and Drum Corps could, in our most recent terms, be called Flute Choir and Percussion Ensembles! (Imagine how many people could be offended by that!) They were certainly useful and popular with the military. Irish Flute Bands have long been established. For centuries, flutists of one sort or another have gotten together to play ensembles, including the many players of recorders and similar instruments. The major difference was that they were generally much smaller groups and simply called themselves ensembles. So how did Flute Choirs become the popular performance ensemble that they are today? There are most likely a wide variety of answers to that, and it is a fascinating question to try to answer.
As a child, I really wanted to play the violin, but was persuaded by my mother and aunt to play the flute - they had an old one lying around. Upon beginning private lessons, I was introduced to a variety of flute recordings, and became enthralled with a flutist named Jean-Pierre Rampal. I was obviously not the only one! Rampal brought flute playing to an incredible level of popularity. Within a very short period of time, the number of flutists increased amazingly. There were more flute players than almost any other instrument, with piano, violin and guitar being the exceptions. The number of well-trained, high quality teachers also increased, which led to even more flute students. Bands were over-run with flutists, and most orchestras only needed or wanted 3 or 4 flutists. While pianists tend to be more solitary in performing, and orchestras use lots of violinists, there became a shortage of opportunities for flutists to perform. Many flutists found themselves quitting after high school or college, when their band playing days were over. There were not enough community bands for all the flutists, and there were more than enough flutists for the bands! The time was becoming prime for another performance medium.
The state of Texas has always been well-known for it’s outstanding music education programs and is where I began flute lessons in 1960, at Texas Tech University. George Morey, at North Texas State University, evidentally became one of the first to see the tremendous number of flute students, and to realize the need for ensembles. He started a flute choir program there in the late 1950’s, and continued this program for many years, influencing many students to follow his lead. In the 1960’s, Cyclorama by Fisher Tull was performed for the MENC convention in Texas. This piece, scored for 2 piccolos, 6 flutes, 2 alto flutes and bass flute, was one of the first pieces written for “Flute Choir”. Word of this performance spread to a number of people in the university community, including William Montgomery, who received a copy of it from Paul Hume. Flutists were becoming intrigued. It is interesting to note that Cyclorama, which became a standard work for flute choirs, did not get published until 1978.
A great many people became involved with flute choirs during the 1960’s, but very few knew what anyone else was doing. We were doing many of the same things, but in isolation. I first got involved in 1967, as a result of a high school band with 16 flute players. (The whole graduating class was only 100!!) Our band director was desperate to keep us occupied and out of trouble, as our flute section was known to be somewhat “spirited”. We used whatever repertoire I could find, using the Franz Vester repertoire book as a guide. We adapted music from recorders, clarinet choirs, and anything else that had 5 or more parts. I also began arranging. These early arrangements were mostly from choral pieces and were very elementary - I was only in High School, but fortunately had had wonderful theory lessons from my piano teacher. In 1968, I received an alto flute (Gemeinhardt, I think) from a retired military colonel at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where I had just played a little program. I really got inspired after that, and began doing more arrangements, which led our high school flute choir to become quite active. A very great and energetic lady named Frances Risdon tackled a group of flutists at the University of Colorado Summer Band Camp in 1969. Twelve (!!) of us performed the Ginastera Duo for Flute and Oboe as a flute choir. It was truly amazing - she required perfection, and got it. I was truly hooked.
Meanwhile, Mark Thomas and Robert (Bob) Webb were equally active. Mark played in high school ensembles in the 1940’s. He met Rampal in 1958, at the Library of Congress where Rampal was premiering the Poulenc Sonata. Mark also saw the popularity of the flute rapidly increasing and in 1962 formed the Sewanee Flute Choir at the Sewanee Summer Music Center in Tennessee. It was a group of 10-12 flutists, using only C flutes and alto flutes. He thinks they were Armstrong altos, although at the time he was assisting Gemeinhardt with their educational materials. He differentiated between flute ensembles and flute choirs by the size of the group. 10-12 players qualified as a Flute Choir! In 1964, Mark got lucky and married Judith, another flutist! From 1965-1969, his first flute choir evolved, the “Thomas Flute Ensemble”, a small, independent group of adult professionals in the Washington D.C. area. This group included Joyce Bennett, the wife of Senator Robert Bennett from Utah, which is another state where flute choirs became popular very early. In 1969, Mark became part of the “Armstrong Flute Ensemble”, along with Wally Kujala and a couple of others, and also used piano. They made a recording that included Toccata by Emma Lou Diemer, which was not published until many years later. Even when music was written for flute choirs, it was not published, as no one thought there was much of a market for it. And unfortunately, none of us in other parts of the U.S. had any idea that it even existed! Mark and Judith got their first bass flute in the late 60’s, and Mark thinks it was an Armstrong, as they were the first that were commercially available. The cost for a bass flute was approximately $1200, quite a lot at that time!
Bob Webb had his interest piqued in the viability of flute choirs when he first heard Nelson Keyes’ composition Music for Twelve Flutes. In 1966, at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he taught clarinet, saxophone, and flute. He organized several ensembles, including a small flute choir. His goal was to interest enough flutists in an ensemble to present a program. The repertoire was based on doubling trios, quartets and quintets, using music that was available at the time. He used a lot of choral pieces, which could be transcribed, and also began doing a lot of arranging. Flutists from around the campus, although not music majors, began to join, and the flute choir became 24 members. It has never decreased from that size. They performed for high schools (an excellent recruiting tool!) and in 1973 played for the MENC convention in Milwaukee, along with a number of others. Bob recalls, “The most memorable one was in 1974 when the choir performed in Anaheim, premiering two works: Concerto Spirituoso No. 1 by Vaclav Nelhybel and Night Music by William Penn. Our performance was given a standing ovation and this experience has been and will always be one of the highlights of my life.”
The “Italian Flute Orchestra” was formed in 1971 by Marlaena Kessick. Thinking themselves the first professional group of their kind, they immediately began finding composers to write for them, and developed an impressive list of original repertoire. The group’s instrumentation consisted of 2 piccolos, 8 C flutes, 2 alto flutes and 2 bass flutes. Unfortunately, most of their pieces remained unknown to others involved in flute choirs until many years later.
Kathy Borst Jones presented her first flute choir program at Ohio State in 1972-73, as a Teaching Assistant when she took over for Kyril Magg who had a year’s sabbatical. She and Ann Fairbanks organized a Spring program that included duets, trios, quartets, and choir, which became a real rallying point for the studio. From that point on, she always had a flute choir, and started buying everything available, which wasn’t much. They performed the Gabrieli Canzona and quintets by Missal, Boismortier, and de Lorenzo. She also did a lot of arranging, mainly from choral works, SSA (2 sopranos and alto). She was able to continue flute choir work in Emporia, Kansas, where she had her next job. And when she went to Capital University in Ohio, a flute choir became an important part of her studio and the Flute Workshop at Capital. Kathy says, “I have always seen the flute choir as a way of building skills for all ensemble experiences, including band and orchestra, and as a way of building and fostering comaraderie in the studio. It builds respect among students, as well as friendships. It promotes the idea of teamwork. Competition is put in perspective and made more healthy.”