(Giuseppi Verdi, 1871)

Picture 3

Don’t neglect these things – the straight trumpets or the big flute, etc. I want to see all these things personally [illegible] on my next trip to Milan. (Verdi to Giulio Ricordi, 10 Oct 1871)

I have seen the flute; it makes a low and decent sound but not a very loud one. Let me know if it is needed for just a few notes or whether it must be a regular flute with holes and keys. The manufacturer says he will figure out how to make as few keys as possible, because the more perforated the instrument is, the more force it will lose. Tell me at once what you need, since the holes can be made right away while the instrument is being drafted. (Ricordi to Verdi, 13 Oct 1871)

It is not important that the flute produce a loud sound, as long as it is full. It is particularly needed for the motive of the dance that is repeated in G flat in the final scene. Ordinary flutes would not give me the effect I want, unless they were doubled to ten or twelve. (Verdi to Ricordi, 14 Oct 1871)

Concerning the flute, you tell me that it has a low, fairly good sound but not a very loud one. What do you mean by very loud? I need an instrument which has notes that are fuller and louder than those of the ordinary flute. Just tell me if the passage of the dance comes out fuller and louder with the new or the ordinary flute. (Verdi to Ricordi, 15 Oct 1871)

I am pleased to tell you that the flute in B flat is completely successful. The sound has a more virile timbre than the flute in C, and it is even and pleasant. As a result of this success, we shall now try a flute in A flat. Within three or four days the instruments will be ready, and I shall send them to you right away. (Ricordi to Verdi, 24 Oct 1871)

Well were they able to make that damned flute in A as I had asked before? Non possumus is not only the motto of the priests but of all poltroons and imbeciles! Make no mistake! When, in such cases, someone says “it can’t be done,” you can be sure he is an ass. . . . We shall see then how the flute in A flat turns out; the one in B flat, at any rate, should certainly be useful. (Verdi to Ricordi, 26 Oct 1871)

The flute in A flat has also come out magnificently. Today, by railway, I am sending you the two flutes in B flat and A flat. Get a player for the flute in C, and you will be able to make the proper comparisons. Let me warn you that the holes of the flute in A flat are naturally further apart than those on regular flutes. The player, therefore, will have a little difficulty with the positioning of the fingers. But this can be remedied quite simply with some keys, which the manufacturere will make, so that one can play the instrument with the utmost ease. The manufactuere, thinking, I guess, that you are living in some big city, urges you not to let others of his trade see these flutes – a superfluous request for you at St. Agata. As soon as you have heard them and decided accordingly, however, it is quite urgent that you return them to me immediately so that the ones required for La Scala can be made in time. (Ricordi to Verdi, 28 Oct 1871)

I have received and tried out the flute, but the player was so embarrassed and tremulous that I learned very little. It seemed to me, however, that the sound of the middle and low notes is better than in ordinary flutes, and that one hears a sound of lamentation, which does not displease me at all. . . . It is certainly almost impossible to cover the third hole, because of the distance, and a key will be needed. I have noticed that some notes are going sharp in the A flat flute; for example, the [high] D sharpens by almost half a tone. But this is the manufacturer’s business. Let’s conclude: 1. The flute in A flat has much more volume and force in the low and middle notes than ordinary flutes. 2. If it is not difficult to make, and if any player can play it, I would say that three flutes should be built to be used in the Sacred Dance and the last finale. You may tell the manufacturer that no one at St. Agata will steal his business and that he will have his patent for the invention. Still, that belongs to me . . . but I leave all the glory to him . . . and other glories too, as long as he makes good instruments for me. (Verdi to Ricordi, 31 Oct 1871)

Considered by many the greatest Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi counts among his successes Rigoletto, La Traviata and the opera under discussion here, Aida. Set in ancient Egypt, Aida wraps a story of love and jealousy, fealty and treachery, in the exotic sights and sounds of the ancient Egypt of the nineteenth-century European imagination. From libretto to costumes, Verdi exerted artistic control over nearly every aspect of the opera, going so far – as his correspondence with Giulio Ricordi of the Ricordi publishing house makes clear – as to direct the development of new orchestral instruments.
The big flute Verdi sought was born of archaeology, fantasy and modernity. As part of his egyptological researches, Verdi visited a museum in Florence to see an ancient Egyptian flute. He was sorely disappointed, however, to find it a rudimentary four-hole pipe like those of shepherds – not the key to a highly developed music system he expected. In addition to desiring an “Egyptian” tone color for the Sacred Dance of the priestesses, Verdi was also concerned to improve the overall sound of the orchestra. To this end, he designed a new orchestral seating arrangement “to make the orchestra more compact, in order to have fuller sonority and to avoid weak and uneven performances” (letter to Ricordi, 13 Oct 1871). Verdi’s pursuit of three big flutes – as opposed to the enlarged section of ten to twelve ordinary flutes he suggests would produce his desired fullness and volume of sound – thus also served his requirements for orchestral sonority and precision.
Verdi finally heard the new flutes in context at a rehearsal on December 19. Thereafter, silence befell the flutes in his letters – and, it seems, in life. According to woodwind historian Philip Bate, the flutes proved ineffective and were abandoned. From Verdi’s concerns throughout the development process, we can surmise that the big flute failed in some combination of tone quality, volume, intonation, and playability. As at the museum, what Verdi found in his orchestra proved irreconcilable with the instrument he imagined.
Text and music: Hans Busch, Verdi’s Aida: The History of an Opera in Letters and Documents (St. Paul, University of Minnesota Press: 1978)
Image: from the Chronique théâtrale c. 1880, reproduced from Ralphe Locke, Beyond the Exotic: How ‘Eastern’ is Aida?” Cambridge Opera Journal 17 (2005): 118.