A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FLUTE
Stone Ages and Early Civilizations
Flutes are one of mankind’s oldest and most popular instruments that have been with us since long before the dawn of civilization. Primitive flutes made of bone dating back nearly 40,000 years have been discovered in both Germany and China, making the flute one of the oldest known wind instruments. These first known flutes were end blown like a modern day recorder, had as many as five holes in them, and one even featured a v-shaped mouthpiece made out of a piece of vulture bone.
While dating back to prehistory, the tradition of the flute continued with the rise of the first civilizations in both the Far East and the Fertile Crescent. The Egyptians and Sumerians were thought to be the first to add three to four regular finger holes and the Sumerians were also first to mention the instrument in cuneiform tablets dating back 4600 years. 9000-year-old flutes made out of wing bones of cranes have been discovered in China and the cross flute has been mentioned in ancient Indian Literature as back as 1500 BCE.
The Ancient Greeks were also known to have developed rather sophisticated early flutes which featured six finger holes and were blown from the upper end. However, the upper echelons of Greek Culture considered this version of the flute as an instrument for the common man holding it in scant regard. Instead, it was the distant precursor of the oboe, the aulos, which was the instrument that was most often favored among those in high standing in Greek society.
These early versions of the flute were almost all end blown like the modern recorder while the modern flute used today is a side-blown (transverse) instrument. Transverse Flutes are found in Etruscan iconography dating back to the 4th Century BC and were known to be used by the Romans. A Chinese version of the transverse flute known as the Chi flute dating back to roughly the same time period of the Etruscan’s has also been discovered.
Middle Ages and the Renaissance: drums and consorts
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages, the transverse flute all but disappeared from Europe until the 11th Century. It is thought to be reintroduced to Western Culture during the Middle Ages thanks to the Byzantine Empire via Asia and made its initial appearance in Germany and France. The transverse flute found in Europe during this period was a single piece of wood, featured six finger holes and was often known as the “fistula Germanica” (German Flute) to distinguish it from the more popular recorder. Often accompanied with a drum, the flute was often used in a military context but was also played at court. Thanks to traveling minstrels, audiences all over Europe were soon reacquainted with the instrument.
While enthusiasm for flute music eventually died down during the Middle Ages, the onset of the Renaissance help to breathe new life into the instrument. During the 16th Century, the flute consort which featured three transverse flutes of different sizes became an established musical ensemble. Broken Consorts, ensembles which featured various combinations of viol, lute and flute also became popular around this time.
These earliest versions of the Concert Flute were most commonly in the scale of D with a range generally between D4-D6 (although a more skillful player could extend it). Other keys b esides D could only be played by half covering finger-holes or through the use of cross fingerings. While these features gave this instrument a certain chromaticism, it also placed it at a disadvantage in comparison to other woodwinds such as the recorder because of its uncertain intonation.
The Baroque Period: sweeping changes
During the middle of the 17th Century, the flute went through several major innovations thanks in most part to the French flute making family: the Hotteterres. These sweeping changes included the flute now consisting of three separate parts: the headjoint, the body and the footjoint. The headjoint was cylindrical while the body and footjoint were conical. The body featured six finger-holes and there was an additional hole added to the footjoint. The additional hole was fitted with a key and made the D# playable. These changes and the resulting instrument was the direct precursor of the modern transverse flute as we know it today.
Before these innovations, the transverse flute was overlooked in favor of the recorder when it came to orchestral pieces. The recorder (fistula Anglica) was an end-blown instrument which had originated in England and had quickly gained widespread popularity around the same time the transverse flute was reintroduced and became an established orchestral instrument in lieu of the flute. In 1681, this all changed when a Hotteterre flute with a range of 2 ½ octaves (D4-G6) was first introduced in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera orchestra. With its wide range and brilliant timbre, the new transverse flute (flauto traverse) now had a distinct edge on its musical rival. By the middle of the 18th Century, the description of “flauto” in Musical Scores no longer referred to end-blown recorders but instead referred to the evolving transverse flute.
The unattainable sound ideal
Despite these innovations, the transverse flute from the Baroque Period had a sound quality that was still a far cry from being homogeneous and consistent. The instrument was found to be irksome in modulations thanks to the irregularities in its range and the different timbre of the subsidiary notes which were created through cross fingerings. Only through exceptional virtuosity on the part of the player did it become possible to compensate the shortcomings in this flute’s intonations.
An innovation by one virtuoso in particular may have actually accentuated the problems in sound quality as experienced by less talented flutists. Virtuoso flutist Pierre Gabriel Buffardin (ca. 1690-1768) is thought to be the first to introduce the practice of exchanging different size flute bodies in order to achieve different tuning. Changing the body size would change the acoustic properties of the instrument making it necessary to change the placement of the finger holes. This was not done, making it practically impossible to accommodate for the instrument’s altered acoustic properties.
The quest to improve upon the transverse flute soon spread to other places outside of France bringing about more mixed results. Fredrick the Great’s flute teacher, Johann J, Quantz (1697-1773), is one notable innovator who tried to tackle the intonation problems of the instrument. A Prussian flutist and composer, Quantz studied the problems in great detail and became a flute maker in order to help improve the instrument, experimenting various tone hole shapes and sizes and adding an E-Flat Key to the flute in order to help with tuning. While Quantz’s changes proved to be unpopular, his 400 flute compositions and his Essay on “Instruction in the Art of Playing the Transverse Flute” did much to help boost the overall popularity of the instrument.
The Classical Keyed Flute
The end of the 18th Century saw the flute firmly ensconced as an orchestral instrument while at the same time losing its importance as a solo or chamber music instrument. The shift from a courtly audience in small, intimate rooms to more bourgeois one in large concert halls called for a new, powerful sound ideal that the transverse flute still could not provide despite its recent evolution. Composers were also skeptical that the instrument would be able to cope with the latest harmonic and formal developments that were coming about in the music world. It was not until well into the 19th Century that instrument makers began to achieve anything resembling the standard form.
The first big changes in this period occurred in England in the Middle of 18th Century. Instrument makers in London helped to render complicated cross-fingerings obsolete by adding three more keys. They also brought back the C footjoint that was first introduced in the beginning of the Century. These changes marked the beginning of a period which saw the transverse flute becoming equipped with an ever increasing number of keys.
By the beginning of the 19th Century, eight keys had become standard on the flute, the first such flute being devised and introduced by flutist Johann G. Tromlitz (1726-1805). Flutes with more keys were also developed but were more of the exception rather than the rule since more than 8 or 9 keys at this time did nothing for the sound quality and merely led to more complicated fingerings.
The Romantic Period: The Boehm Revolution
Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) was a court orchestra flutist in Munich who developed a new and comprehensive idea for flute construction in the 1830’s which finally brought about the solution to sound quality that his predecessors have been striving for. Inspired by some of his peer’s attempts to redesign the instrument, Boehm began an intensive study of the key work of the flute as well as the size and shape of the tone holes. Building upon the work of other flute makers, he incorporated the principle of attaining more powerful sound through larger tone holes that the aforementioned Tromlitz first experimented with and also made use of ring keys which had been patented by the Reverend Fredrick Nolan in 1808.
In 1832, the result of Boehm’s innovations resulted in the construction of a transverse flute in which, for the first time, the tone holes arranged according to acoustic criteria instead of ease of fingering. This arrangement was based on Boehm’s own arithmetical calculations and experimentations. His flute also featured movable axles which linked the keys, creating an entirely new key work that proved to be less complicated than the previous fingerings.
Fifteen years later, Boehm would improve upon his flute, adding cylindrical tubing along with a parabolic conical headjoint which proved to be a further revolution in instrument making. This new flute also featured improved key work as well as pin springs that had been patented by Louis-Auguste Buffet in 1839. The shape of the embouchure had also been changed from round or oval to rectangular with rounded corners. Felt Pads were added to the key cups to help prevent air from escaping and German Silver was chosen as the material due to its superb acoustic properties.
Boehm’s new flute was received with much enthusiasm in many parts of the world including France, England and the United States, garnering many awards and even being showcased at the 1855 World Exhibition in Paris. In other parts of the world, however, Boehm’s flute was met with a great deal of skepticism and misgivings. Flutists in Italy, Russia and even Boehm’s home country were reluctant to embrace the new fingerings. Perhaps the most prominent detractor of Boehm’s flute was fellow German Richard Wagner who referred to it as a “blunderbuss” due to its unusually powerful sound. Despite these misgivings, Boehm’s flute persevered over the models from rival makers and ultimately gained universal acceptance.
Present Day: new facets and technique
The last two centuries saw only slight modification and improvements to the flute, and modern flutes today are still being made in much the same way as Boehm’s mechanism. Bigger changes can be found the amount of solo literature for the instrument which increased dramatically once a technically complete flute with satisfactory timbre was successfully manufactured. The limits of the instrument were also explored with composers experimenting in different tone colors and means of articulation. This has resulted in a whole new array of playing techniques for the modern flutist.
Alexander Murray is a well-known 20th Century flutist and teacher who did manage to bring about some minor modern developments to the instrument. In 1948, he collaborated with flute makers Albert Cooper and Elmer Cole to produce the “Murray” flute based upon the “Cooper experimental” scale and featuring a “corrected” C# key. In 1961-62, Murray came out with new model of flute known as the “Mark 1” and in the late 60’s and early 70’s collaborated with a well-known maker Jake Moore to bring out a production of model flutes and Piccolos.
Other helpful changes in the 20th Century were the developments of the “gizmo” key, the Duplicate G# lever and the introduction of a cork in the headjoint to help stabilize tuning. In the new Millennium, other changes and innovations continue with this ancient and ever popular wind instrument. A square keyed Flute is introduced by Lenny Lopatin of Lopatin Flutes at the turn of the 21st Century and in 2005 James Johnson invented the RingFlute