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  • Mary Brainerd
Flute Learn More

The birth of the flute

Transverse flutes made out of animal bones were used in Europe in the Paleolithic era. These instruments can certainly be regarded as the ancestor of the flute. However, it was not until the sixteenth century during the Renaissance period that the prototype of the flute that plays such a prominent role in the modern orchestra first emerged and came into widespread use.
The term "flute" was originally applied both to pipe instruments held sideways and pipe instruments held vertically. Thus, the vertically held recorder was also called a "flute." Indeed, up until around the middle of the eighteenth century (the era of Baroque music), the word "flute" was commonly used to describe the recorder. To distinguish the transverse flute from the recorder, it was referred to in Italian as the flauto traverso, in German as the Querflöte, and in French as the flûte traversière-all of which mean "sideways held flute."

Baroque era recorder

 

Various refinements have been added to the flute since the Renaissance period.
Early flutes did not feature keys. Flutes in the Renaissance period were of extremely simple construction, consisting of a cylindrical body with an embouchure hole (mouthpiece) and seven finger holes. They could also only produce certain semitones.
In the latter half of the seventeenth century, flutes with a conical body and a single key attached began to appear. With this mechanism, for the first time virtually all semitones could be played on the flute. Today this instrument is known as the "baroque flute."

Baroque flute

Theobald Boehm, the German wind instrument manufacturer, demonstrated a revolutionary new type of flute at the Paris Exhibition of 1847. This flute had a metal tube with numerous keys attached. With earlier flutes, it had been difficult to even get a note out of them, and the intervals between the notes had been variable. Boehm's instrument was a dramatic improvement, however, and overcame these shortcomings.  With his major refinements, Boehm essentially created the modern-day flute.

 

It is not unusual for a performer who plays the flute to switch to the piccolo, alto flute, or bass flute.
The piccolo is pitched an octave higher than the flute and produces a shrill, high-pitched sound. With a length of 30 cm, the piccolo resounds loudly in the performer's right ear when the instrument is played. The alto flute has a slightly gentler sound, while the bass flute boasts a total tube length of around 130 cm and is pitched an octave below the flute.
Please listen as each of these four instruments is played in turn. The pieces played are Bach's Solo Partita No. 2 on the bass flute, Bach's Siciliano on the alto flute, Bizet's l'Arlésienne on the flute, and the second movement of Vivaldi's Piccolo Concerto in C Major on the piccolo.

Bass flute

Bach, Partita in A Minor for Solo Flute - III Sarabande

Alto flute

Bach, Siciliano

Flute

Bizet, L'Arlesienne

Piccolo

Telemann "Fantasia No. 2 from 12 Fantasias"

Table showing the respective range of each type of flute

Table showing the respective range of each type of flute

 

The flute-a beautiful nymph transformed?

The flute has its origins in the reed pipe. This worked on the same principle as the grass whistles that we, as children, would make by snapping off a stalk of grass and then play by blowing into them. According to Greek mythology, the reed flute was first played by the satyr Pan. When Pan chased the beautiful nymph Syrinx (which means reed) and tried to embrace her, Syrinx, who did not like Pan, prayed to the river gods and was transformed into lovely reeds. It is said that Pan missed the transformed nymph and found comfort for the rest of his life by playing his reed pipes.
Another Greek myth relates that the flute was invented by the goddess Athena. However, Athena said that when she played her flute with all her might, her face would contort and her beauty was marred, so in the end she threw away the flute which she had made. Which of these two myths makes you want to play the flute?
(Reference material: Hayashi Akai "The Story of the Pipes," Ongakunotomosha 1987)

Pan playing his reed pipes

Pan playing his reed pipes

 

Why does a flute have a lip plate attached?

In fact, the lip plate was created so that a metal flute would have the same thickness as a wooden flute at this point. Theobald Boehm-the pioneer of the metal flute-proposed adding the lip plate in order to make the instrument easier to play.
The lip plate is a curved, oval-shaped metal plate, which is connected to the body of the flute by a component underneath it known as a riser.

The lip plate, with which the lips make contact

The lip plate, with which the lips make contact

Lip plate and riser (foreground) during assembly

Lip plate and riser (foreground) during assembly

  • Mary Brainerd

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