A Brief History of The Flute

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Flute By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Flute
Last updated: 13/02/2012
Tags: baroque, flute, history, middle ages, renaissance

Flute History Time Line

  1. I.Middle Ages

The flute that existed was a fife- a single piece of wood which was cylindrical in shape and just under two feet in length which sounded the primary scale of D major (it was in D). It main function was to accompany marches, along with the small drum. Senastoams Vording’s Musica getuscht und auszegezogen (1511) refers to an instrument called a Zwerchpfeiff which is a fife comprising a narrow tube with six unusually closely spaced finger holes.


Instruments at this time followed the vocal model, so instruments corresponded to the different voice types. In the case of the flute family, the fifes were created in four different sizes, corresponding to the voice types: soprano, alto, tenor and bass; in Martin Agricola’s Musica instrumentalis deudsch (1529) these were referred to as Schweizer Pfeiffen and called Discantus, Altus, Tenor and Bassus respectively. 



Micael Praetorius’ Syntagma Muscium (1619-20) was the first work to recognise a family of transverse    flutes with musical values distinct from the military function of the fife. Three sizes of flutes are referred to, each have a two-octave range as well as four additional ‘falset’ notes (for the use skilled performers). The flute was designated alto or tenor was pitched in D (like all pre-Boehm concert flutes). The bass flute was the first flute to be divided into two pieces in order to regulate the tuning of the system.


Jean Hotterterre (1605-1690/92) was from a French family of musical instrument makers who was   commonly acknowledged as the principal figure in redesigning the baroque flute. The major change to the baroque flute he instigated was the addition of a D# key (around 1660); such a flute was used in Lully’s orchestra in Paris in 1670. Hotteterre published the first tutor for the flute Principles de la Flute Traversiere (1707).


Also in the Baroque period, instead of being a single cylindrical piece of wood, the flute was divided into three sections: a head joint, containing the mouth (or embouchure) hole; the middle, containing the six finger holes; and the foot joint, with the lone key (D#). Furthermore, the bore was changed from cylindrical to conical, in order to eliminate the shrill sound that was commonly produced by earlier instruments. In actual fact the head joint remained cylindrical, and the rest of the tube tapered toward the foot. By flattening the effect of the conical bore of the flute, this allowed the finger holes to be placed closer together, allowing the fingering of the notes whilst playing to be more natural. However, the ‘taper’ resulted in the flute having a lighter tone quality. Yet, the reduction of the size of the finger holes, along with the new conical bore increased the brightness of the tone, although this increased the tendency for the intonation of the flute to be flat. Several attempts were made to extend the lower range of the flute down to c1, in around 1722, however despite Quantz owning such a flute, he stated that the weak tone and faulty intonation of this flute was due to the additional tubing.


Despite its poor intonation, the flute enjoyed great popularity in the eighteenth century and so a succession of printed instruction books were published, with Hotteterre’s in 1707, and so the flute became popular instrument to play among amateur musicians. As a result, increasingly difficult music was starting to be composed but the defects of the instrument became more apparent, leading to composers and performers becoming less interested in the flute; Luigi Cherubini: ‘the only thing worse than one flute is two’. It was only the attractive tone of the eighteenth century flute that helped it retain its reputation in the long run.


IV. Equal temperament- mid century ~ 1750


It was as a result of equal temperament in around 1750 that led to the development of chromatic key mechanisms for woodwind instruments, introducing a mechanical approach to intonation remedies. As the flute had the most complicated cross-fingerings of all the orchestral wind instruments, it was the first to acquire additional chromatic key work. Just before 1760, three London flute makers, Pietro Florio, Caleb Gedney, and Richard Potter, added three additional keys to the flute: G#, Bb and F. With an increased ability to play chromatic passage work, this allowed composers, such as Haydn and Mozart, of the time an unprecedented freedom of tonality and greater opportunities for harmonic modulation. In 1774, Florio, Gedney and Potter revived the idea of the C foot joint from earlier in the eighteenth century, extending the range of the flute to low C.


However, acceptance from some professional flautists was slow as they were insulted by the new additional keys on the flute; to them it implied that that they were not proficient enough at their instrument to play in tune without the new mechanisms. Still, by 1785 or 1790 the four-keyed flute was the instrument of choice for the majority of flute players and the flute begins to appear more regularly in Haydn’s symphonies after 1780 (however this is still 20 years after the introduction of the newly designed flute) and Mozart’s late symphonies.


The eighteenth century culminated in the introduction of the eight-keyed flute referred to as the ‘German’, ‘ordinary’, ‘old system’ or ‘Meyer system’ flute. Despite this being generally considered the standard flute instrument of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in actual fact this was far from standardised; the one-keyed flute was still in use due to its lower cost and affordability. By the nineteenth century, some flutes had as many as seventeen keys and ranges extending as far as low G.   

V. End of classical period


The development of larger orchestras demanded greater volume and projection from woodwind    instruments. Whilst they played less frequently, woodwind parts became more soloistic and exposed, rather than simply reinforcing the string texture, and composers were more aware of the possibilities of contrasting tone colours. Composers were also more adventurous in the use of key signatures which in turn made the defects of cross-fingerings on woodwind instruments more apparent. In 1806, a patent was registered to the Paris flute maker, Claude Laurent, for a flute tube constructed of glass, and more importantly a set of mechanical contrivances that the glass flute tube necessitated: silver tenons and sockets for the joints; lengthened springs, with increased resilience; and a revolutionary design of key mountings. In November 1808, Reverend Frederick Nolan, was issued a British patent for a device designed to create greater evenness of intonation, by simultaneously closing both an open key and a regular hole with the same finger, as well as closing a connected key while the immediate hole remained open. Finally, in 1810 a patent was registered to the London flute maker George Miller for a cylindrical metal bore, intended principally for the military fife, although the patent also referred to concert flutes; this was the first patent for a metal flute.


The Boehm Flute


The first school of thought on developing the flute further after 1810 believed in preserving the traditional fingering systems etc and adding to them as necessary; this ‘simple system’ of the first school created holes on the body of the flute in positions where the fingers could reach them, however it did not correlate with what acoustic theory demanded. The second school of thought was to start designing the flute anew, drilling a hole for each semitone of the flute at the acoustically-correct position; devising mechanisms and a fingering system capable of working with these holes. Theobald Boehm was a leading figure of the second school of thought and he was interested in prioritising the acoustics of the flute over the positioning of the fingers.


The flute was a sideline for Boehm in the 1820s, however by 1828 he had opened a flute-making factory where he made the typical ‘simple system’ flutes of the time; he did make a variety of modifications to the flute at this time though, including experimenting with using ‘longitudinal rod-axles’ to connect the keys, in about 1829. In 1832 he toured Europe as a flautist and it was at this time he heard the leading English flute player of the time, Charles Nicholson, whose tone exceeded Boehm’s in both strength and volume. Boehm noted that Nicholson’s sound was improved by the enlarged finger holes on his flute. This led Boehm to redesign the flute with larger tone holes, covering the holes of the flute with keys to enable the fingers to control the more distant holes. He also created ring keys like those invented by Reverend Nolan. Boehm’s contribution to the development of the flute was fuelled by the desire to execute his own acoustical theories. Boehm also noted that for obtaining a clear and strong tone on the flute, it was necessary for the holes immediately below the one sounding to remain open, as the air confined in the lower end of the tube when these holes are closed tends to flatten the notes, and makes the sound less free. In order for the fourteen holes of his flute to be controlled with only nine fingers (the right hand thumb is only used as a support for the body of the flute), Boehm utilised Nolan’s ring keys as well as his own horizontal rod-axles to interlink the various mechanisms; this meant that the fingers were not required to move out of their natural positions for any notes between d1 and b3. Boehm also introduced ‘shake keys’ for trills from B-C and C-D. 


Boehm played this new design of flute in public concerts in Munich from November 1832, and subsequently in Paris and London, yet by 1833 he had only sold one of his flutes, in London. There was a similar reluctance in Germany, where the more ‘open’ tone of the new flute was the obstacle as it was not the desired sound for the flute, but the Boehm flute was introduced in Paris in 1837 by Paul Camus, the first flute of the Opera Italien. As a result the Beohm flute began to catch on in the French Captial with his colleagues. Camus and his colleagues also made significant mechanical changes to the Boehm flute; Auguste Buffet altered Boehm’s placement of axles on both sides of the flute and moved them all to the inner side, and patented this alteration 1839. Victor Coche and Vincent Dorus both made different alterations to Boehm’s ‘open’ G# mechanism, but it was Dorus’ ‘closed’ G# that was important in the transition of hesitant players to the Boehm flute, and in 1838 it was officially introduced to the Paris Conservatoire.  


London flautists, Cornelius Ward and Signor Folz adopted the Boehm flute in 1839 and were mostly influenced by their Frech colleagues into making this decision, and Ward became the first London manufacturer of Boehm flutes. John Clinton, professor of flute at the Royal Academy of Music in London, adopted the Boehm flute in 1841, as well as Richard Carte and George Rudall following suite in 1843. Boehm closed his flute factory in 1839, when official arrangements for the flutes to be manufactured by Rudall & Rose in London and Clair Godfroy, aine, in Paris had been undertaken.


It was then from 1846-47 that Boehm studied classical acoustics with Dr. Carl von Schaflautl at the University of Munich, in order to work further on the developments of the bore of his flute; coming to the conclusion that a cylindrical tube is the best structure for the bore. Also in 1846, Boehm experimented with metal tubes, and realised that silver and brass tubes produce the best tone, as well as thin, hard-drawn tubes, as this increased the metal’s capacity for vibration, creating a more resonant tone. It then followed that in 1847 he made flutes using more resonant materials, with cylindrical bores. Later in 1847 Boehm sold the rights of this new design of flutes to Rudall & Rose of London and to Clair Godfroy and his son-in-law Louis Lot of Paris.


In 1850, Guilio Briccaildi provided an alternate Bb fingering for the left thumb for added convenience for flat keys (Boehm designed one as well but Briccaildi's design prevailed). The following year, the Boehm flute was first manufactured in the U.S. Ironically, it was slow to gain acceptance in Boehm’s native Germany, where there was a greater demand for wooden flutes, such as for use in the traditional woodwind choir, as well as a lack of qualified teachers; two of Boehm's most talented students emigrated to the U.S. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Boehm flutes were still not common in Germany, Italy, or Russia, with the prime objection still being the new fingering system.


There were still some minor alterations made to the Boehm system flute, with some of these alterations being adopted universally. The Borne-Julliot flute was developed from 1889 by the French manufacturer Djalma Julliot and Francois Borne, a professor at the Toulouse Conservatory. These two invented so many new gadgets for the flute, however, that they would not all fit on the one flute. The one alteration of Borne and Julliot to the Boehm system that was adopted is the split-E (or split-G) devise, created to remedy sharpness and the problematic production of e3.


More recently there have been other ‘named’ scales, such as The Cooper Scale, of Albert Cooper, which is the most famous and used by Powell as well as the Brannen Brothers, along with Cooper. W.T Armstrong offers its own 'Armstrong scale', whilst Jack Moore uses the William Bennett scale, and Haynes the Deveau scale.


Another modification to the flute was the introduction of the O-ring, instead of the ‘mercurial cork stopper’ at the tip of the head joint, which is made of synthetic rubber called neoprene and makes a tighter seal than cork and does not require frequent replacement. This was adopted originally by Rudall Carte & Company in the early twentieth century. The size and shape of the embouchure hole was, and still is, adapted and altered in order to produce sounds with different qualities and more resonance. Lastly, experimentation with materials for the tube construction and manufacturing techniques still exists; developments in manufacturing have allowed the mass production of flutes. Furthermore, student models are more durable, with the option of newer synthetic pads made by David Straubinger.


Despite all these ongoing, slight alterations to the Boehm system, Alex Murray, who Nancy Toff regards as the greatest gadgeteer of the present generation, says of the Boehm flute it is '98 percent perfect.'

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