Instrumental insights: the Fluteby Laura Bates
/ November 1, 2011
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A brief history
of the flute
Evidence of flute-like instruments can be traced back tens of thousands
of years, yet the flute that we know today has a more recent history.
Early European flutes were end blown, like the recorder, while the transverse
or cross flute made its first appearance in Europe in a military role
(the fife) about nine hundred years ago. During the late seventeenth
century, the Hotteterre family in France remodelled many woodwind instruments,
including the flute. The result was a transverse flute with three adjustable
joints that was more powerful than the recorder. The level of playing
greatly increased, as did the flute repertoire, with works by Vivaldi,
Telemann, Bach and later Mozart, which demonstrate a high period for
the instrument compositionally; however, the nineteenth century saw
the social status of the flute reflected in its repertoire. Smaller
salon pieces took precedence as the flute gained stature in the new
middle class public and the music stifled, suffering weak compositional
structure, with bravura variations and opera fantasies at the centre.
The majority of flute literature was written by flute players. These
travelling virtuosi wrote and performed works with the purpose of dazzling
audiences with their technical prowess. English flutist Charles Nicholson
(1795-1837) was one such virtuoso, known for using copious embellishments,
glides, and harmonics all to assert individuality in his playing. Frenchman
Jean-Louis Tulou (1786-1865) contributed greatly to the flute repertoire
of the period and was respected for his precision, refinement and ‘French’
style of playing.
Music of the period
began to experience richer harmony and improved technique, and the flute
hastened to adapt to the exigencies of a repertoire that became filled
with more chromaticism and greater technical difficulties than ever
before. Among other challenges was the increase in size of the orchestra
and its concert halls. Many flute makers sought to meet these challenges,
but it was Theobold Boehm’s silver flute of 1847 that had an enduring
influence on wind instrument making of the period. It was the first
flute based on scientific acoustical principles which Boehm studied
at the University of Munich with Carl von Schatfhäutl. He used a cylindrical
bore instead of the traditional conical bore and created fourteen larger
tone holes (and one small), all precisely measured to promote the maximum
acoustical benefits. The mechanism he created allowed nine fingers to
close several keys at once. His mechanism was later adapted to the clarinet
The new key mechanism and its fingering system did not catch on right
away; a wide variety of other variously keyed flutes remained in use,
made of wood or ivory. Continued criticism, especially of the tone,
hindered its ability to overtake its various predecessors. Small adaptations
to Boehm’s model by various makers under manufacturing licenses from
Boehm were constant. Eventually, the Boehm model gained an unwavering
following in France through its adoption by leading players in French
orchestras, notably through Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) who was the first
to attain great success with the silver flute. When he took over as
professor at the Conservatoire, he had already enjoyed a 30-year career
as a respected orchestral player.
With the level of
flute performance quickly rising as a result of the work by Taffanel
and his students, it is no wonder that the instrument gained importance
among composers as solo voice arising from the full orchestral texture.
Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
put the flute centre stage, opening the work with a sensual flute solo.
Other composers followed suit, using the instrument and its family (piccolo
and alto flute) to its maximum potential and the flute experienced a
rebirth as an expressive compositional tool.
The flute’s newfound
orchestral autonomy paved the way for an increased role in the solo
and chamber repertoire and also provided composers with new effects.
The possibilities multiplied with tonal exploration and the development
of extended techniques to create changes in timbre. Indications for
use of vibrato, fluttertongue, harmonics, multiphonics, percussive key
techniques, glissandos, key slides, pitch bends, and jet whistles start
to appear in orchestral music early in the twentieth century and are
standard practice in today’s repertoire.
success of the Boehm flute is still unsurpassed. Modifications are still
being made to materials, wall thickness, size and placement of tone
holes, among other gadgets to further facilitate certain aspects of
playing. However unplayable works are less heard of, and the level of
artistry today is extremely high.
Toot your flute
The flute is
different from every other wind instrument in that it does not have
a separate mouthpiece; the player’s lips function as a mouthpiece.
A flute’s sound is produced when the air stream is blown across the
embouchure hole of the head joint, creating a vibration of air through
the tube. Pitch changes when keys are opened and closed, thus changing
the length of the tube to produce higher or lower notes. The flute will
only vibrate if the direction of the air stream is at the correct angle
For the beginner
you consider to be an important, yet often overlooked element of instrument
care that flutists should follow in order to maintain their instrument?
Do not immerse the flute in water. The only moisture should be the condensation
from your breath inside the tube. Fluctuations in moisture and temperature
affect the mechanism and increase the rate that pads and corks deteriorate.
Swab the instrument dry at the end of your practice, and do not store
your swab inside this instrument or case.
For the intermediate
What is an
essential daily routine that intermediate-level flutists should have
in their arsenal to maintain and further develop their playing?
Technical facility opens doors to exciting repertoire, so scales and
arpeggios go without question. The most beautiful works require excellent
breath support, tonal flexibility, control of nuance and phrasing. Practicing
shorter melodies in various registers to work on these areas is as essential
as technical practice. French flutist Marcel Moyse published numerous
exercises, based on a singing approach, which focus on melodic phrasing
and tone development.
For the advanced
you recommend as a potentially inexpensive way to upgrade a flute for
someone who may not be able to afford a professional instrument?
Do your research before any larger investment is made. If your flute
is already a decent professional instrument, you may opt for a handmade
head joint; however even they can get expensive very quickly. Second-hand
instruments are also worth investigating.
If you could recommend
one work and recording that would romance anyone into falling in love
with the flute, what would it be and why?
Telemann’s Concerto for Flute, Oboe d’amore, Viola d’amore, Strings
and Continuo in E, TWV 53:E1, is truly a captivating work. It stands
out as a work of elegant simplicity, colourful harmonies and magnetic
energy. Swiss-French flutist Emmanuel Pahud recorded the work on an
entrancing disc with the Berliner Barock Solisten (Telemann Flute Concertos/EMI).
Laura Bates is
a freelance flutist based in Montreal. An avid orchestral and chamber
player, she performs regularly in festivals as well as Portmantô
Ensemble. She is a passionate teacher who strives to share her enthusiasm
for music with others. She is also Managing Editor at
La Scena Musicale.
Live flute in
• The Conservatoire de Montréal presents a masterclass with Robert
Langevin; 4 novembre. www.conservatoire.gouv.qc.ca
• Robert Langevin plays Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto with the
New York Philharmonic/Gilbert; November 5.
• Sir James Galway plays Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in G major and
Cimarosa’s Concerto for Two Flutes with Lady Jeanne Galway and the
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Foster; November 22&23.
continues: flutist or flautist? Most likely a derivative
of the Italian word for flute (flauto,) flautist first
appears in English in 1860 in the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The
term flutist is referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary
much earlier, in 1603. Further etymological evidence aside, many flute
players agree with Nancy Toff’s assertion in The Flute Book:
“I play the flute, not the flaut; therefore I am a
flutist, not a flautist.”