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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 3 November 2011

Instrumental insights: the Flute

by Laura Bates / November 1, 2011

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A brief history of the flute

Early History
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 and saxophone.

Modern Mastery
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.

The technological 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 and speed.

Laura Bates’ Flute Tips

For the beginner
What would 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
What would 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?
Georg Philipp 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 Montreal:
• 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.

Flutist? Flautist?
The debate 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.”

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