|Written by Alisa Willis|
The flute, as we know it, has quite humble roots and is the musical foundation for many cultures. In its simplest form, a hollowed out bone, horn, or length of bamboo is blown across, and tone holes along its length are covered and uncovered by the fingers to change the pitch.
Through time, and with technological advancement, flutes were also fashioned from pottery, wood, ivory, glass, and various metals. Today, while some metal alloys and layerings have been designed especially for crafting flutes of the highest quality., many modern flute makers have brought back the use of wood to achieve a particular tone colour.
Two Main Flute Families
Flutes have branched into two main families; those that use a block to direct the air at the edge of the hole (e.g. the recorder), and those which require the players lips to direct the air (e.g. the transverse flute). Both of these kinds of flutes were used in ensembles during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Although the recorder family is still very popular today, only the transverse (or side blown) flute was retained for the orchestra and is now part of standard symphonic orchestration.
Addition of Keys to the Flute
The most significant advancement to the flute was the addition of keys and mechanism to aid the speed and fluidity of technical passages., also significantly improving the accuracy of intonation over a chromatic scale. This advancement began with just one key for the right-hand pinkie until experimentation with the addition of keys quickly escalated from the baroque period until Theobold Boehm, in 1847, established a chromatic mechanism which has remained more or less the international benchmark from which modern flute makers have developed their own high-performance models.
Many agree that these technical advancements have seen the loss of the beauty and subtleties of tone colour available to baroque flutists. On the other hand, the modern flute is able to play significantly stronger than its romantic predecessor, and as a result, it has been taken more seriously and given a more soloistic role in the orchestra. Of course development didn’t stop with Boehm, and has continued up to the present day where the likes of Eva Kingma and Robert Dick have developed a quarter-tone flute.
Historically, the playing of flutes was often tied to particular social or cultural events such as funeral laments, courtship, religious ceremonies and celebrations., and, in many cases, only men were allowed to play. It was common for early flutes to have a very small tessitura (or range) of anything from a few notes up to two octaves, usually on something similar to a pentatonic scale.
Today, flutes are played by all, and produce tones ranging from rich and dark in the lower register, to a clear bird-like quality in the upper register, to breathy, soulful jazz, or rhythmic beat-boxing and extended techniques - the flute is truly an incredibly versatile instrument! From the tiny piccolo down to the monster sub-contra-alto flute, there is no limit to the exploration of sound available to flutists.
What are we waiting for…?