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The Flute

Updated on December 26, 2010

Flute, a musical instrument of the woodwind family and a soprano voice of the orchestra. The modern flute is usually a tube of silvered metal about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and 26 inches long. It has a system of keyed notes that make possible a chromatic scale throughout its range of three octaves, upward from middle C.

The player holds the flute toward his right side, more or less horizontally, and blows across the mouthpiece, held against his lower lip. The thumb of the right hand supports the weight of the instrument, while the other nine fingers manipulate the system of holes and keys. Other varieties of the flute include the piccolo, the bass flute, the alto flute, and the fife, or B-flat piccolo.

The flute in its simplest form as an end-blown pipe was well known in ancient Egypt and Greece and probably dates back to prehistoric times. Its side-blown form was introduced into western Europe, probably in the 13th century, by the troubadours of southern France. Bach and Handel wrote for both the end-blown and the side-blown flute. The modern keyed flute was designed by the German flutist Theobald Boehm in 1832 and perfected by him in 1847.

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History of the Flute

The flute is no doubt the oldest of wind instruments, and it is the only one in which the sound is produced by the breath of the player striking across a simple hole in the pipe.

All very early flutes were blown across the open end - this type is illustrated in Egyptian and Sumerian art, and it is the same as the phlogera still played by Greek goat-herds. An early improvement was to move the hole to the side of the pipe and to close up one end. This not only made for a better tone, but allowed the player to hold the instrument in the more comfortable side position instead of at an awkward semi-vertical angle. Very different are the later recorders, which have a specially shaped mouthpiece. Many flutes were made from bones; both the Egyptian word sebi and the Latin tibia used of the flute actually mean shin-bone. Few of these bone flutes remain, compared with the large number of wooden and reed instruments that are found scattered among the relics of the world's ancient civilisations.

It is not always easy to determine from ancient illustration what is and what is not a flute. Very early on in the development of instruments it was discovered that by binding two small pieces of cane together a so-called 'reed' could be made which, fixed in the end of a pipe, was an alternative to the simple hole for making the initial sound (in this way children still make squeakers with blades of grass). This instrument is in fact an oboe, and unless shown in some detail it is easily confused with the end-blown flute. The matter is not helped by the Greek habit of referring to flute and oboe impartially as aulos. Still, it is reasonably certain that a genuine flute was played by the Sumerians by 2600 B.C. A Sumerian seal of that period shows, rather charmingly, a shepherd playing to his attentive dog.

The instrument first appears in Egypt in the fourth millennium B.C. A slate drawing shows a hunter attracting his prey by means of a flute. Copious illustration in tomb-paintings and actual remains tell us that the later Egyptians were much interested in the flute, as they were in all musical instruments. They used a particularly long version (still end-blown, with no mouthpiece), so long that the players must in some cases have had difficulty in reaching the furthest finger-holes. A band of seven seated players is painted in one of the tombs of the Pyramids, all playing flutes of different lengths, and possibly accompanying a soloist, who alone stands. Apuleius mentions that similar flutes played a part in the mysteries of-Isis; even today the Arabs play a ney, which differs slightly from these early instruments.

Europe had both the end-blown flute and the transverse flute in the Middle Ages, the transverse flute deriving probably from Byzantium (to this day the flute is exceptionally popular in the Balkans). It is mentioned in a Greek treatise of A.D. 800 and depicted in miniatures of the tenth and eleventh centuries. By the thirteenth century it is commonly mentioned in French and German writings, but it was still a long while before the end-flute, transformed into the blockflote or recorder, with its special mouthpiece, took second place. Bach wrote for both recorder and side-flute, though there is evidence that he preferred the side-flute. Certainly it has a greater brilliance and fullness; in fact it is hard to see how the gentler recorder made itself heard in some of the works of that period.

Today the recorder is heard chiefly in the hands of specialists and revivalists (such as the Dolmetsch family) and in schools, where it performs a valuable service in giving children a simple sweet-toned instrument on which they can quickly learn to play tunes. The transverse flute occupies a position of importance in the orchestra : the normal complement is two, with the addition of the tiny piercing piccolo, and, much more rarely, the breathy and sensuous alto flute. It is easily the most nimble of the woodwind ensemble, owing to the ease of the tone production and the ingenious fingering mechanism introduced by Theobald Bohm (1793-1881). Despite their deceptive simplicity, its clear, cool tones are capable of as wide an expressive range as any wind instrument. Enobarbus's lovely description of Cleopatra seated in her barge implies that for Shakespeare the flute was associated with gentle, amorous sounds, and for Dryden the flute was soft and complaining; today it has also acquired a silvery brilliance and a breathless agility. It is still generally made of wood, though metal flutes are common. Some players compromise by having a metal head to the instrument and a wooden body. The wooden flute gives a deeper, more reedy tone; the metal instrument has a more brilliant, more incisive quality, as would be expected. Concertos have been written for the flute, (including two delightful ones by Mozart), and it was part of the social equipment of many a young gentleman of breeding in the last two centuries; but its best use nowadays is in the orchestra, as with all wind instruments. Here it has been respected and well treated by all composers, classical and modern.

The double flute has disappeared. It was popular with the Assyrians, and the Etruscans, the Greeks and Romans. Nile boatmen still play it, and stray English examples a century or so old can be found occasionally in second-hand shops.

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