The flute has appeared in many guises over the ages, making it the orchestral instrument with the richest history. Here we will take a brief look at its story.
The oldest instruments in the world date from a staggering 43 000 years ago. Discovered in southern Germany, they are flutes made from bird bone and ivory.
5000 years ago flutes were still being made from bone, and were held straight out in front like a recorder. The first sideways held instrument was made in China about 2000 years ago. Flutes were used by hunters, shepherds, by musicians on festive occasions, and eventually by soldiers too (the Swiss army used them for signalling in the 1470s). It was not until the late 1500s that flutes begun to be used in court and theatre music.
The ‘Baroque’ flute was developed around 1670. Instead of having a straight tube it had a conical bore (meaning the tube was larger at the mouthpiece end than at the foot) and a key for the note D sharp was added, played by the right hand little finger. That key still exists on modern instruments.
The body was made in three pieces, which fitted together snuggly at the joints due to the tenons being wrapped in wax thread.
This ‘Baroque’ instrument had more volume and was fully chromatic (meaning it could play all the notes of the scale) but it still had many issues, especially with intonation. With only one key, the musician had to use fork fingerings to create the different notes. Any person who learned recorder at school will be familiar with this type of fingering- notes are created by leaving one hole open and closing one or two of the holes below. Not only complicated to play, the sound created left a lot to be desired.
By 1775 the flute was not only made in four pieces, but it had four keys too. The sound kept improving as more keys were added, and the instrument was further developed by English flautist Charles Nicholson (1795- 1837). He made larger holes for the fingers and a larger hole for the mouthpiece.
The German flautist, composer and silversmith Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) heard Charles Nicholson play in a concert, and was so impressed by the sound of Nicholson’s design that he was inspired to experiment with it further. Two major differences Boehm tried were his use of metal instead of wood, and a large straight tube instead of the conical one. His creation was called the Ringklappenflöte, and was so successful that it is the model we still use today.