*This is the third part of a three part series on the history of the modern flute. To view Part 2, click here.
The Nineteenth Century
The dawn of the 1800s revealed still more flute transformations. Parisian Claude Laurent designed a glass flute in 1806 that had a purer tone than its wooden counterparts. His new creation weathered humid conditions more easily, reducing the number of leaks that normally occurred. A modified technique of mounting keys used to accommodate the glass medium became the norm among flutes made of wood after the discovery revealed less lateral play in the keys and increased durability.
Two years later, Reverent Frederick Nolan achieved a more even intonation of the flute scale by fashioning open-standing keys and rings to close open keys and regular holes with the same finger. This invention had the added benefit of enabling the flutist to depress only the ring without covering the hole, and thereby closing the connected open key. Many other flute innovators created varying renditions of the flute mechanism adding anywhere up to seventeen keys. Many of these models were played only by the flutist who commissioned the creation never prospering in the general flute-playing public.
Though the push for more accurately pitched chromatic key work and desire for a larger range was intensifying in early to mid-nineteenth century symphonic compositions, many problems still existed in the makeup of the flute. One issue in particular was the lack of projection the wooden flute provided in the growing orchestra of the Romantic period. This was a problem due to the fact that composers began to use the flute as a soloistic voice in the orchestra rather than merely reinforcement for the string sections. Charles Nicholson (1795-1837), an English virtuoso flutist, attempted to use a flute with larger tone holes to remedy this concern, catching the attention of a young flute maker by the name of Theobald Boehm (1794-1881).
The Boehm Flute
Boehm was a 19th century German flute maker, inventor, composer, and flutist. Beginning flute lessons at the age of 16, he quickly outgrew his instructor and went on to become one of the most accomplished flutists of his time, often performing works he had composed. Boehm initially only manufactured and performed on the traditional “German” flutes. These systems were conical bored wooden flutes with anywhere between one and eight keys. While performing several concerts in Europe, the flute maker became quite dissatisfied with his sound and power of projection compared to another flutist who had an instrument with larger tone holes. Consequently, Boehm swiftly returned to his workshop to begin a twenty-year process of redesigning the flute.
Changes to the Boehm System included adding key pillar mounts and rod-axels that transformed the fingering system, a re-spacing and re-sizing of tone holes to more effectively accommodate acoustics, open venting keys to allow for more resonance, adjusting the conical shape of the flute bore to improve the otherwise flattened pitch, and constructing the instrument of silver rather than wood. The new system was not initially accepted in the mainstream flute community though he began performing with it in Munich in the early 1830s due to the reluctance to adopt a new fingering system. Popularity slowly grew, however, and Boehm’s new flute became the standard in England, France, and the United States by the 1850s. By the end of the century, the remainder of Western Europe had come around.
In the years leading up to 1848, Boehm re-worked many of his initial modifications and sold the patent to Godfroy l’aine in France and Rudall & Rose in England. According to researchers Bates and Bohm, “Boehm’s silver flutes were awarded gold and silver medals at the exhibitions in Leipzig (1850), London (1851) and Paris (1855). Though there have been minor tweaks in the key mechanism since then, the overall make-up of the flute remains unchanged even today, over one hundred fifty years later.
For sources, click here.
*This is the second part of a three part series on the history of the modern flute. To view the first part, click here.
In the last half of the seventeenth century, French flutist Jacques Hotteterre (1673-1763) employed significant changes to satisfy this need. He began by adding the d-sharp key in the 1660s, transforming the otherwise keyless mechanism into the one-keyed flute. In order to educate flutists about the new system, he published a tutor method, Principes de la Flute Traversiere, ou Flute de Allemagne in 1707. Another innovative move was to change the bore to from cylindrical to conical starting at the top of the middle joint tapering to the beginning of the foot joint. This radical modification eliminated the shrill quality of the timbre and flattened the pitch by allowing the finger holes to be placed closer together.
Though progress in workmanship was evident in the early eighteenth century, advancement in pitch accuracy was not. Prior to the days of equal temperament, variances in pitch from a=350 to a=500 were common depending on the country of performance and the other instruments in the ensemble. Pitch versatility, therefore, was a necessity. To accommodate this, common flute components of this period included an adjustable head joint tuning cork as well as interchangeable upper middle joints in varying lengths. The latter, called corps de rechange were carried along in separate cases in the event a different pitched instrument was required for a collaborative performance. Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) also invented a head-joint tuning slide that evolved into the tuning method flutists use today.
The Classic Period (1750-1820)
These innovations achieved moderate intonation success, however complicated cross fingerings and impeccably accurate embouchure placements were required to play many of the notes on the flute. There was, unfortunately, little room for amateur ignorance. Consequently, Mozart (1756-1791) primarily wrote in the flute friendly keys of G and D to appease his own sensitive ears. Nevertheless, to the general listening public, poor intonation was an accepted reality. The great skill required to navigate tuning tendencies was taken into consideration whenever a flutist performed.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, London flute makers Pietro Florio (1730-1795), Caleb Gedney (1729-1769), and Richard Potter (1728-1806) introduced several chromatic adjustments to the flute mechanism. The addition of three new keys—g-sharp, b-flat, and f—left c-natural as the only remaining note needed to fill the d-chromatic scale. The flute making trio added the missing c and a c-sharp key in 1774. Though the materials used in constructing the key mechanisms were not widely accepted until the 1790s, evidence of these changes can be observed in Haydn’s music in the second half of the Classic period.
The “German” or “old system” flute was complete with the further contributions of flute designers Dr. J.H. Ribock (1743-1785) and Johann G. Tromlitz (1725-1805). The resulting eight-keyed flute sported a closed c-natural key and an additional f-key (long-f) to more easily facilitate certain slurs. The eight-keyed flute was highly innovative in its time, though the popularity of the one-keyed flute prevailed into the early nineteenth century. The latter was less expensive to manufacture and flutists preferred the familiar fingering system—troubled as it was.
Stay tuned for next week's post all about how Boehm came to the rescue of flutists everywhere!
Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!
For sources, click here.
*This is the first post in a three part series on the history of the modern flute.
As an eleven-year-old beginning flutist, I never paused to consider the origin of the instrument precariously placed in my lap. As I am sure others did, I purposed only to press the correct keys down at the right time so as to achieve the holy grail of flute playing—principal chair. It never occurred to me to educate myself about the history of the amazing craft I would spend the next twenty years pursuing. I cared only to be the best flutist among the six others at my side—and to have rocking vibrato. Because everyone knows intense vibrato is the mark of an amazing flute player, right?
All flute jokes aside, this is a growing epidemic in many band and orchestra programs due to the inaccessibility of critical historical information. If ever a young person desired to dig deeper, pages and pages of tedious technical information would likely extinguish any curiosity. I feel, however that this knowledge is vital as the flutist approaches music from different time periods.
Awareness of the flute for which a particular piece was written can add meaning to the preparation of the work and validity to its performance. As musicians in the twenty-first century, it is exciting to embark on a new era of musical innovation; however it is also our duty to preserve the tireless efforts of the great musicians who paved the way for us to do so. It is my hope that this series will provide an accurate yet succinct roadmap to the journey of flute workmanship from the earliest times to the present—a platform for music educators to enrich the studies of young flutists.
Middle Ages (500-1400)
In its primitive state, the flute of the Middle Ages played a supporting role to vocal works of the time. Virtuosic flute playing was inconceivable in the culture of this period, thus the design of the flute was quite simple. Its makeup consisted of a plain wooden cylinder measuring less than two feet in length with six finger holes cut into the tube enabling the player to execute a D-Major scale. These openings were designed to comfortably fit the flutist’s hand placement without regard to the scientific awareness of acoustics. Consequently, intonation was less than ideal.
The Renaissance (1400-1600)
Gaining independence from the supportive role of the middle ages, flute music gradually became its own genre during the Renaissance. Mimicking the human nature of previous ventures, models were available in several voices, including discant, alto or tenor, and bass. The expansion of the flute family accounted for the larger range requirements the transverse flute alone could not achieve. It was common practice to rotate through the different flutes according to the mood of the piece being performed.
As the expressive qualities of Baroque music emerged, so did the requirement for a flute capable of a wider range of technical possibilities. Though little music existed for the flute at this point other than a few works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), many performers adapted those written for solo violin and oboe. Unfortunately, the range of these two instruments exceeded that of the flute necessitating renovation in the flute’s design. Thus began the centuries-long process of reconstructing a temperamental piece of hollow wood into something capable of negotiating the current musical territory.
Today, we've covered three historical periods of early music--tune in for the next two Mondays as we cover the rest!
Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!
For article sources, click here.
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