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!
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