Brief Flute History

Prehistoric Flutes

The earliest known handcrafted musical instrument has recently (2009) been found in the Hohle Fels cave, located in southwestern Germany in an area known as Swabia. The nearly complete flute was hollowed from the bone of a griffon vulture, measured 21.8 cm (ca. 8 1/2 in.) long, and had five finger holes located along its length. Scientists have dated this flute to more than 35,000 years old.

In 2004 archeologists from Tübingen University also discovered an ancient flute in a cave located in Germany. This flute was 18.7 cm (7 3/8 in.) long and had three finger holes. It was carved from a mammoth’s tusk by European Ice Age dwellers. This flute has been dated to at least 30,000 years old. The instrument’s makers lived during the Upper Paleolithic era of the last ice age, when the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans lived in Europe.

A player of this instrument would have been capable of playing relatively complex melodies on this mammoth tusk. Music may have played an important role in the lives of our distant ancestors during the European Ice Age. This ivory flute is currently on display in an exhibition of ice age music in the Wuerttembergisches Landes Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

Other early flutes were also made out of animal tibias (shin bones). A playable 9000-year-old Gudi, (literally, “bone flute”), was excavated from a tomb in the central Chinese province of Henan. This flute was made from the wing bones of red-Crowned cranes and had five to eight finger holes.

The Side-Blown Bamboo Flute in Ancient China

The earliest mention of a side blown six-hole Bamboo Flute is the chíih Flute. It is mentioned in a Chinese ode dating from the ninth century BCE in which the chíih is accompanied by a hsuan, a bone or earthenware wind instrument dating from 1550-1030 BCE. It is shaped like a small barrel with a hole in the top and measures about 6.35 cm (2 1/2 in.) high.

“Heaven enlightens the people when the bamboo flute responds to the earthenware whistle.”

Another example of a side-blown flute is believed to be the “tsche,” an ancient Chinese bamboo flute played in about 2637 BCE. Both ends of this flute were closed, with a mouth-hole in the middle.

The oldest existing transverse (side-blown) flute is a lacquered bamboo flute that dates from 433 BCE. It was discovered in the Tomb of Marquid Yi of Zeng located in the Hubei province of China.

Ancient Flutes in the Middle East, Egypt, and Europe

Flutes were also used by the Sumerians and Egyptians thousands of years ago. Some ancient Egyptian flutes have survived, preserved in tombs by the arid desert climate. These Egyptian instruments were vertical flutes, about one yard (0.9 m) long and about 1/2 in. (1.3 cm) wide, with between two and six finger holes.

Modern versions of this flute are still with us today in the Middle East.

Etruscan reliefs provide the earliest pictures of a flute. Dating from the second and third centuries BCE, these reliefs clearly show transverse flutes being played. The Etruscans must have loved the sound of the flute very much, judging from the many illustrations made during this time.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE), flutes almost disappeared from Europe until the Crusades brought Europeans into contact with Arabic culture. It is believed that the flute was introduced into western Europe via Germany from Byzantium at the end of the 2nd century CE.

Flutes in the Renaissance and Baroque Eras

The first usage of the word ‘flute’ appears in France during the 12th century. At this time the word was used to describe both the recorder and transverse flute. By the 14th century, the flute appears in European countries like Spain and France. They were one of the most popular instruments of the Italian musical scene throughout the 16th century. King Henry VIII had a large collection of flutes. These consisted of a cylindrical tube with a cork stopper in one end, a blow hole, and six finger holes.

Throughout this period, the form of the transverse flute remained largely constant. The first major improvements were made early in the 1700’s by a French family of flute players and makers, the Jean Hotteterre family. They separated the single-piece body of the flute into three pieces: the head joint, the body, and the foot joint. The head joint was cylindrical but the body was conical, with the lower end of the flute being the smallest diameter. The foot joint was also conical with the bore becoming larger at the bottom. There were six small tone holes, and a key was added that produced an E-flat. By 1760, G-sharp, B-flat, and F keys were added by flute makers in London.

By 1780, flutes were appearing in instrumental music compositions by Mozart and Hayden. In addition, flute makers extended the range of the instrument downward by adding low C and C-sharp keys to the foot joint, as in today’s modern flutes. By the end of the 1700’s, two more keys were introduced which resulted in the 8-keyed flute. This instrument formed the basis of most “simple system” flutes, which are still being played today in various Celtic ensembles.

Theobald Boehm and the Modern Flute

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) is considered to have created the most important evolution of the flute in its entire history, giving us the Flute as we know it today. Boehm was born in Munich and was trained as a jeweler and goldsmith. His aptitude for music became apparent when he was a young child, and by 1818 he was working as a goldsmith, a flute maker, and a professional flutist in the orchestra of the royal court in Munich.

By 1828, Boehm had put together a workshop to manufacture instruments. In 1831, while visiting London, Boehm attended a concert of Charles Nicholson whose flute had unusually large finger holes producing an exceptionally large and fine tone.

Boehm quickly realized the value of this tone for the concert flutist. Boehm completely redesigned the flute to allow both for improved intonation and ease of finger placement. Instead of being made of wood, Boehm’s new flutes used metal. He modified the number, dimensions, and arrangement of the holes, even modifying the shape of the mouth hole. He designed a new mechanism that functioned as an extension of the fingers.

This conical flute of 1832 was gradually accepted by the most important players of the time, and by 1843 Boehm had licensed flute makers in London and Paris to manufacture this new instrument. In 1846, Boehm continued to perfect the flute while studying acoustics with Carl von Schafhautl at the University of Munich.

In 1847, Boehm produced a radically different instrument with a cylindrical body, a foot joint, and a parabolic head joint. The tone holes on this instrument were even larger than those of the 1832 instrument, and Boehm had to design padded cups for each hole. This new instrument has received only a few relatively unimportant modifications throughout the 20th century and it is a tribute to his genius that Boehm’s flute remains virtually unchanged into the 21st century.

Modern western concert flutes conform to the Boehm system, which is pitched in the Key of ‘C’ and has a range of 3 octaves, starting from middle ‘C’. This makes the concert flute one of the highest common orchestral instruments, second only to the piccolo, which plays an octave higher.

Flutes in ‘G’ alto and ‘C’ bass, pitched, respectively, a perfect fourth and an octave below the concert flute, are also used occasionally. Parts are written for alto flute more frequently than for bass flute. Alto and bass flutes are considerably heavier than the normal ‘C’ flute, making them more difficult to play for extended periods of time.

The first golden flute was built in 1869 by Louis Lot. Flutes today are built of a variety of metals, including gold-plated silver, white gold, new silver (an alloy made of copper, zinc and nickel), platinum, and palladium.

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