An introduction to historical flutes

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From a distance, one flute looks much like another, but close up and on the inside they can vary enormously. The more observant of you may have noticed at the recent AAM performances of La Turquie, that I was playing five instruments (see picture below)! The previous week I had been playing another five different instruments… welcome to my world!

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Flutes used in ‘La Turquie’ programme

All of these historical flutes share certain key features which differ from the standard concert flute which you might hear in a symphony orchestra. The ‘modern’ flute is actually not so modern: Theobald Boehm, a virtuoso flute player from Munich made his first experiments enlarging and repositioning the finger holes as early as 1832, but he decided a radical rethink was necessary and in 1847 the modern instrument was born.

Basically, modern Boehm flutes have a totally straight cylindrical bore (with a small taper at the top end), plus twelve equal-sized, equally spaced holes, one for each semitone of the chromatic scale, which produce an admirably even tone quality throughout the range (the trill keys and extended foot joint are extras). The Renaissance flute also had a cylindrical bore but only six holes, so many notes (especially Eb) were difficult to approximate and tone and intonation was rather uneven, hence playing tended to be centred in favourable modes or tonalities.

Most of the historical flutes (or copies) I use for baroque and classical repertoire fall between these two extremes. From the late 17th century radical changes were made in flute design and
construction. A conical shaped bore was adopted, tapering steeply towards the foot of the flute, and this greatly strengthened the octave harmonics, facilitating playing in the second octave with ease.

Baroque flutes still only have six finger holes but with the addition of a single key over a seventh hole, giving Eb or D# its own hole, the flute can produce a fully chromatic scale of two and a half octaves, making it possible to play in all keys. However, several notes are naturally mellow in colour, since they share a hole with a neighbouring note: G# for instance, is actually formed from A, by closing the holes below the third hole, where these notes are formed.

The difference is that for A, most of the lower holes are open, whereas with G# all holes but one are closed, and that hole is very small! This radically alters the harmonics, rather like changing the ingredients in a recipe, so it should be no surprise that they sound/taste different. In terms of colour, A, as an ‘open’ note has a strong first octave harmonic, meaning it can produce a rich, dark sound if the player chooses. By contrast, G# can only produce a mellow sound because that octave harmonic is entirely absent. I think of it like this: G# comes from a special paintbox of watercolours , but A can be made from a thick oil paint, or I can blend the sound to match the G#.
Either way, when the music modulates to a key containing G#, I feel a special light coming into the room!

The extended section of the Campra (which we performed in May) using flutes in A major hopefully gave you a flavour of this translucent tone colour! For this I was using the longest flute in the photo, only just made a couple of weeks before, by Rudolf Tutz (junior) in Innsbrück. It is a copy of a flute by Hotteterre, just like the engraving in his book, Principes de la Flûte traversière (1707).

Image from ‘Principes de la Flûte traversière’ by Hotteterre (1707)

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Rachel Brown, AAM Principal Flute

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