A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Flute

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FLUTE (Germ. Flöte, Querflöte; Ital. Flauto, Flauto traverso; Fr. Flûte, Flûte traversière). An ancient instrument used in every part of the world. It has always had two principal forms, the direct flute or Flute à bec, now developed into the Flageolet, and the German flute or Flûte traversière, which appears to have superseded it about 1720. There is however evidence of an intermediate instrument, partaking of the characters of both, which will be described farther on.

The Flute, as now employed, consists essentially of a tube, conical from below upwards, terminating in the Head, and stopped at the top by a cork. In the side of the head is a large orifice with sharp edges, situated less than an inch below the cork, through which the breath is forced obliquely from the approximated lips. In the lower part are six holes to be stopped by the first three fingers of either hand—and various intermediate keys; there are also on the lowest joint three, or even four, levers producing additional notes below the regular scale of the instrument. It is held transversely and sloping downwards against the lower lip, with the orifice in the head turned somewhat outwards, so that the stream of wind shall impinge upon its outer edge. By this impact of the current upon the wedge-like margin of the aperture sound is produced. Considerable practice is required to develop any note whatever, and much controversy exists as to the exact cause of the musical vibration. It is not however necessary that the feather edge should be at the side of the main tube; for in the Nay or Egyptian flute figured in the margin[1]
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the extreme circular end of the tube itself (here made of bamboo) is thinned away so as to produce a linear termination, against which the current of breath is directed. Such a flute might be held straight in front of the player, like the Flageolet or flute à bec; in which, however, the simple combination of orifice and lip is replaced by a far more complicated arrangement, exactly similar to the mouth of a diapason organ-pipe. As a matter of fact it is held obliquely towards the right side of the player, like the modern transverse flute, except that its lower extremity bears considerably downwards, so as to enable the blast to enter a terminal instead of a lateral orifice. An almost similar instrument to the one here figured is in the ancient Egyptian collection in the British Museum, and from the absence of the usual lateral hole was considered to be a forgery. Not only is the same instrument still in use at the present day, but the mode of playing and the position of the ancient instrument can be recovered from the plaster mural decorations still preserved. The only difference in the more ancient instrument is that the scale is one of four orifices, whereas the modern possesses the full complement of six. Either of these may be looked upon as intermediate between the flute and the flue-pipe of the organ, the foot and 'languid' being in this case supplied by the cavity of the mouth and the linear opening of the lips.

No instrument has undergone so many changes and improvements within the last half century as the Flute. The bore, instead of being conical, has been made cylindrical; the fingering and disposition of the keys have been entirely altered according to the system named after Boehm.

The flute, though not possessing a very extensive compass, is especially prominent in concerted music, from the acuteness of the sounds it is competent to produce. Indeed, the Piccolo, or small Octave variety, emits the sharpest notes ordinarily used in music. Its true Scale may be considered to begin on D (1) below the treble stave, and hence the Flute is often called a D instrument. The notes C♯, C, B♮, and even B♭, below D, are obtained by associated levers set in motion by the two little fingers of either hand, but do not occur again in the higher registers. By the successive removal of the three first fingers of the right hand, followed by those of the left, the series of notes rising from D to C♯ (2) are elicited, and on D again (3) a new octave harmonic scale is commenced by closing all the holes except that beneath the forefinger of the left hand. In this respect the scale is similar to the Oboe and Bassoon, with the exception that the latter, being fundamentally in the key of G, change upon that note instead of upon D. The second octave is produced by a stronger pressure of wind and an alteration of embouchure, rising to D above the stave (4), and there remains a third still higher octave, obtained by cross-fingerings often of a complicated nature, rising to D or even D♯ in altissimo (5)—

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The scale here described is that of the old eight-keyed Flute.

The principles of the Flute originally invented by Captain Gordon of Charles the Tenth's Swiss Guards and introduced by Theobald Boehm[2] in his new flute, constructed in 1832, were principally (1) that each note should speak independently out of a single hole, as though the remainder of the bore were entirely cut off; (2) that all keys in their position of rest should be permanently open. He also aimed at equalising the difficulty of the different keys, some of which, on the older flute, were notoriously inconvenient and all but impracticable. A subsequent improvement consisted in substituting a cylindrical for a conical bore. In its latest modification, the Boehm flute consists of a cylindrical tube terminating at the upper end, above the embouchure in a conical or 'parabolic' prolongation. For the left hand, which occupies the upper part of the instrument next to the head, are four open keys to be closed by the first finger, thumb (situated at the back of the instrument), second, and third fingers successively. For the little finger of this hand is an open key producing the G♯ or A♭. On the right hand joint are three open keys, for the first, second, and ring fingers respectively, with accessory or 'shake keys' (which are normally closed) interposed. For the right little finger are the closed key of D♯ and the two open keys of C♯ and C. In many flutes mechanism, still worked by the right little finger, is added to produce B♮ and even B♭. But from the D♮ downwards all the work is accessory, and not directly used in the production of the natural scale. For this reason the instrument is said to stand in the key of D. For the purpose of obtaining each sound by the closure of a single orifice, a somewhat new arrangement of the scale is necessary on certain notes. The G, for instance, in either octave is produced by closing the five holes of the left hand. For the F a whole tone below, the forefinger of the right hand is added. The intermediate F♯ is obtained by depressing the pad of the middle or ring fingers, that of the index being left open. In the Clarinet, Oboe, Bassoon, and other octave-scaled instruments, the B♭ a whole tone below C, which in a, D instrument like the flute is represented by the F♮ below the middle G, has to be produced by closing the B♮ and A♮ holes and lifting an intermediate B♭ key, thus lowering the pitch a minor third and raising it a semitone. The same method as that for the F♯ is employed for the B♭ or A♯, which is produced by lowering the B&#266e; a semitone through the intervention of a lever actuated by the fingers of the right hand, those of the left, middle, and ring fingers being left open.

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The compass of the Boehm Flute is from C to C three octaves higher, though the C♯ above this note, and even more acute sounds, can be obtained by exceptional players.

A variety of other Flutes, modified more or less from the old eight-keyed instrument or the Boehm system, are to be met with. Among these may be named those of Siccama, Clinton, and Carte. Their differences are chiefly mechanical. The main distinction between the older and the more modern instruments is the adoption of the cylindrical bore. There can be no doubt that this contrivance adds materially to the power of tone, and gives it a reedy quality closely approximating to that of the Clarinet. But it is a question if it does not to the same extent modify its peculiar orchestral character, and diminish its purity of intonation. This distinctive quality of tone has been shown by Helmholtz (Ellis's Tr. 113, 141, 172) to be peculiar, and free from most harmonic 'upper-partials' except the octaves.

The literature of the Flute is so extensive as hardly to admit of illustration within moderate limits. Bach uses it freely both as an obbligato instrument and in concerted passages, and ever since his time it has held a prominent place in the band. In the scores of his works it is sometimes marked Traversière to distinguish it from the Flute-à-bec.

Haydn, both in his Symphonies and in his Oratorios, awards it the same prominence. The Trio for three Flutes in the 'Creation' may be named as an illustration.

Handel usually specifies the 'German' Flute, and often indicates its importance by the words 'with the accompaniment of a German Flute.' It is difficult to understand how the players of his day were able to make themselves heard with the few Flutes then allotted to the Orchestra against, the large numbers of Oboes and Bassoons. In the Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey in 1784 there were 6 Flutes against 26 Oboes and 26 Bassoons, besides 12 Trumpets and the same number of Horns. Handel produces, however, a magnificent effect in the Dead March in 'Saul' by the simple employment of two Flutes moving in thirds against the reiterated bass of the kettledrum.

Mozart, except in some of his Symphonies, which were obviously written for a small band, freely scores for this instrument. The opera of the Zauberflöte derives its name from it. There are also two Concertos for solo Flute and Orchestra in G and D, and one for Flute and Harp among his works (Köchel, 313, 314, 299).

Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and all later writers, give it the leading part of the wind in all their compositions. The solo shortly after the trumpet flourishes in the Overture to Leonora No. 3 will not be forgotten, or the lovely part for two flutes in the 2nd movement of the Italian Symphony. Schumann also has introduced a prominent cadenza for it in the Finale to his B flat Symphony. The difficult accompaniment to the Ranz des Vaches, played by the Oboe, in Rossini's overture to 'William Tell' affords a good illustration of the mechanical complexities which this flexible and agile instrument is competent, and consequently is expected, to surmount. In a dramatic sense it is used by Mendelssohn in the sacrificial chorus 'O be gracious' in St. Paul, and by Gretry in 'Andromaque,' in which the part of Andromache is always accompanied by 3 flutes.

The most voluminous writer for the Flute was probably Quantz, who composed 200 solos and 300 concertos for Frederick the Great alone. But the instrument had a distinguished writer, Kuhlau, as the special exponent of its powers and beauty. This eminent contrapuntist devoted nearly the whole of his short life to Flute compositions. This singular fact has been accounted for by the statement that an amateur flute-player of position employed him constantly and liberally in writing them. Kuhlau has been termed the 'Beethoven of the Flute.' It will be seen from the list given below that Solos, Duets, Trios, and even Quartets for Flutes, are among his voluminous works. Indeed, but for a fire which destroyed the composer's manuscripts, their number would be at least threefold. Such as are extant afford inestimable models of construction and originality.

Flute Music.

Mozart.—Grand duo in G, op. 76; Andante in C, Concerto in G, Rondo in D, op. 86.

Spohr.—Concerto in modo di Scena Cantante, op. 47.

Weber.—Romanza Siciliana in G minor, with Orchestra; Trio for Flute, Cello, and Pianoforte, op. 63.

Beethoven.—Serenade for Flute, Violin, and Alto, op. 25.

Haydn.—Two Trios for two Flutes and Cello. Kuhlau.—Three grand Trios for three Flutes, op. 13; Do. do., op. 86; One do., op. 90; Three Quintets for Flute and String Quartet in D, E, A, op. 51; Grand Quartet for four Flutes in E, op. 103; Six sets of three Duets for two Flutes, ops. 10, 39, 80, 81, 87; Solos, with Pianoforte, op. 57; Three Fantasies, Do. do., op. 95.

Reicha. Quartet for four Flutes in D, op. 12; 24 Quintets for wind instruments.

Schubert. Introduction and Variations on 'Trockne Blumen,' for Flute and Piano, op. 160.

[ W. H. S. ]

  1. This curious instrument is still used by the peasants about the Nile. The original of the figure was brought from Egypt by F. Girdlestone, Esq., of the Charterhouse. See an admirable cut in Lane's 'Modern Egyptians.'
  2. See his pamphlet 'Über den Flötenbau and die neuesten Verbesseruugen.' Mainz, 1847.