Cornelius Ward - The Flute Explained


INSTRUMENTS distinguished by the name of flute are very ancient. It is, however, perfectly ascertained, that the word flute was often applied without reference to the mode of producing the sound. This name, in fact, appears to have been given to every variety of tube formed of cane, wood, horn, wood and horn combined, or of metal, having lateral apertures to be stopped with the fingers so as to decide the fundamental tones of their scales.

The relics of ancient ingenuity in this department of the arts, existing in the fragments of instruments, representations in sculpture, and the notices of ancient historians, show that some flutes, so called, had trumpet mouthpieces; others, flageolet mouthpieces; others, with various kinds of reeds, some very similar to our oboe or bassoon, which latter were a most favourite variety; others again had a peculiar kind of reed inclosed in a small socket, which was blown into by the performer. There are two of the latter kind in the British Museum, which were found in a tomb at Athens, and also some cane flutes, in pieces, which were found in a pyramid at Dashour in Egypt, but we cannot see in what manner the latter were sounded.  

There is some evidence that the ancients possessed a kind of flute, the sound of  which was produced by means of a simple lateral aperture applied to the lips, but we cannot find that any clue bas yet been discovered as to the invention of this all-important method of producing sound. Indeed the simplicity of this embouchure may induce us to assume that it was a common or general idea; and it is found in many parts of the uncivilized world.

We would here remark that this, the proper flute embouchure, simple and obvious as it may appear, at once places the most PURE and delightful quality of sound under the control of taste and feeling: possessing more beauty than the human voice, and still equally under the command of the mind. It is the properties of this kind of embouchure, combined with the arrangements we shall presently describe, that will ultimately render the flute the most perfect and effective of all melodic instruments.

Descending from the era of antiquity, the oldest instruments with a flute embouchure, of which we possess authentic accounts, were the same as our common fife; that is, small in size, with six finger apertures, a cylindrical bore, and without a key. There are historical notices of this flute being in the Swiss infantry troops, accompanied by the drum, in very early times, when its European name was the Swiss flute: and it is stated that they were first adopted in the same manner in the French army, in the time of Francis the First, after the battle of Marignan. At what time, or by whom subsequently, the fife was enlarged and constructed with a taper bore, so as to become the flute proper, does not appear, but we have met with an interesting notice of this matter, in a large work of nearly 400 quarto pages of letter-press and 24 exercises, published at Berlin in 1752, on the "Flute Traversière," by J. J. Quantz, who taught and played with Frederick the Great. He states-

"There can be no doubt, that, among the northern nations, the Germans first laid down the elementary principles of the flute, as they did also in respect to several other wind instruments; at any rate, they entirely remodelled them. The English and French both call this instrument the GERMAN flute. Michael Pretorius, in his 'Theatre des Instrumens,' printed at Wolfenbuttelin 1620, at which time nothing was yet known of the key at present on this instrument, calls it the Flute Traverse; and, to distinguish it from the military instrument used along with the drum, he calls the latter the Swiss flute.

The Flute Traverse was not, therefore, always in its present state. It could not be played upon in all the modes, for want of the key which is necessary for D # or Eb. I am myself in possession of a flute of this kind, made in Germany about sixty years ago, and which is one­fourth lower in pitch than the common flutes. The French were the first to render this instrument more perfect than it was in Germany, by the addition of a key.

I have taken every pains to ascertain by whom and when this improvement was made, but without success; from all that I can learn, it is not a century since, and there can be little doubt that in France, at the same period, the Chalemic was converted into the Oboe, and the Bombardo into the Bassoon.

Philibert, so famous for his singular adventures, was the first Frenchman who distinguished himself on the instrument thus improved, and received applause. After him, came La Barre and Holleterre le Romain. They were succeeded by Buffardin and Blavet, who far excelled their predecessors. The French musicians were the first to exhibit the true genius of this instrument, and it was they who introduced it into Germany, fifty or sixty years ago, in its amended form, that is, with one key. The peculiar predilection the Germans have always shown for wind instruments accounts for the flute traverse being now as common among them, as it is in France. Up to this period, the flute had only one key; but when I became acquainted with the nature of this instrument, I found that there was always a deficiency in the purity of certain sounds, which could only be remedied by the addition of a second key. This addition I made in the year 1726.

Quantz then describes that he placed two Eb keys, if we may so call them, one upon an aperture larger than the other; and by using one or the other, he says, he corrected the tone and intonation of the defective notes. He tells us that some one added a key to make the low C # and then another to make low C about thirty years before he wrote; but that they soon went out of vogue, on account of their injuring the other tones of the flute. Quantz's improvement, that is, the additional Eb key, was not generally adopted, and we find that the popularity of the one-keyed German flute went on increasing, displacing in France and Germany the oboe, and in England the flute-a-bec. The celebrated Tebaldo Monzani laid aside the oboe for the one-keyed flute, and he commenced his highly creditable professional career in this country upon it nearly sixty years ago.

About this time the other keys for making F, G#, and Bb were in the course of being added, and flutes so improved were coming into use. We find that soon after the present century commenced, the best flutes had eight keys; and they did not become general for upwards of twenty years. Nicholson used but six up to about 1817, and afterwards never more than seven.

On, to The Modern or Ordinary German Flute, General Principles

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