Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Flute

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I’d already been playing the flute for quite a while when I first heard a recording for three, four, and five flutes, starring Jean-Pierre Rampal, his father Joseph Rampal, Maxence Larrieu, Alain Marion, and Marius Beuf, and featuring pieces by Friedrich Kuhlau, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, and Anton Reicha. I was probably 12 or 13, listening to my father’s growing collection of Musical Heritage Society’s Baroque masterpieces. In that recording, I heard the sound of water babbling, of cities busily whizzing around me, of space and its impenetrable depths, and of human genius.

I already knew that I loved the flute, but I didn’t know why. And then I heard it at its finest and I was hooked for life. The flute, it turns out, is a very ancient instrument. It’s in every culture and has been around since before mankind kept track of itself. Settle in and prepare for a long and winding story, the story of the flute.

Many instruments are considered flutes, but I will only be talking here about the ones that are edge-blown, not those with a fipple (a mechanical way of controlling the flow of air) like a recorder or a whistle. The flute is a member of the woodwind family, but it’s an aerophone, meaning it’s made of reeds or something similar. It can be traverse (held horizontally, parallel to the ground and perpendicular to the player’s body) or vertical (held perpendicular to the ground and parallel to the player’s body, like a panpipe). And also to make the story shorter, I’m also sticking to European-style flutes. This piece was HUGE before I made that change. (I’ll post on non-European flutes shortly.)

It’s probably the earliest known musical instrument, if you don’t count drums and the voice. Flutes from 43,000 years ago have been discovered in Germany’s Swabian Alp region and the earliest seem to be made from bird-wing and bear bones. Later flutes were made from mammoth tusks, between 30,000 and 37,000 years ago.

The earliest written reference to a flute is from a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dated around 2600 or 2700 BCE. They’re also mentioned in the epic story of Gilgamesh, which developed between 2100 and 600 BCE. The Old Testament talks about Jubal as the “father of all those who play the ugab and the kinnor” (the flute and the harp, loosely translating).

In Europe, the traverse flute replaced the panpipes in the Middle Ages and was especially popular with the Minnesingers (in Germany between the 12th and 14th centuries). During the Renaissance, the name “flute” applied to both flutes and recorders, and composers treated the two instruments as interchangeable.

Physical changes to the flute help to mark musical development from the Baroque period to the Classical. For Bach and Handel, “flute” still meant “recorder,” but after the middle of the 18th century (by the time of Mozart and Haydn),“flute” meant “traverse flute.” The clearer, more powerful tones of the traverse flute were needed for symphonic music.

Michael Praetorius (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) ) describes alto, tenor, and bass flutes. He said that the tenor, with over two octaves, was the most versatile. Those instruments still exist, but are seldom used.

A Brief History of the Flute

In the Stone Age (from 3.4 million years ago until about 10,200 BCE), people bored holes in stones and animal bones to make whistles and flutes. The Magdalenian cave paintings  of Montesquieu-Avantes, in the Ariege province of southwestern France, show a bow-shaped instrument that is thought to be a flute, dating from 13,000 BCE. There have been several flute-like specimens dug up at this site since 1925.

There’s a bone flute dated from somewhere between 7000-2500 BCE that was found in Switzerland, with three finger holes, although there’s no evidence that tells us whether this was locally built or imported from the more technologically and musically advanced Far East.

By Neolithic times (from around 10,200 BCE until somewhere between 4000 and 2000 BCE), people made flutes out of pottery. In Turkey, wall paintings from around 6000 BCE show musical instruments, including flutes, being used to drive game out of hiding for hunters.

In 1937, an archeological dig in Tepe Gawra in Northern Iraq uncovered 6000-year old bone flutes.

In the Bronze Age (around 4000 BCE), people began to use metal for all kinds of things, including making flutes. Beginning in around 3000 BCE, Mesopotamia was largely controlled by Sumerians, with their imposing array of instruments, including a vertical flute. The area was controlled by Babylonians and Assyrians between about 2000 BCE and 538 BCE, when the king of Persia, Cyrus II, allowed the return of the Jews to Israel. This meant that the instruments of the Jews (and those they’d picked up on their travels) came to Israel too.

In Egypt, tombs containing chests decorated with the eye of Horus and full of instruments from 2000 BCE included several types of flutes, including very long ones, often without finger holes, that had to be held diagonally across the body, and shorter double pipes bound together, which have been erroneously dubbed double clarinets. There were also fork-shaped clappers and frame drums to accompany them. Images of groups of musicians usually include at least one harp (see Instrument Biography: The Harp ) and one long finger hole-less flute (probably a drone), and several singers. In the 1st century BCE, the Romans conquering the Etruscans found traverse flutes.

From 230 CE to the present day, Indonesian gamelan bands included a vertical flute called the soeling. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, soelings were heard by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and their works were influenced by what they’d heard.

When the Islamic prophet Mohammed (570-672 CE) decreed that music was a forbidden pleasure, the flute was one of the instruments listed, along with the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute ) and the harp (see Instrument Biography: The Harp ).

The traverse flute wasn’t adopted in Europe until around the 12th century. It seems the Germans were the first to pick it up, and as it spread across Europe, it was called the German flute in England, flûte Allemande in France, and flauta alemana in Spain. It’s thought that the traverse flute reached Europe by way of Byzantium.

Illustrations from the Cantigas de Santa Maria (c1250-80) show traverse flutes. Flutes were classed with harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, and recorders as “bas” or “low” (in French), meaning that they are quiet, as opposed to “high” or “haut” instruments—meaning loud, like shawms, cornetts, and trumpets.

Most of the instruments popular in the Renaissance were already invented by the Middle Ages. It was common in the Renaissance to compose for a family of instruments (like violin, viola, and cello, and so on), and the actual instrumentation wasn’t specified by the composer. Like with singers, the instrumentalists played the part that was appropriate for their instruments. A flute piece might be played by a recorder, a traverse flute, a shawm, a cornett, or a trumpet. In England, these groups of unspecified instruments were called “consorts.”

Michael Praetorius included the traverse flute in his Theatrum instrumentorum, which was published in Wolfenbüttel in 1620. Jacque Hotteterre (c1645-1722) wrote the first tutorial specifically for the traverse flute in 1707, called Principes, and published in French. It was quite popular and was translated to English in 1729.

When the clarinet was invented around 1710, it joined other reed instruments and woodwinds, including oboes, bassoons, and flutes. All were usually made of wood and had one or more keys to aid in fingering and allow some new pitches. It’s important to remember that the clarinet is a sort of relative to the traverse flute, as you’ll learn when you meet Theobald Boehm a little later.

After 1775, about the time when the Classical style was reaching its peak, keys were added to allow greater variety in the keys signatures (different flavors of scales) in which a flute could play. A London instrument maker called Richard Potter increased the length of the instrument and gave it more low notes. This flute, with its additional six keys, was common around 1800. In the beginning of the 19th century, two more keys were added, increasing the range and facilitating fingering. The flute went from a many-holed, one-keyed instrument that was often out of tune in 1772, to a versatile and popular instrument with eight keys (in addition to finger holes) at the turn of the century.

There were several tunings, each with specific uses. The C flute was in general use, and a D-flat and E-flat flutes were common in military bands, as they were louder and shriller than the C flute. There was also a Flûte d’amour (Liebesflöte) that was tuned a minor third lower than the C flute (A), an alto flute in G, and a bass flute an octave lower than the C flute. The bass flute was—and still is—a nifty instrument with a 180-degree bend in the mouthpiece part of the tube.

The piccolo is an octave higher than the C flute and became popular around the end of the 18th century, pretty much paralleling the use of the larger C flute. It doesn’t have as many keys for lower notes, but the rest are arranged the same as a C flute. The Swiss military in the late middle ages preferred this little traverse flute so much that it became known as the Schweitzerpfeiff (Swiss pipe) and later as the fife. (Today, the piccolo is generally thought to have keys, like a flute, and the fife has open holes, like a recorder. Both are traverse.)

The alto flute is a fourth lower than a C flute (so it’s tuned to a G), and has a powerful, mellow, and expressive tone. Since Theobald Boehm’s improvements, its popularity has increased, but it’s still pretty rare outside of flute choirs.

The Italian Giorgi flute was made of ebonite, had no keys, and used a separate finger hole for each semitone of the octave. Because only ten fingers are available for the eleven holes of the instrument, the second joint of the left forefinger was used to cover the eleventh hole. It’s held vertically, like the oboe, with the embouchure in a separate bulbous piece. Because the difficult fingering allows only players with rather large hands to play the Giorgi flute, it was never widely adopted.

The bass flute (which should really be called a tenor flute) was invented in the 19th century and was pitched an octave below the C flute. Sadly, they are rarely used outside of flute orchestras. Abelardo Albisi created an Albisiphone bass in 1910, which has its metal tube doubled twice on itself near the embouchure and a body that points downward, like an oboe. Another bass flute was made by Rudall, Carte & Co. in London in 1932 and also had the bent tube treatment.

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) established a flute factory in Munich in 1828. He experimented with mechanisms that could achieve uniform tones, superior volume, and better tuning control than other flutes. By 1848, he had created the modern Boehm System flute, made entirely of metal with large holes, closed not with the fingertips but with padded keys, linked to each other by a series of rods, levers, and clutches. (Louis-August Buffet, in Paris, applied some of Boehm’s ideas to improve the clarinet. Later, Adolphe Sax would use a similar system to invent the saxophone.)

The 19th century concert orchestra was smaller than today’s orchestras. Haydn’s had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, twelve to sixteen strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, bass viol) and a harpsichord, with occasional trumpet and timpani. Viennese orchestras were much the same, plus two clarinets.

Orchestras grew and grew until by the end of the 19th century, they had as many as 90 players. Because of Boehm’s innovations, the flute was easier to play quickly and in tune (and in most key signatures), and its range was extended by the invention of the piccolo. Because wind instruments could now be heard as clearly as the strings, they were often set to contrast with the others, further contributing to the clear emotional “instructions” that music followed post-Beethoven.

Structure of the Flute

Tuning is dependent on the location of finger holes. Most flutes, both ancient and modern, have equally spaced finger holes. The pitch of the scales were controlled by the sizes of the holes, so they might be equally distant from one another, but different sizes. Some of the earliest (dug up in Egypt from 2000 BCE) have two, three, and four holes.

Most traverse flutes are six-holed (or more), side-blown wind instruments with a cylindrical bore and a two-octave range. The player blows across the sharp edge of the mouth hole or embouchure that is pierced into the wall of the tube near the stopped end. This effect, of creating a sound by blowing a stream of air across a hole, is called creating a Bernoulli or a siphon. The Bernoullied air causes the cylindrical cavity of the flute to resonate.

Pitch is changed both by changing the length of the resonating cylinder as the fingering holes are closed and opened and by changing how the stream of air crosses the embouchure hole in the mouthpiece. The player can take advantage of this resonance by over-blowing and using the harmonics or overtones in addition to the fundamental frequencies of a more direct stream of air. (In a fippled instrument, like a recorder, the shape of the fipple limits the length of the resonator and such instruments can’t have as great a difference in volume or such large range of notes.)

The tone of the flute is variable, entirely affected by the skill of the player and the physical arrangement of the player’s mouth and lips. This change allows the playing of harmonics and overtones through over-blowing, and increases the range of the instrument, but it also makes it hard for a beginner to make a decent tone. Because the lips are not pressed against anything, tricks like circular breathing are quite difficult. (Circular breathing is when the player continues to blow air, using pressure from the lungs, while inhaling through the nose, allowing a constant sound. This is a common technique on didgeridoos, and less common but entirely possible on instruments such as oboes, saxophones, and trombones.)

The color of the sound can be affected by physically reshaping the inside of the column of the flute and also by the player’s reshaping their lips and tongue. The height of the lip plate (its distance from the tube of the head joint) is a critical element in making a decent sound, as is the interior shape of the head joint.

There are different schools of thought on the materials out of which a flute should be made. Jean-Pierre Rampal’s famous gold flute had a distinctive sound, but it’s hard to know how much of that was Jean-Pierre himself, and how much was the flute.

The player places about a quarter to half of their lower lip across the open hole (on both vertical and transverse flutes) and, by controlling the direction of the air with the upper lip, sends breath across the open hole. The amount of breath that goes down the tube of the flute is controlled mostly with the upper lip’s position.

Vertical flutes that are blown across the open end can have the other end closed, like a pan pipe, or open, like a recorder. There is more control over the quality of the sound and the harmonics with an open-ended flute.

Many cultures (most) provide air through the mouth, but there are some nose-blown flutes, and organ flutes are blown by bellows or fans.

Flutes are made of many materials, including glass, ivory, and wood, and in Israel, they were made from bulrush and other reed-like plants. In antiquity, flutes were made of reed or wood and were ornamented with metals, such silver or gold. Wooden flutes are thought to have greater beauty of tone, while metal flutes “speak” more easily (meaning that it’s easier to get a sound of them and easier to get a distinctive sound that can identify the player).

It was the later 17th century when the length of the flute was divided into three parts: the head joint with the embouchure, the body, and the foot or tail joint. The head joint was cylindrical in its bore, and the body and foot joints were conical, with the smallest diameter at the open end, a device which enhanced the beauty of overblown harmonics. This is also when they added the key for the little finger, adding a D-sharp.

Johann Quantz (1696-1773) documents flutes made from boxwood, ebony, kingwood, lignum sanctum, and granadilla—all woods available in Germany. Boxwood was the most common and durable material, but ebony produced the clearest and most beautiful tone. Crossing a wooden flute with brass, according to Quantz, made the flute sound shrill, rude, disagreeable, and otherwise unpleasant. Apparently, he was fond of adjectives.

During Quantz’s lifetime, the middle section of the flute was interchangeable, in order to accommodate the various tunings on harpsichords. Tuning keyboard instruments was not yet a refined art, and even the instruments in a single town might not all be tuned identically. At least that was Quantz’s complaint and his explanation for multiple middle sections.

The headpiece of the flute had a cork between the cap and the embouchure hole that could be adjusted to accommodate tuning. It also seemed to improve the sound of the flute. Modern flutes use a metal plug that’s adjusted by screwing the plug out and pushing it flush again, applying the same theory. The tuning of Quantz’s variable middle piece was affected by the adjustments to this plug because it changed the length of the tube.

Quantz documented three lesser-known kinds of flutes that existed to accommodate various tunings. These were called the low Quartflöten, which is a fourth lower than a regular traverse flute, flutes d’amour, which is a minor third lower, and the little Quartflöten, which is a fourth higher.

Quantz points out that moisture forming inside the instrument can be harmful to the wood and suggests both frequent cleaning and frequent oiling with the oil of almonds. In the first half of the 18th century, the main body of the flute was divided in two to correct defects in intonation. After 1720, the foot joint was also divided and two keys were added to extend the range. But the tiny mouth-hole still made it hard to play in tune.

One of Boehm’s major improvements was that he put rings of metal around the flute’s finger holes and then created a padded cap to cover the hole, sealing it tightly. The cap attaches to a rod and axle arrangement and closes another hole that can’t be reached by fingertips. This arrangement affects tuning, flexibility, and range. Sadly, this improvement initially met with violent opposition from flutists.

Boehm’s first model, in 1832, followed the traditional form, with a predominantly conical bore. But after consulting his friend, physicist K.F.E. Shaufhäutl, in 1846-47, he made a cylindrical bore, except for the head piece (that contains the embouchure) that is a parabola (partly a cone and partly parallel sides). The new flute was remarkable for its fuller and more robust sound than what the older flutes had produced.

There are still open-holed flutes played in orchestras. These use a ring instead of a padded cap, and the keys connected to the rings are manipulated in the identical way, through rods and levers. Western concert flutes have larger finger holes than their Baroque ancestors.

Concert flutes are tuned to the key of C, with three octaves, starting with “middle” C (it’s in the middle of a piano keyboard. I’ll have to look into why else it might be called that.) Special feet can be added that allow a low B. It’s one of the higher voices in an orchestra, roughly parallel to the violin, and not as high as a piccolo.

There are G and C- flutes, tuned a fourth and an octave below, that are used in special circumstances. It’s more common to compose for an alto, and there are super rare forms for the contrabass, the double contrabass, and hyperbass, pitched two, three, and four octaves below the concert flute. In addition to the piccolo, there’s also the treble flute, pitched at a G (a fifth above the concert flute), the D-flat piccolo, the soprano flute, F alto flute, and B-flat bass flute.

Origins of the Name(s)

The word “flute” comes to modern English from Middle English “floute,” “flowte,” and “flo(y)te. Old French used “flaute,” Old Provencal used “flaût,” and Old French used “fleüte,” “flaüte,” or “flahute,” that came through Middle High German “flote” or Danish “fluit.” The earliest known use of the word “flute” in English was in the 14th century, in Chaucer’s “The House of Fame,” around 1384.

In Acadian, the word is “embübum,” in Persian, it’s “nay.” In Arabic, the word is “qussaba.” In Babylonian, it was called the “shushan and the “miktam.” In Biblical Hebrew (Psalm 53), the word is “muhalat.” The word “halil,” which means “to pierce” or “hollow tube” in both Hebrew and Arabic and was what they called some flutes.

The word for flute in Greek is”plagiaulos.” It comes from the word “aulos,” which means traverse and isn’t a relative of the aulos, which is a double-reed, double-piped instrument, but rather, is a traverse, reed style flute. It was also occasionally called the “lotos,” for the lotus wood that Greek flutes were made of.

The flute was called the “obliqua tibia in Latin (Rome). They called it the tibia, for the shin-bones that they hollowed to make flutes. There, it was a strictly pastoral instrument and not documented well until the 3rd century BCE.

Famous Flute Composers

It wasn’t customary for people to take credit for writing music until nearly the Renaissance, but after that, the flute proved to be a popular instrument in both sacred and secular music.

Early church composers wrote mostly for voices alone. Organs were invented around the 8th century, but didn’t really become part of popular music because of their quiet sound until the invention of the pipe organ in the 14th century allowed more volume and expressiveness. The focus on vocal and organ music somewhat pre-empted flute music in the church, at least in Europe.

That left plenty of room for secular music to indulge in the liquescent sounds of the flute. Celtic music, in particular, is well suited to the lilting and somber abilities of the flute. But the flute, ancient as it was, permeated the world. Secular music didn’t get documented as well as church music until music notation was efficient enough to accommodate multiple simultaneous lines of music, around the 15th century or so. (See my blog on The History of Music Notation for more about this.) That’s when things really started taking off for the flute.

The following list of composers is hardly comprehensive, even though it’s long.

Neidhart von Reuental (c1190- after 1236) was one of the most active German Minnesingers, and more melodies survive from Reuental than from any other composer of the period.

Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406) was a French poet, who studied versification with Guillaume Machaut .  Deschamps wrote just shy of 2000 ballades and  mentions flutes in his “Deploration” on the death of Machaut. Geoffrey Chaucer and he were friends, and it’s likely that Chaucer borrowed some of Deschamps’ themes in his own work.

Tielman (or Tylman) Sustato (c1510- after 1570) was a Dutch music publisher—until Sustato, music publishing was done almost exclusively in Italy, France, and Germany. In addition to the polyphonic (vocal) Masses and motets that he wrote, he was a prolific composer of instrumental music.

Cristoforo Malvezzi (1547-1597) composed accompaniments for madrigals and cites the flauto traverso as one of the instruments to be used.

Cristofano Malvezzi (1547-1599) composed madrigals, ricercars, and two sacred works, and a handful of grand choral works. He cites the flauto traverso as one of the instruments. He was an Italian from Florence and was a contemporary of Michelangelo.

Dario Castello (c1590-c1658) was an Italian composer who probably played the cornetto or the bassoon. He might have died during the plague of 1630 because that’s the last time any of his compositions were published. Only 29 of his works survive, including two books of sonatas and a motet.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a Catholic priest with bright red hair. Surprised? His fame was widespread throughout Europe in his lifetime, especially as a composer for the violin, sacred choral works, and more than forty operas. Although his asthma would have prevented him from playing wind instruments, he clearly admired the flute and used it in numerous compositions. His composition “Il Pastor Fido,” containing flute sonatas, was later discovered to be by composer Nicolas Chédeville.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is probably the most famous of all composers. A German harpsichordist, organist, and composer, he wrote themes based on Frederick the Great’s composition that he heard at Potsdam in 1747, and later added a trio movement for flute, violin, and continuo. For chamber ensembles, Bach wrote six sonatas for flute and harpsichord and a partita for unaccompanied flute. It was unusual in his time to have an unaccompanied instrument like that. I will write a biography for this fellow soon.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) was a French composer of instrumental music, cantatas, opera-ballets, and vocal music. He was one of the first musicians to make a living by publishing his compositions rather than having a patron. A prolific composer, he published more than 100 pieces between 1724 and 1747. One of these was a group of six concertos for five flutes, and it was one of these that moved me so much when I was a pre-teen. He also wrote an instruction method for the flute, which has been lost. In 1742, he published six sonatas for flute and harpsichord.

Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) earned most of his well-deserved fame for operas and choral pieces, but in his later life, turned his attention to instrumental works. He was fond of focusing on a particular instrument, and in addition to the flute, wrote works for the viola d’amore, the lute , trombones, clarinets, cornets, theorbo (see the Lute biography), French horn, bassoon, and the harp.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (c1690-1768) was a French flutist, one of the royal musicians at Dresden. He was one of Johann Joachim Quantz’s teachers, and also, the teacher of Johann Jacob Bach, Johann Sebastian’s elder brother. His “Sonata for Flute” is the only one that it’s known for sure that he wrote, but he also is thought to have written a concerto for five flutes in E minor for Quantz.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) also known as King Frederick II of Prussia, regularly performed flute sonatas and concertos in private concerts in his chambers, and composed flute concertos, arias, and other music. (His sister, Anna Amalia, princess of Prussia (1723-1787) played harpsichord and organ, composed vocal and instrumental music, and collected a huge library of music.)

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1787) was a self-taught musician who became a composer largely against his family’s wishes. Telemann famously turned down the positions of Thomaskantor in Leipzig that was filled by third-choice J.S. Bach (after Christoph Graupner). Telemann composed over 3000 pieces, with two concertos for flute. I played one of these as my senior solo with the orchestra in high school. Fond memories.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the fifth child of Johann Sebastian Bach, and only the second of his sons to survive. Like his famous dad, CPE was a prolific composer, straddling the sensibilities between the Baroque and the Classical and Romantic styles that were on the way. Although he was famous in his own lifetime as a clavier player, his compositions were admired by later composers, even by such as Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote over 600 pieces, including numerous quartets, solos, concertos, and sonatas for the flute.

Mauro Giuseppe Sergio Pantaleo Giuliani (1781-1829) was an Italian guitarist and composer who wrote a famous sonata for flute and guitar.

Friedrich Daniel Rudolf Kuhlau (1786-1832) was a German born Danish composer who wrote mostly for piano, and was instrumental in popularizing Beethoven’s music in Denmark. Despite a house fire that destroyed his previous compositions, he still managed to publish more than 200 works. He was nicknamed “the Beethoven of the flute” because of his numerous works for the instrument.

Anton Bernhard Fürstenau (1792-1852) was the most prominent of the 19th century Fürstenau family of flute players. He studied with his father Caspar (1772-1819) and was the father of Moritz (1824-1889), also a renowned flute player, and was principal flutist of the Dresden orchestra under the direction of Carl Maria von Weber in 1820. He was most famous for his Fantasia for Flute and Harp.

Saverio Mercadante (c1795-1870) was born in Naples and studied flute, violin, and composition at the conservatory there. Opera composer Giochino Rossini admired his work, including six flute concertos, around 1818. He mostly wrote operas, nearly entirely forgotten these days.

Claude-Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) was a French flutist, conductor, and instructor, and founder of the French Flute School that dominated flute composition for much of the 20th century. The son of a flutist, he spent his early life focusing on flute playing and performance, winning prizes and degrees. He called later music “twittering,” and when he was in charge, had students focus on the music of J.S. Bach and other composers of the 18th century. Some of his compositions for flute are still considered essential to the canon of flute repertoire. Gabriel Fauré dedicated his famous Fantasie to Taffanel.

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918), along with Maurice Ravel, was one of the most prominent—and dominating—composers of the French Impressionist movement. Starting his piano studies at age 7, his talents were immediately obvious, and he began his 11-year education at the Paris Conservatory at age 10. Later, he was criticized for “courting the unusual,” but he found a circle of friends and supporters that included Erik Satie and a number of famous or notorious women with whom he entertained a long and unseemly string of love affairs.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1825-1924) was one of the most influential French composers of the 19th century. He studied under Camille Saint-Saëns, and his early commitment to earning a living as an organist and teacher kept him from focusing on composition until the summer months of holiday. By late middle age, he’d amassed enough of a reputation as a composer to be able to turn his attention to it full time. He wrote for many solo instruments, including the violin, piano, and organ, including his most famous work, the Requiem. In his later years, he was nearly deaf and found high notes painful and distorted out of tune; he was unable to hear his final composition, a string quartet.

Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (1857-1944) was a precocious child, and performed some of her own piano compositions at age eight for Georges Bizet, who was impressed. Her flute concerto in D major is one of the few of her compositions that has remained popular beyond her own lifetime.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer who wrote solo piano, chamber, choral, oratorio, opera, ballet, and orchestral music. He was taught to play the piano by his mother (who was an amateur) and most of his early compositions were for the piano. In his later years, he composed mostly for woodwinds, and at least one of them has become a standard for the flute repertoire.

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was a self-taught Japanese composer and writer on music theory and aesthetics. He composed several hundred works, wrote the soundtrack for more than 90 films, and published 20 books. He had an interest in the early development of electronic music (recorded sounds that contribute to an otherwise musical effort), and followed the works of Stravinsky and John Cage with eager interest. From the early 1960s, he focused on using traditional Japanese instruments (the shakuhachi, for instance) in his compositions.

Famous Flute Players

This list could be seriously long, so I’ll hold it to the big hitters.

Anthony of Domstätt or Dornstätt (no dates) was the head flutist for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) and was considered the first military flutist.

Jacques Martin Hotteterre “Le Romain” (1674-1763) was a Paris-born son of a wind instrument maker. He played other woodwinds as well, and composed for and taught all of them. In 1719, he wrote the first user’s manual for the flute, and the modern era of flutes and flutists is thought to start with him.

Michel de la Barre (c1680-1745) was a Frenchman known for being the first to publish a solo piece written expressly for the flute. He performed for King Louis XIV and Louis XV of France and wrote dozens of pieces.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (1690-1768) was the principal flute player in Dresden, and was Johann Quantz’s teacher in his youth. He was also J.S. Bach’s elder brother’s teacher. It’s possible that Buffardin invented the movable plug that affected tuning in the head piece.

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) wrote the seminal book on both playing the flute and Baroque musicianship. He defied his father’s dying wish that he become a blacksmith and studied music and the flute all over Germany before becoming known as the finest flutist in Europe. He wrote about 300 flute concertos and another 200 flute sonatas.

Michael Blavet (1700-1768) was a self-taught French flutist who was considered a virtuoso on both the flute and the bassoon. Strangely, he held his flute to the left, rather than to the right, like other flutists. A composer and technician in his own right, he was also popular among the aristocrats and other musicians of his time.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) also known as King Frederick II of Prussia, regularly performed flute sonatas and concertos in private concerts in his chambers, and composed flute concertos, arias, and other music. (His sister, Anna Amalia, princess of Prussia (1723-1787) played harpsichord and organ, composed vocal and instrumental music, and collected a huge library of music.)

Philibert Rocheille (d. c1715) was the first Frenchman to distinguish himself on the flute. He was involved in a murder, imprisoned, and then pardoned. Despite that rather intriguing story, that’s all I could find out about him.

Anton Bernhard Fuerstenau (1792-1852) was the most famous German flutist of the Romantic period. Although his son studied with the innovator Theobald Boehm, Anton remained loyal to the nine-hole flute. He wrote 147 pieces for the flute, including duets, trios, a quartet, and pieces to be accompanied by piano.

Jean-Pierre Rampal (1922-2000) was a Frenchman whose personal flair and size made his facility on the flute seem like a paintbrush in the hand of a great master. His father was a renowned flutist and yet wanted Jean-Pierre to become a doctor. His partnership with pianist and harpsichordist Robert Veyron-Lacroix spread Jean-Pierre’s fame to North America and the Far East. Although his career was as a soloist, he remained a dedicated ensemble player, which is how he became so very instrumental in the renewed interest in Baroque music during the 20th century. He is among my personal heroes.

Sir James Gallway (1939-   ) is an Irish flutist who, like Jean-Pierre Rampal, managed to take his career international partially by including popular music—he worked with the Chieftans and Pink Floyd—in his repertoire. He is the first wind-instrument player to be knighted.

Emmanuel Pahud (1970-   ) came from a non-musical family. He was intrigued by the flute at an early age and studied with all kinds of famous teachers at all the best schools in Europe. He specializes in diversity, playing jazz, contemporary, classical, orchestral, and chamber music.

Some Final Words

It is now time to address the flutist versus flautist debate. The word flautist, despite its German sound, is actually an Italian word and came into common usage around the middle of the 19th century. It’s mostly used in Europe. The word flutist was coined in the 16th century, and is mostly used in the US and Canada. So it’s kind of like calling a lorry a truck or pronouncing to-may-to as to-mah-to—it’s a regional choice, and both words mean the same thing.


“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay  Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landels. Routledge, London, 1999.

“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.

“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943.

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1943.

“Music of the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“On Playing the Flute,” by Johann Joachim Quantz, translated by Edward R. Reilly. Schirmer Books, New York, 1753 and 1985.



One Response

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  1. I’ll keep this for future reference. In a four piece section (Hollywood/jazz style) substituting one or more clarinets works surprisingly well if there’s a shortage of flutes.

    John Morton

    March 14, 2013 at 2:27 am

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