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Posts Tagged ‘Music: Italian Baroque

Composer Biography: Francesca Caccini (1587-1638/40)

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Also Francesca Raffaelli, Signorini, Signorini-Malaspina, and La Cecchina

Francesca Caccini was an important Italian composer and singer of the late Italian Renaissance. The first female composer of opera of record, she was possibly the most prolific female composer of her time. She was among the earliest women to travel for her art, which later became common for professional musicians, much as it is today.

During her lifetime, her gifts as a singer, teacher, and composer were universally remembered as remarkable but reviews of her personality are mixed. One account calls her proud and restless, but she was a strong and intelligent woman, so it’s hard to know if that was merely misogyny or sour grapes, or perhaps she really was a bit haughty. Others refer to her as always gracious and generous with the loan of her manuscripts. For a number of years, she was involved in a feud with court poet Andrea Salvadori (1591-1634) over his alleged seduction of female singers, so she was clearly a woman prepared to stand up for others.

Born in Florence to a very musical family, she was the daughter, sister, and wife of singers and composers, and was immersed in a musical world from earliest childhood.

Her father, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), was one of the creators of the “new music” (ars nova), which was dominated by solo singing and marked the beginning of the Baroque era. Both of his wives (Lucia and Margherita—dates for both unavailable, but the former was the mother of all of Giulio’s children) were also musicians, possibly students of Giulio. Both of Giulio’s daughters (Francesca and Settimia, 1591-c1661), a son (Pompeo, 1577-1624), and at least one granddaughter (Francesca’s Margherita, b.1622) were also musicians.

All of Giulio’s children received a literary education in addition to singing and composition. Records show that Francesca wrote poetry and played the harpsichord, lute, and harp. I found some sources that say it was a guitar instead of a lute, but that seems unlikely as that instrument wasn’t popular in Italy at the time (they were a big hit in Spain, but the Italians were more interested in the lute and would stay so until well into the Baroque era).

Francesca was one of “Le donne di Giulio Romano” (The ladies of Roman Giulio) who performed in Jacopo Peri’s (1561-1633) Euridice and in Giulio’s own Il rapimento di Cefalo in 1600. The group consisted of Francesca, her sister Settimia, her step-mother Margherita, some of Giulio’s pupils, Giulio himself, and his son Pompeo. Notice the ratio of women to men—this is going to come up again later when discussing Francesca’s compositions.

Sister Settimia (1591-c1661) made her first public appearance in 1600 or in 1602 in her father’s opera. She sang mostly with Giulio’s family consort until 1609 when she married Alessandro Ghivizzani (d.1632). She and her husband found work as composers and performers at various courts and were on friendly terms with the most famous composer of the time, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

The family travelled to France to sing for English King Henry IV (1553-1610) and Marie de Medici (1575-1642) in 1604 to 1605. Francesca received her first independent job offer from Marie to be a salaried court singer with a dowry of 1000 scudi. Letters from Giulio intimate that Grand Duke Ferdinand I (1549-1609) refused to release her from his service back home in Florence, so Francesca came back with her family in 1605, spending the autumn in Modena, where she was tutor to the Princess Giulia d’Este (1588-1645).

At a time when women were barred from singing in church, Francesca and her sister were soloists in the church of San Nicola in Pisa during Holy Week, directed by their father. Francesca soon gained a reputation for virtuosity and had students from among the nobility whom she trained for court performances. That she was a teacher to the high and mighty is indication of both her skill and her significance in musical circles.

In 1606, Giulio tried to negotiate a position for Francesca with Princess Margherita della Somaglia-Peretti (d.1613), sister-in-law of Cardinal Montalto (1571-1623) and Virginio Orsini (1572-1614) in Rome. The offer included both a salary and a dowry, along with the assumption that a suitable husband would be found. But negotiations dragged on, and in 1607, the deal was off and Francesca took a post at court in Florence, having been promised in marriage to Giovanni Battista Signorini (d.1625), whom she married later that year. Although Francesca signed letters with her married name, she remained Francesca Caccini in the Medici court records. There may have been some truth to the rumor of her being proud, eh? She was certainly independent and strong!

Francesca was more sought after as a performer than either of her siblings, and she had no trouble marrying well. With her dowry of 1000 scudi (about $50, roughly $3200 in today’s money), her husband (more on him in a minute) bought two adjoining houses in the via Valfonda near Sainte Maria Novella in 1610. They lived there until he died. They had one child, Margherita (b 1622), who grew up to become a singer and a nun.

The family dominated the polychoral singing of the Offices during Holy Week. Giulio and the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine (1565-1637) worked to ensure that Francesca didn’t outshine the group, but when Settima left for Mantua with her husband in 1611, the group disbanded. It was replaced by a group described in court diaries as “Francesca and her pupils” and they continued to perform chamber music for women’s voices until the late 1620s.

Court duties included singing the Office for Holy Week and singing at receptions given by the archduchess. She was also music tutor to the princesses, ladies in waiting, and at least one nun. In 1616, she was among those who traveled with Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici (1595-1666) to Rome, and there, she was cast as La Bellezza and Venus opposite her husband, who played Adonis.

In 1617, she and her husband toured Genoa, Savona, and Milan, winning the praise of Italian poet Gabriello Chiaberra (1552-1638, sometimes called Pindar).

By the 1620s, she was the highest-paid musician at court. Clearly a woman who could land on her feet, when Signorini died at the end of 1625, she soldiered on as a single mother on the strength of her well-established reputation. Francesca left the Medici payroll two years later when she married Lucca aristocrat and patron Tomaso Raffaelli (d.1630). Their marriage only lasted three years, when she was widowed again. This second marriage left her a wealthy landowner and mother to a son, Tomaso (b.1628).

After being quarantined in Lucca during the plague for three years, she returned to the Medici payroll in 1633. Between 1633 and 1637, she appeared often at the Grand Duchess’s court. She and her daughter Margherita (b.1522) performed as chamber singers during those years, and she composed and directed entertainments.

In 1637, Francesca forbade young Margherita from singing on stage at the Grand Duke’s command, because she feared that the 15-year-old’s chances of an honorable convent placement or suitable marriage contract might be at risk. She also feared that the social position of her son Tomaso would not only be tarnished, but that it would violate the terms of Raffaelli’s will. So Margherita entered the convent of San Firolamo in Florence instead of rising to shine her own light at court.

Court documents tell us that Francesca was still in Florence in 1638 and that she had probably died by 1645, when guardianship of her son, now a teenager, passed to his uncle, Girolamo Raffaelli (dates unavailable).


In 1607, Francesca’s first composition for the stage, a torneo called “La stiava,” was performed at court. This was a setting of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1568-1646, the grandnephew of the artist by the same name) poetry. Buonarroti was a family friend and the Medici court poet. Letters from her papa reveal that Francesca composed the piece by singing to the poetry, writing out what she’d sung, and then her father corrected her notation. The piece was written for castrati to sing, and according to court diarist Cesare Tinghi (fl. 1600-1625), it was pretty darned good. The piece was performed again in 1626, but sadly, none of the music survives. Giulio considered the commission—and likely income—for his entire household rather than specifically for Francesca, which probably accounts for the lack of credit for other pieces that she composed to Buonarroti‘s poetry. If we look closely at Giulio’s works, we may find hers tucked in there, too.

From an early age, Francesca composed incidental and improvisational music for herself and her students, but the next documented work after “La Stiava” was incidental music for the 1611 Carnival entertainment of the masked ball. She also set Buonarroti‘s rustic comedy “La Tancia” that same year and in 1615, she set Ferdinando Saracinelli’s (1587-c1640) balletto “Il ball delle Zingane.”

In 1618, her father published some of Francesca’s compositions in a book called “Il primo libro delle musiche,” which is how they came to be preserved until modern times. The collection is one of the largest and most varied collections of early monody. One of its most striking features is how it’s organized, grouping the music into four different tables of contents: by poetic form, by possible uses, by genres (such as motets, hymns, etc.), and a collection of homophonic ensembles (all one type of voice, like soprano) with a bass. There are 19 works set to sacred texts, seven of which were in Latin, and 17 secular works, four of which are duets for soprano and bass.

Nearly all the songs in the Primo libro are variations of other pieces, even the sonnets and madrigals. In the arias, Francesca sticks closely to the integrity of poetic lines and reserves ornaments for accented words, internal pauses, and penultimate syllables. She uses silence and pauses to break poetic lines into syntactical units.

Francesca carefully documented vocal ornaments, which was unusual for the time. She also unleashed the ornaments in secular music much more than in sacred. Her notation is finicky, especially regarding rhythm and the placement of syllables. She often displaced syllables placed on a short upbeat, which allowed her to document the rhythm of Italian speech with rare precision.

She may have written the poetry herself for 12 of the devotional pieces in Primo libro. The anthology represents the largest collection of early monadic music by a single composer up to that time. Despite this accomplishment, we have only one other piece from her, the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina about which you’ll hear in a moment.

During Carnival in 1619, Francesca’s setting of Buonarroti ‘s La fiera, a satirical comedy, was performed at court. It caused a scandal because it portrayed women in “unseemly” conditions, such as during pregnancy and labor, and it also affirmed capitalist and republican values over those of royalty.

In 1622, she collaborated with Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (1594-1651) in setting Jacopo Cicognini’s (1577-1631) Il martirio di Sante Agata, and it’s thought that the parts of Agatha and Eternita were played by her.

During his time in Rome with the Medici in 1623-1624, the poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and her father Giulio compared the skills of Francesca and the singer-composer Adriana Basile (c1580-c1640). Marino said that Francesca’s musical understanding was deeper but that Basile had the better and more agile voice. Members of Marino’s academy wrote poems in praise of both women.

Francesca sang for Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) in 1624. Later that year, her one surviving opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina was in rehearsal in Florence. It was performed in 1625 at the Villa Poggio Imperiale during Carnival in front of visiting Polish royalty, Prince Wlayislaw IV (1595-1648). The piece was commissioned by Archduchess Maria Maddelena (1589-1631) and allegorically explores women’s roles in the wielding of power via a plot that contrasts a good and androgynous sorceress with an evil and sexually alluring one. Francesca uses different musical textures for the two main characters, and as a whole, the music is rich and varied.

The piece was originally billed as a ballet, but it had all the trappings of an opera, including a prologue, symphonies, recitatives, arias, choruses, instrumental ritornellos, and elaborate staging and sets. There were dances performed to music sung by the chorus or to instrumental music that weren’t included in the published score.

The cast for La liberazione included six sopranos, two altos, seven tenors and one bass, an indication of the 17th century’s fondness for high voices. The number of natural male voices and the absence of castrati used in the performance was unusual for the time as castrati and counter-tenors (men singing in falsetto) were the rage. Accompaniment included continuo, recorders, several short five- and six-part choruses, a brief chorus for six sopranos, and a double chorus madrigal in eight parts. The work was revived in the late 20th century in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Maybe it’s time to revive the other pieces too.


“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women Making Music, the Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“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.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Instrument Biography: The Oboe

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The oboe is a soprano-ranged double-reed woodwind instrument. It’s made from a wooden tube roughly 23.5 inches long and has metal keys, a conical bore, and a flared bell. Sound is produced by blowing into the reed and causing the air within the tube to vibrate. The way I’ve described it makes it sound like a kazoo, but when played properly, it’s one of the most magical instruments in the whole orchestra.

The oboe’s sound is clear and penetrating. It was mentioned by Henry Playford (familiar to all you contra and English country dancers) in 1695 as a majestic and stately instrument and others have claimed that the oboe sounds like a duck if the duck could only sing. The timbre of the oboe comes from its conical bore (unlike the cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets), and is readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.

Oboe music written in C (it’s a tuning thing—more on that later) and has a soprano range, although there are other voices in the oboe family (more on that later, too). Orchestras frequently tune to the A of the oboe because the pitch is secure and its penetrating sound makes it ideal for a variety of instruments to tune to it.

Oboe History

Wind players and instrument makers at the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) are in large part responsible for building an oboe from a shawm. The oboe first appeared in England in the 17th century, under the French name of hautbois, and surely came from France, as the French were especially fond of the instrument. This name “hautbois” was also used for the oboe’s ancestor, the shawm. The two major differences between the shawm and the oboe include the oboe having three sections (or joints), which allow more precision during manufacturing and precision in both tuning and comfort, and the elimination of the pirouette, the wooden ledge or ball below the reed that was a resting point for the player’s lips on the shawm.

The 17th century flutist Michel de la Barre wrote that the Philidor and Hotteterre families might have been the inventors (separately or together, it’s unclear). Regardless of who or how it came to be, it grew in popularity all over Europe and in England, where the name morphed through hautboy, hoboy, hautboit, and howboye before settling on oboe (in English—the French still call it an hautbois). It was the main instrument in military bands until the clarinet came along and dislodged it.

The reason for the oboe’s popularity was that it was an expressive instrument, equal to that of the traverse flute (another rising star in the 17th century). The shawm had demanded attention by being almost obnoxiously loud, but the oboe tempered the sound with dynamic range (loudness AND softness) and eloquent nuance. It soon became a favorite instrument of the Baroque era, especially played in conjunction with the violin, which was another new invention (evolved from the vielle).

In the early 18th century, the oboe’s sister, the oboe d’amour developed, which was even more evocative, as the name rather romantically implies. The oboe d’amore is pitched a third lower than the regular oboe and was unknown until the early Romantic period. In the 1870s, Victor Charles Mahillon (1841-1924), of the Mahillon instrument makers in Brussels, revived the instrument for historical performances. It’s evolved further since then to include the same improvements as the modern oboe (more about that in the Structure section).

The alto bombard (one of the names for the shawm) became the alto oboe (the same way as the shawm became the oboe), and it had a pear-shaped bell, like the oboe d’amore. It had a warm and full tone and was also called the oboe da caccia (the horseman’s oboe) and was used during fox hunts. The oboe da caccia was 30 inches long and had a peaceful and quiet sound.

The English horn is another version of the oboe, but it’s curved, carved of two pieces of wood at an angle, like a sickle, and is encased in leather to make it airtight. It’s a little bit longer and although the finger holes are wide apart, it’s fingered the same way as a regular oboe and oboe d’amore. It rose in popularity around the middle of the 18th century and had an elegant pear-shaped or spherical bell. By the 19th century, it had gained the oboe’s helpful key mechanisms. The English horn is often found in large orchestras today and plays a fifth lower than the oboe.

The baritone oboe plays a fourth lower than the English horn (or an octave below the oboe, if it’s easier to think of it that way). It’s more than three feet long, has the pear-shaped bell of the English horn, and is blown, like the bassoon, through an S-shaped tube. It sounds a lot like an English horn, only lower.

The heckelphone is an even lower oboe, made in the early 20th century, with a wide conical bore. It was made of maple-wood and has a barrel-shaped bell. The heckelphone was more than four-feet long, producing a rich sound, so much so that it was used by Richard Strauss (1864-1049) in “Salome” and “Alpine Symphony” and by Max von Schillings (1868-1933) in “Der Moloch” and “Mona Lisa.”

The pioccolo-heckelphone is a smaller version of the heckelphone and sounds a fourth lower than an oboe. It’s still pretty big.

In the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715), French ensembles consisted of an oboe, a tenor oboe, and a bassoon, but by the middle of the 18th century, they had expanded to two oboes (or two clarinets) with two horns and two bassoons.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) orchestra had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and between 12 and 16 strings (violins, violas, and cellos, doubled by bass viol), and a harpsichord. Trumpets and timpani were occasionally added.

Viennese orchestras of the 1790s often had as many as 35 players, often also including clarinets. In the 19th century, orchestras grew from about 40 players to nearly 90. Oboes (along with flutes, clarinets, and bassoons) developed elaborate key systems by mid-century, and their ranges were considerably expanded (piccolos, English horn, bass clarinet, and contra-bassoon).

Oboe Structure

The oboe has a narrower bore than the shawm, which is why its tone is softer and more delicate. It was narrowed during the Classical period (1730-1820). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be played more easily, and composers indulged themselves in this broadened range. The new half-octave inspired Classical era composers (including Mozart) to write concertos for the oboe instead of leaving it buried in the orchestra adding color.

Also during the Classical period, the oboe’s bore was lined with a conical metal tube, which made it sound a lot more like a trumpet or a horn than a shawm. It didn’t last, and today’s oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore with no metal lining.

The oboe ends in a funnel-shaped bell.

The Baroque oboe was made of boxwood and had only three keys. After improvement to the keys in the 1840s, oboes were no longer made of boxwood, but of ebony or rosewood instead. Occasionally, metal or ebonite have been used.

Since the middle of the 19th century, the differences between the French oboe (also used in England, the U.S., Belgium, and Italy) and the German-Austrian oboe has increased. The French oboe is thinner and has a more delicate tone.

Instead of being constructed from a single piece of wood, instrument makers for Louis XIV (1638-1715) divided the oboe into three sections that fitted together nicely, facilitating the most delicate adjustments in tuning. This improved instrument had two octaves, and its smaller finger holes allowed the player to produce more accurate chromatic pitches.

The modern oboe is usually made from African blackwood, although some manufacturers use cocobolo, rosewood, or violetwood. Ebony is used occasionally, and some student models are made from resin to avoid cracking the wood with rough treatment and to make the instrument less expensive.

The oldest oboes had six finger holes, of which two, producing half-step intervals, were doubled so they could be played with either hand (like the recorder). It also had three keys, one of which was a swallow-tail lever to be played with either hand, called the great key, and the other two were opposite each other to be played with either hand to close the same hole, called the side key. The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the left or right hand on the bottom holes, just like the lowest hole on the recorder.

During the Classical period, the oboe gained keys. One special key was called a “slur” key and was similar to the modern octave key, although it was first used like a “flick” key on the modern German bassoon to facilitate chromatic changes. Later, French oboe makers redesigned the octave key to be used like it is on the modern instrument (held open for the upper register, closed for the lower).

In the 19th century, the Triebert family (Guillaume and his sons Charles and Frederic) in Paris used the Boehm flute (see Instrument Biography: The Flute) as a source of ideas for key work, and devised increasingly complex key systems. The Boehm-system oboe had large finger holes and was used in some military bands into the 20th century, but was never commonly adopted.

But even before 1800, Grundmann and Grenser of Dresden Germany experimented, fitting the oboe with keys so that it could play a chromatic scale. By 1825, the oboe had as many as 10 keys in addition to the holes. In 1825, the leading maker in Vienna was Koch, who developed the instrument that became the standard of the day with celebrated oboist Joseph Sellner (1787-1843), who would later write the seminal tutorial on playing the oboe.

Improvements continued until, by 1840, there were 14 keys. French makers, including Frederic Triebert, really tweaked the thing. The instrument made in 1880 was considered the best ever, and was called the “conservatoire model,” and is essentially the same as the modern instrument. The conservatoire model was made in Paris and was equipped with a complicated and ingenious key mechanism that makes it possible to play the same note in two or three different ways—even four, in some instance.

When he left the Triebert company in 1881, Francois Loree of Paris further developed the oboe by improving the bore and keys, and, after a few more changes, by the late 20th century, it finally settled into the instrument we know today.

Modern instruments have about 2.5 octaves. Some student models are missing the B-flat key that extends the range downward in the professional versions. There’s a similar key on the flute.

The Gillet key system (for the conservatoire oboe) has 45 pieces of keywork, with the optional additions of a third octave key and an alternate key for F or C. The keys are usually made of nickel silver and are silver- or gold-plated.

Oboes are also made using the English thumb plate system, which includes semi-automatic octave keys by which playing in the second octave closes keys from the first. Releasing the thumb plate has the same effect as closing the forefinger’s hole on the right hand, which produces alternate fingerings without distinctive tone changes. This can be handy when rapidly switching octaves running up or down a scale (the fewer fingers you have to move, the faster you can play).

Some conservatoire oboes have keys constructed of rings rather than plates (called open-holed), so that the finger closes the hole but still manipulates the key, and most professional models have at least the right hand’s third key open-holed. Professional models usually use this open-hole system combined with a thumb plate.

The cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument in the shawm (called the pirouette) was discarded when they were designing the oboe at Louis XIV’s French court. The reed isn’t entirely within the mouth as it is in the shawm, but is held between the lips, about half in and half out of the mouth. The player can control the volume as a result of this change, and it’s also possible to overblow to achieve harmonics for higher notes. The free-standing reed allows greater control of intonation and tone quality than the old-style-enclosed reed.

The oboe’s double reed consists of two thin blades of cane tied together around a small-diameter metal tube called the staple. This staple and reed are bound together with three carefully placed wires and then thread is wrapped around the wires. The cane-surrounded staple is stuffed into a length of cork, and the cork is pushed into the reed socket (called the farrow) at the top of the oboe.

Professional oboists make their own reeds, as every oboist needs a slightly different design to suit their own needs. This way, they can control things like tone color and tuning. Some beginners use reeds made of synthetic materials because it’s both hard and expensive to make your own.

Commercially available cane reeds are available in several degrees of hardness. A medium reed is most popular, and most beginners used medium-soft reeds.

As oboists gain experience, they usually start making their own reeds, often in the style of their teachers, or they buy handmade reeds (usually from a professional oboist) in various stages of construction, and using special tools, including gougers, pre-gougers, guillotines, knives, and other tools, adjust the reed to their own liking. It takes many attempts to get the reed right. Orchestral musicians sometimes make reeds to sell and earn a bit of extra money.

Oboe reeds, like those for the clarinet, saxophone and bassoon reeds, are made from cane that’s called Arundo donx. Professional oboists import their reed cane directly from the growers in southern France.

The cane is split into three vertical parts. Oboes require the thickness of about 10 millimeters and bassoons need the reed to be more than twice as thick. Each player adjusts the reeds for his or her own embouchure, the angle at which they hold their oboe from their bodies, and lung capacity. The reed is considered the most difficult aspect of playing the oboe because slight variations in temperature, altitude, and weather can change a hitherto good reed into an unplayable bundle of twigs.

The oboe’s pitch is affected by the way the reed is made. There can be variations in the construction materials, the age of the reed, and the difference in scrape and length. German and French reeds differ in many ways, and the sound is different in response. Skilled oboists can adjust their embouchure to compensate for such factors by manipulating embouchure and air pressure.

Oboe d’amore, which is larger and a third lower than the conservatoire oboe, has a pear-shaped bell rather than the oboe’s funnel shape, which softens and mellows the tone.

The range of the Baroque oboe is a little more than two octaves.

The Wiener (Viennese) oboe is a modern instrument that retains the essential bore and tonal characteristics of the Baroque oboe. The Wiener oboe was developed in the 19th century by Josef Hajek from earlier instruments designed by C.T. Golde of Dresden (1803-1873), and is now made by several European makers and the Japanese maker Yamaha. Its bore is wider than that of the conservatoire oboe, its reed is shorter and broader, and the fingering system is different. The middle register of the Wiener oboe sounds reedy and the upper register includes more harmonics than traditional oboes. The Wiener oboe was thought to be an improvement on the historical oboe because it was a little easier to get a nice sound out of than the earlier instruments and could be played expressively, like a modern oboe. It was said to blend nicely with other instruments, and is, with the Vienna horn, distinctive and unique to the Wiener Philharmoniker instrument museum.

Other members of the oboe family include the cor anglais, or English horn, which is the tenor (or alto) member of the family. It’s a transposing instrument, pitched in F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d’amore, which is the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made extensive used of both the oboe d’amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, which were both Baroque parents of the English horn.

Less common is the bass oboe (usually called the baritone oboe), which sounds an octave lower than the oboe. Then there’s the heckelphone, which has a wider bore and a louder sound than the bass oboe—and only 165 of them have ever been made, making it hard to find competent heckelphone players. The rarest member of the oboe family is called the musette (or piccolo oboe), which is the sopranino member of the family, pitched at a minor third or a perfect fourth above the oboe. SImilarly rare is the contrabass oboe, two octave lower than the oboe.

Folk versions of the oboe, sometimes with extensive keywork, are found throughout Europe, including the musette (French), the Piston oboe and the bombarde (both from Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (from Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (from Spain). Most of these are played with bagpipes accompanying them, particularly the Italian zampogna or Breton biniou. Similar instruments to the oboe are believed to derive from Middle Eastern instruments, which are also found throughout Asia and in Northern Africa.

Notable oboe makers during the Baroque are the Germans Jacob Denner (1681-1735) and Johann Heinrich Eichentopt (c1678-1769), and the Englishman Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734). With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid-20th century, a few makers began producing copies of surviving historical instruments.

The Name

In English, the oboe was called the hautbois (meaning “high wood” in French) prior to 1770, and because spelling used to be more of a matter of opinion than it is nowadays, it was also called the hoboy or French hoboy. “Oboe” was adopted into English around 1770 from the Italian word oboé, which was a transliteration of the French.

Various voicings of the oboe are called oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, heckelphone, bombarde, musette, taille, cor anglais, English horn, Wiener oboe, Breton piston, and the conservatoire oboe. That last one is the modern oboe.

Famous Oboe Composers

There are loads of composers who wrote for oboe, so I’ll group them first by nationality and then by their dates. This list is not comprehensive by any means.

     Italians: Antonio Lotti (c1667-1740), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

     Germans: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote Brandenberg concertos #1 and #2 featuring the oboe. He also wrote a concerto for oboe and violin and frequently composed for the oboe d’amore. Then there was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and later, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote two concertos for the oboe. Next, Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who wrote an oboe concerto (it’s one of my favorite Beethoven pieces), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who used the English horn in his opera “Manfred.” Another opera composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), used the English horn in “Tannhäuser” and in “Tristan and Isolde.” Next up, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who preferred the French oboe, complaining that the German-Austrian oboe had a thick and trumpet-like voice, and that he thought it didn’t sound nice with flutes and clarinets. He wrote “Domestic Symphony” to illustrate the innocent child with the oboe’s voice. Last but not least among the Germans is Georg Philipp Telemann (1881-1767), who composed for the oboe d’amore in 1722.

     Americans: Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

     English: Henry Purcell (c1659-1695) wanted a tenor oboe for “Diocletian” in 1690 and afterward, the instrument became known as the English horn. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote for the bass oboe, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) managed to eke out a few pieces that included oboes, and Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934) wrote for the bass oboe. Then there were Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Madeleine Dring (1923-1977).

     French: Robert Cambert (c1628-1677) used the oboe in his opera “Pomone.” Next up, there’s Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992),

     Austria: The most famous Austrian musician so far, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), wrote two oboe concertos.

     Russian: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1849-1893), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     Czech: Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) and Jan Antonin Kozeluh (1738-1814)

Famous Oboe Players

There have been quite a few famous oboists. I’ll group them by genre, and within genre, by their dates (if available).

     Classical (etc.): Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790) and Joseph Sellner (dates unknown), who was an oboist and teacher who wrote the seminal oboe studies in 1825.

     Jazz: Garvin Bushell (1902-1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924, eventually recorded with John Coltrane in 1961. Paul Whiteman played jazz oboe in the 1920s and 30s. Gill Evans (1912-1988) played oboe with jazz great Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef used the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) gave the oboe a solo role when played by Richard Hafer (1927-2012) in his jazz groups, and Marshal Allen (1924-   ) played oboe with Sun Ra. Paul McCandless (1947-  ) is co-founder of the Paul Winter Consort and later played the oboe in the jazz group Oregon. Romeo Penque played the oboe on Roland Kirk’s album “Return of the 5000 lb Man” in 1975. The Maria Schneider Orchestra features the oboe. Jean-Luc Fillon plays oboe and English horn, and Charles Pillow plays and teaches jazz oboe.

     Celtic and Folk: Derek Bell (1935-2002) of the Cheiftains, David Cantieni of Wild Asparagus (a contra dance band in the US), Paul Sartin played in folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead, Welsh bagpipe player and maker Jonathan Shorland plays a rustic oboe similar to the Breton piston with the bands Primeaval and Juice. Welsh musician  Karl Jenkins (1944-  ) played the oboe with Nucleus and Soft Machine.

     Pop: The Carpenters used an oboe in “For All We Know” in 1970, and both Donovan Leitch and Jennifer Juniper used studio musicians on oboes for their albums, rather than regular members of their bands. Peter Gabriel played oboe on some of Genesis’s albums. Robbie J. de Klerk played the oboe on the Dutch metal band Another Messiah’s albums in the 2000s. Hoboe defines itself as a rock band showcasing the amplified oboe since 2000, fronted by oboist Zen Ben.

     Film: The oboe is often used in film music, especially in sad scenes. The Indian film composer Ilaiyaraja uses oboe in much of his film music.


“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, 1949.

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

Instrument Biography: The Recorder

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The recorder is an evolved form of flute, a woodwind from the family of fipple or internal duct flutes. Although many of the fingering principles are the same, it’s distinguished from the transverse flute by being end-blown. Although some forms of fippled flutes are older, the recorder as we know it may have originated in Italy in the 14th century. It soon became important as a consort instrument during the Renaissance. Like the viol, the recorder comes in a family of sizes—as many as eight, according to Michael Praetorius.

The recorder was popular from Medieval times through the Baroque, and declined in popularity in the 18th century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the traverse flute, oboe, and clarinet. It was often associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images reflecting those sensibilities can be found in both literature and artwork.

The recorder was far more popular than its loud double-reeded cousin the shawm and its noisy cousin the bagpipe, and volume was probably a contributing factor. Sometimes players bound two recorders together, one to be played with the right hand and the other with the left. This seems an imitation of the ancient Greek aulos rather than an innovation, though.

The modern revival of interest in the instrument began at the turn of 20th century primarily due to resurgence of interest in early music (as defined by “music before 1750”). Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various scholars in Germany, including the Brussels Conservatory where Dolmetsch trained and the performance group Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, were largely responsible for this revival of interest, but even so, there were common misperceptions about it, including by such notables as Igor Stravinsky, who thought it was some sort of clarinet.

Recorder History

There are other end-blown flutes, such as panpipes, but the recorder is made distinctive by the contraption in the throat of it that controls the flow of air. This contraption is called a duct or a fipple, and its use is better described in the Structure portion of this article. It’s an ancient idea, and an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) recorder made of sheep bone has been discovered.

Although common lore claims the recorder as a 14th century invention, Medieval paintings of whistles argue for an earlier inception. The difference between a whistle (like those used in Irish folk tunes), with six or fewer holes, is that a recorder has seven holes in the front and one in the back. The original design of the traverse flute, and the fingering that goes with it, was based on the six-holed whistle, not the recorder. Yup, I was surprised to learn this too.

A 14th century recorder was discovered in a castle moat in the Netherlands. It was largely intact, but no longer playable. They found another from the same period buried in a latrine (we can only wonder how THAT came to be) in Northern Germany. There are a few more from the same period elsewhere in Germany, and in Estonia and Poland. There’s a piece of a bone recorder from the 14th or 15th century that was dug up in Greece and a complete recorder from the 15th century was found in Poland.

The earliest recorders were designed to be played with the right hand below the left or vice versa, depending on the preferences of the player. The holes were all in a straight line, except the lowest hole, for the lower hand’s little finger. This was a double hole so that the player could fill the unused hole with clay, depending upon which hand they preferred to play with uppermost. This second hole is why the French called the instrument flute à neuf trous. Later, the right-hand lower style was declared standard and the second hole disappeared.

The recorder was very popular in the 16th and 17th century, probably because music was no longer strictly the purview of nobility and clergy. The invention of the printing press made music available to anyone with the money to pay for it. The recorder was also brought into royal courts, including that of Henry VIII. When he died in 1547, they found 76 recorders among his possessions.

During the Renaissance, recorders were used for dance music and as accompaniment for singers. Both William Shakespeare and John Milton also mention recorders. There are many vocal works with un-texted lines that were probably meant for instruments, such as vielles and recorders and lots of vocal music was easily playable (within the right range) by these instruments. Increasingly, composers wrote music solely for instruments, and they often didn’t specify which. This meant that a consort (a group containing a bunch of instruments from the same family, like various sizes of cornettos or recorders) could be played by whatever musicians and instruments were handy. This period of innovation and invention proved that if an instrument was good in one size, it would be even better in several sizes and with several ranges.

In the 15th century, recorders were increasingly used in polyphony along with voices, organs, shawms, trombones, trumpets, and cornetti. Polyphony was the style of the day during the Renaissance, but composers were just beginning to write chordal pieces. (For more on this, check out Chords versus Polyphony.) The Medieval tradition of juxtaposing two or three melodies on top of one another co-existed with imitation, where one part has the melody and then another does, each taking a turn. The late Renaissance also ushered in an interest in complex improvisation and ornamentation, something that was so very distinctive during the Baroque period.

There are many existing examples of recorders from the 16th century, all still playable. Like the Medieval recorders but unlike the later Baroque recorders, Renaissance recorders have a wide and nearly cylindrical bore (Baroque recorders tend to be conical). They have great low notes (better than the Baroque instruments, in fact) because of that wider bore. This bore shape meant that the player had to blow harder, but it also made the instrument more lithe and responsive.

The recorder’s relative, the flageolet, is thought to have been invented by someone called Juvigny in Paris at the close of the 16th century. It had unusual finger holes—four in the front and two in the back—and it had a particularly high-pitched sound.

In the 17th century, changes to the design of the recorder made it more suitable to the Baroque era, including improvements to the tone, which made it quieter and reduced its range. Praetorius mentions eight sizes of recorder in his 1618 treatise, but only three were still in use a century later: the descant, alto, and bass. Its gentle and subdued tone couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of the 18th century for dynamic and tonal contrasts, and it was slowly ousted by the traverse flute. In the 18th century, people called the recorder the flute because it was so wide-spread, and they called the traverse flute the traverse to distinguish it.

After the 18th century, there wasn’t much call for recorders. It’s possible that the versatility of the traverse flute made it more appealing to composers. Because of the fixed relationship of the wind-way to the fipple, the dynamics and expression of the recorder were limited, making it ill suited to the dramatic style of the period. Also, music as a pastime for aristocratic amateurs was changing to music for a society of professionals, and composers of the time began to write solely for professionals.

By the Romantic era, the recorder had been nearly completely replaced by the traverse flute and the clarinet. A keyed version of the recorder (called a czakan or Stockflöte) survived into 19th century concert halls. But still, its popularity waned. The recorder was basically ignored during the Romantic period. But in 1912, Arnold Dolmetsch, who was instrumental (ha ha) in reviving quite a few ancient instruments, made them popular again, especially in England and Germany. Now, recorders in various sizes, and mostly without keys, are made for the Early Music Movement, for music education in the schools, and for performances of folk music.

Fortunately for us, playing the recorder never completely died, and there are still makers all over Europe. There was a huge recorder revival in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement of early music, but also because it’s simple and ideally adapted to teaching music to amateurs. Lots of children played recorders as a “gateway” instrument, but there are many professional players who can show us the instrument’s full range.

The recorder is enjoyed by amateur groups large and small, which usually contain multiple sizes of instruments to compensate for limited note ranges in individual instruments. Four-part arrangements (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, just like vocal parts) are most common, although there are more complex arrangements (just like vocal parts). Recorder orchestras are a late-20th century invention, with 60 or more players, and up to nine sizes of the instrument. You can find such groups in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and several other countries.

Recorder Structure

The recorder is a wind instrument with a beak mouthpiece, seven finger holes at the front, and a thumb hole at the back. It was well-known in the Middle Ages and had developed several sizes by the 14th century, when the name, meaning “keepsake” was first used. The recorder achieved its real pre-eminence during the Renaissance when it was the only wind instrument with its own tutorial. This instruction manual was written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535 and showed that great technical brilliance was possible over a range of nearly three octaves.

The recorder is held outward from the player’s lips, rather than to the side, like a traverse flute. The breath is compressed into a linear stream by a channel cut into the block (also called a fipple) in the mouthpiece of the instrument, and travels along the duct, called the windway. As it exits the windway, the air hits the hard edge of the body of the head, called the labium or the ramp, which causes the column of air to resonate within the tube. The recorder uses fingering (open holes, half-holes, and forking) to change notes.

Blowing harder on a recorder affects its pitch, so the dynamic range (loudness) of recorders is limited to subtleties. It’s renowned for its clear and lithe articulation, and a skilled player can take advantage of that to suggest dynamic changes. Some effects can be made by controlling the pitch with partially covered holes or alternative fingerings to accommodate harder breath pressure.

The sound of the instrument is clear and sweet, partially because it doesn’t have upper harmonics.

At its upper end, early recorders had a beak-like formation, which was blocked except for a narrow channel in the fipple. Today, some recorders have this beak-like shape, and others are blown into a slot cut into the fipple block itself.

The slit of the mouthpiece directs the stream of air against the sharp edge of the fipple block, which sets up vibrations. The block in the mouthpiece leaves a narrow channel for the air to pass through. The block is called a block in most countries, and in England, it’s called a fipple.

Sound in a recorder is produced in much the same way as in the flue pipes of an organ. Air is passed through a long vented tube that is a specific length to achieve the notes in the desired range. Finger holes provide the ability to change notes (unlike an organ’s pipes).

The recorder has a lightly tapered bore, widest at the mouthpiece and narrowed toward the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared at the bottom on Renaissance instruments.

Recently, organ-pipe-shaped recorders have been built with square cross-sections. These are cheaper than the traditional size, but aren’t as attractive. They have greater ranges and stronger low notes, making these newer instruments more audible when playing concertos. Some of these newer instruments can play three octaves in tune. The tenor is particularly popular because its range matches that of the traverse flute.

When overblown, a recorder sounds the next octave, so there is no way to produce a louder sound.

Internal duct flutes are not all recorders; only recorders have eight finger holes, seven on the front and one on the back for the upper hand’s thumb. Players could choose which hand was above the other; the lowest hole was often doubled and the player could stop up the unused one with clay.

There’s some debate about whether the thumb hole at the back of the instrument was a 16th century development. Pictorial references only show the front of the instrument, so there’s no way to know. No instruments have survived to prove or disprove this theory.

By the middle of the 17th century, the double lowest hole was considered impractical, and they invented a movable hole, putting the last hole on its own section so that it could be rotated to suit the player. It was at this point that four new keys were added to the bass and contrabass forms. Two of these keys were operated by foot pedals.

Double recorders weren’t common in the 16th century, but they did happen. The two pipes lay side-by-side and were carved from a single block of wood. There are two forms of this instrument, one where the holes are pierced in staggered positions and the other where the holes are side-by-side. The side-by-side version survived because adjacent holes could be stopped by fingers on the other hand—it was a more limber instrument to play, but it also required a certain agility from the player.

Double recorders during the Baroque were bored out of the same piece of wood with the finger holes close together so that each pair could be closed with a single finger. The width of the holes, the bore of the tubes, and the position of the flutes in the block was different for each of the two instruments, and it was possible to obtain an interval of a third between each pair of parallel finger holes. The instrument was popular in England and Switzerland. A fellow called Christian Schlegel of Basel was one of the best double recorder makers in the 18th century.

French innovations were brought to London by Frenchman Pierre Bressan (1663-17310). Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734) was an instrument maker, mostly of oboes, in London—he and his son were the other important recorder-makers of the 18th century, along with Bressan.

In the early 20th century, Peter Harlan (a German) developed a (single) recorder that allowed simpler fingering, called the German fingering. Such instruments have a slightly smaller fifth hole, whereas Baroque and neo-Baroque instruments have the fourth hole smaller. This causes a difference in fingering for F and B-flat. Sadly, it also causes other notes to be out of tune. German fingering was popular in Europe, especially in Germany in the 1930s but was obsolete by the 1950s as musicians got more serious about the recorder and the limitations of German fingering became more of an annoyance.

In half-hole or forking fingering, air leaks out through part of the hole making the pitch higher than expected. Some Baroque instruments have divided holes to facilitate playing these notes accurately. Half-covering or not covering a hole and fully covering lower holes is called “forking” and has a different tonal character than those notes in the scale that peel up from the bottom.

Pinching is when the thumbhole in the back is only partially covered, and the higher notes that are achieved by this method call upon the harmonics of the instrument. Again, there is some degradation of the tone.

Recorders can be made of wood, plastic, or ivory. When they’re made of wood, they’re maple, pear, rosewood, granadilla, or boxwood with a block of red cedar. Plastic recorders are mass-produced and are cheaper to maintain than wood, and the good quality ones are equal to or better than the lower-end wooden recorders. Most beginners’ or children’s instruments are plastic.

Modern instruments are based on Baroque style, although some makers reproduce Renaissance-styled instruments. Those (Renaissance-style) have a wider, less tapered bore and usually have a less reedy and more blending tone, well-suited to consorts.

Until 1650 or so, the instrument was a smooth shaft that suited the taste of the Renaissance. But the Baroque style was much more complicated and the recorder was reshaped accordingly. The tube left the lathe with expansions at either end, so that the form curved gracefully.

The change in shape from the Renaissance to the Baroque was largely attributed to the Hotteterre family (see more on them in Instrument Biography: The Flute). They developed the tapered bore, which brought the lower hand’s fingers closer together, allowing a greater range and making it possible to build the instrument in several jointed sections. Separating the instrument into sections allowed more accurate shaping of each individual section, and it offered minor tuning adjustments by lengthening and shortening the length of the instrument with a change to the position of the sections.

In the mid-20th century, recorders were made of Bakelite and plastics, so they were cheap and easy to produce. This made them popular in schools, as they could be bought in bulk for a good price. They are pre-tuned and easy to play in tune, even at the most basic level of skill. Mastery, however, isn’t so easy. The success in schools has led to the misunderstanding of the recorder as a children’s instrument.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was being made in four sizes—a hundred years later, Praetorius describes eight sizes. The larger instruments have double-winged keys instead of the duplicate lower holes, and were blown through a brass S-shaped tube (like the bassoon) for greater ease in performance.

The treble recorder (called the alto in the US) is most commonly used as a solo instrument. If no size is specified, it’s this one that is meant. The descant (called the soprano in the USA) also has an important repertoire of solo music. There is some tenor and bass solo music, but not much compared to alto and soprano.

The largest recorder, the contrabass, even larger than the bass recorder, is seldom used due to its cost and size. It stands about 6.5 feet tall, and is in the key of F.

An experimental piccolino has been produced, which plays about 12 notes above the range of the soprano. The fingering for this instrument requires very small hands, and the holes tend to be side-by side rather than lined up down the length of the instrument (like an ocarina), so it’s pretty darned hard to play.

In ensembles, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are most common, and many players play all the instruments and switch, as the needs of the music demand. Great basses and contrabasses are less common. The sopranino doesn’t blend well and is usually reserved for recorder orchestras and for playing concertos (solo pieces with orchestral backup). Larger recorders require larger hands, and instruments larger than the tenor have keys to enable the reach and provide a better tonal response (through consistently complete hole coverage). Some altos also have keys to aid in completely covering the holes.

The largest recorders are so long that the player can’t reach the finger holes and still reach the mouthpiece with the lips. Instruments larger than the bass (and some basses, too) use a bocal or a crook, which is a thin metal tube like that of the bassoon, to conduct the player’s breath to the windway, or they may be constructed in sections that fold the recorder into a shape that brings the windway back into reach.


German instrument-maker Sebastian Virdung (born c.1465-   ) used alto, tenor, and bass sizes in his “Musica getuscht” of 1511 but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) lists eight, from the great bass to sopranino. Praetorius recommends a consort of the larger sizes as sounding best because the lower ones had a soft and expressive tone suitable for all sorts of music.

Each different size of recorder comes with its own register. They are usually tuned in C or F, meaning that their lowest note is a C or an F. There are instruments in D, B-flat, G, and E-flat, but those are more common historically than today. The treble (alto) recorder is in G, and is commonly used in Renaissance ensembles. The tenor recorder is in D, and is also called a voice-flute because it was much like a human voice in its range.

Most recorders are pitched at “concert pitch” (A=440 Hz), but other pitches are available. For Baroque instruments, A=415 Hz is standard, and Renaissance instruments are at A=466. These alternative tunings are a compromise between historical accuracy and what is practical for playing in groups. There’s an alto pitched at A=403, and there are makers who offer two middle sections, each at a different pitch, so the instrument can be immediately adaptable. (A 415-pitch is an exact half-step lower than 440, so many other instruments, such as vielles, viola da gamba, and harpsichords, can be adapted relatively quickly.)

Music isn’t usually transposed for the recorder, but is written in the same key as it’s played. Some family members must transpose for the octave (soprano and above, and bass and great bass). Recorders are referred to as D-fingered, C-fingered, G-fingered, F-fingered, etc. based on their lowest notes (with all the finger holes closed). Players must know at least C- and F-fingering or spend some time transposing at sight.

Sizes from garklein down through tenor are notated in treble clef and bass and lower are notated in the bass clef. The six-inch-long garklein sounds two octaves above the written pitch, even higher than the sopranino and soprano, which both sound one octave above the written pitch. The alto and tenor sizes sound as written, and the bass and great bass sound one octave above the written bass (in bass clef). These transpositions are written by adding a small “8” above or below the treble or bass clef for those instruments that don’t sound as written, although it’s not always written in, and the transpositions must be assumed from context. Contrabass and sub-contrabass sound as written, and the octocontrabass sounds an octave below written pitch.

Recorders sound an octave above the human voice after which they’re named (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They don’t sound like they’re an octave higher though, because of the harmonics involved in making the notes.

Michael Praetorius describes a narrower range than modern instruments have. This is partially from improvements in construction since his time and partially from the general skills of today’s players. Reproductions of period instruments often have a range of as little as an octave and a half, and modern instruments usually have a little more than two octaves.

Some reproductions use Sylvestro Ganassi’s fingerings and offer the larger range of modern instruments—music publishers mean that the range is of two octaves or more when they refer to Ganassi recorder.

Most recorder pieces encompass two octaves, except in virtuoso pieces. Higher notes are more difficult to play, and fingerings vary from instrument to instrument. It’s possible to hit some additional notes by covering the end of the instrument. Usually, this is accomplished with the player’s thigh. Some makers add a key to help with this note, and a longer bore can help reach these notes as well. Although common in 20th century music and later, this maneuver is seldom used in pre-20th century music.

Most modern recorders are based on the designs by Bressan, Stanesby, and Denner. The Denner family in Nuremberg were continental recorder makers from the 18th century.

Popular music in the 20th century required inventing new noises, rhythms, and effects, such as flutter tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics.

The Name

Called the recorder since the 14th century, the earliest known use of the term was in the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV) in 1388—he called it the fistula nomine Recordour which comes from ricordare especiale, which essentially means “remember” in Italian.

The recorder was called the flauto in Italian until the 18th century. Italian is the language (still) used in writing music. The instrument called the flute today was then known as the traverse. This name anomaly led to some music being performed on possibly the wrong instrument. Today, the recorder is known as the flauto dolce in Italian (sweet flute), with equivalents in other Latin languages, such as the flauta doce in Portuguese and flaute dulce in Spanish. In Portuguese and Spanish, the term “flauta” is ambiguous, as it can mean a traverse flute, a recorder, or even some other kind of wind instrument, like the pan flute, and some Central and South American instruments.

In French, the word flûte is similarly ambiguous—the French recorder is usually called the flûte a bec, or beaked flute. The Spanish picked up on this descriptive term and also called it the flauta de pico. The Old French name was flute à neuf trous for the recorder that had two holes in the lowest position depending on the handedness of the player.

From the “block” (fipple plug) in German, the recorder is known as a Blockflöte and the modern flute is known as the Querflöte (the traverse flute), the Grossflöte (great flute) or simply the Flöte. There’s also the Schnabelflöte, the mouth (or beak) flute for the recorder. Dutch follows the same convention as German, with blokfluit being the recorder and dwarsfluit the traverse flute.

An illustration of a recorder appears in England during the 12th century, but the name doesn’t occur until the 14th century. The name means “keepsake.” The English also call it the fipple-flute.

Bach called for two flauti d’echo in his 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major. This instrument was the double recorder, two recorders (both in F) connected together by leather flanges. One was rigged to play softly and the other loudly, causing the echo effect and the name.

Recorder Composers

The numbers are too many to list, but I’ll tell you a few of my favorites: Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594), William Byrd (c1540-1543), and John Dowland (1563-1626). All of these gentlemen composed music for singers that could also be played by recorder consorts.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used the flageolet in Rinaldo and in Acis and Galatea. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used the flageolet in Sacred Cantatas ## 96 and 103. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote three concertos for the flautino and used it in the orchestra for his opera. Initially thought to mean a piccolo, later studies have determined that he called for a sopranino recorder.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was probably one of the last to specify that a recorder rather than a flute be used in his Orfeo and Euridice.

Henry Purcell (c1659-1695), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) all used the recorder to suggest shepherds and to imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued through the 20th century.

More modern composers for the recorder include Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Richard Harvey (1953-   ), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Josef Tal (1910-2008), John Tavener (1944-   ), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was largely responsible for the popularity of recorders for use in schools, and is most famous for his Carmina Burana. He wrote “Music for Children” with many pieces for recorders, plus other instruments.

Recorder Players

There are lots of them. I’ll list just a few. Frans Brüggen (1934-    ), Hans-Martin Linde (1930-   ), Bernard Krainis (1924-2000), David Munrow (1942-1976), Kees Otten (1924-  ), Michala Petri (1958-   ), Piers Adams (1963-   ), and Charlotte Barbour-Condini (1997-   ). Leticia Berlin and Frances Blaker, and their group Tibia Recorder Duo are my two local favorites. I’m not mentioning the years they were born because I don’t want them to bop me on the noggin with a recorder.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997) was the son of Arnold, the big recorder designer and builder. Carl commissioned works from the leading composers of his day.

Famous groups include Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, Quartet New Generation have all combined mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.

Popular Music:

Loads of rock and rollers have used the recorder, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Ruby Tuesday), Yes (I’ve seen all Good People), Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven), Jimi Hendrix, Fairport Convention, and Mannheim Steamroller.


“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, 1949.

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

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

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

Instrument Biography: The Positive Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles from the main pipe organ piece, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The positive is a small, usually one manual (a keyboard played with the hands), pipe organ built to be mobile. It was commonly used for both sacred and secular music between the 10th and the 18th century, and it was also popular as a chamber organ, used to play the basso continuo in ensemble works. The smallest positive is little more than keyboard-height, and is also called a chest or box organ. These are still popular for basso continuo work because you can move them into the suitable spot in a suitable chamber. Positives that were meant to be the center of attention were usually taller.

Despite its similarity to an ordinary English word, it’s actually French and is pronounced pos-ih-teev. It’s also called the  positiv, positif, portable organ, and chair organ. It comes from the Latin verb ponere, which means “to place.”

The positive is also a name for a large organ that had the pipes behind the organist’s back. This type is also known as a chair organ or Rūckpositive. Modern organs (after the Romantic era) often call a whole division of pipes the chair organ because they’re the most likely to be in the portable positive. The pipe organ came in many forms between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (see the Church Organ biography for more about those). By the Baroque, even processional and tabletop organs existed, although they were less popular than the larger positives. The Orgelbewegung (the guiding treatise to the 20th century revival of historical instruments) didn’t emphasize them much in the 20th century, though.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century is monophonic dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of score and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player.

There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2nd century (because of the bellows) just as there’s an obvious connection between the panpipe and both the organ and the bagpipe (wind, passing through or across the pipes, makes them sound).

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE and the instrument features prominently in musical life by medieval times. Small portative organs, with bellows operated by one of the player’s hands, are commonly depicted in the iconography of the period. By the 15th century, larger positive organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and had their bellows operated by a second person. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged.

Positive Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum. It was probably a domestic instrument as well, and was thought to have been played by Nero.

The hydraulis’ popularity waned and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, three stopped ranks, one open rank, and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

An early positive is visible on a carving of Theodosius, commemorating his death, in the 4th century.

In the 7th century in the Christian world, Pope Vitalian is credited with introducing the much-evolved bellows organ to the Catholic church service. It served as support for singers, both as a foundation, playing lower notes than could be sung, and to offer timbre options in the higher registers. It’s ideally suited to accompany singing, whether by a congregation, a choir, cantor, or other soloists. Many church services still include organ accompaniment as well as a solo repertoire, often as a prelude at the beginning of the service and a postlude at the conclusion.

Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England, but the decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reign of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th century. This organ wasn’t the hydraulis of history, because that didn’t really make it out of the first century CE. Instead of complicated water and air pumps, the new instrument used a bellows that could be worked by hands or feet. By the end of the 9th century, Franconian organ building was so highly esteemed that Pope John VIII summoned a master from the diocese of Friesing to build an organ for him in Rome.

Monastic churches had early organs by 1100, probably portatives and positives, and by 1300, positives were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, substantial improvements were made. After that, proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 keys of the octave are already required (remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this). There are questions about whether the accidentals (sharps and flats that are not part of the key signature) are written in by the original documenter or by a later hand.

Until around 1400, the organ had a single keyboard with a range of one to three octaves, the keys were large and cumbersome or consisted of sliders that moved in and out, and there were no stops to allow the variety of color and tone that we’re used to today. The sound was a fixed, and fairly loud, mixture of several ranks of pipes. Pedals and a second manual were added in Germany and the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, the second manual having its own pipe-work located behind the player (which is why it’s called Rūckpositive in German).

National preferences for organ building emerged during the Renaissance. German innovations included additional manuals and interesting new tone colors. Italian and English organs remained simpler, often with a single manual and a basic chorus of stops with only one or two individually distinctive colors. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote the richest source of knowledge about organs as part of Syntagma Musicum.

With the refinement of the keyboard and development of finger techniques in the 13th and 14th centuries, a small movable positive was devised, suitable for church or secular surroundings. In contrast with the church organ, it required only one person to work the bellows. The secular version later became the chamber organ found in English homes and used in consort music.

The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and a great number of keys, and because the combination would have needed more space for this, it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century.

There are many miniatures that include positive images among the illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum from the Middle Ages, especially from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Because a second person was necessary to work the bellows, and because it was neither super portable like the portative nor grand like the Great Organ, the positive organ’s popularity also dwindled during the 16th century.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, positives were used at many civil and religious functions. They were used in the homes and chapels of the rich, at banquets and court events, in choirs and music schools, and in the small orchestras of composers as conspicuous as Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) (biography to come) at the beginning of musical drama (which would later become opera).

According to Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), the two middle manuals of the Halberstadt organ were designed for two-part playing. The two outer ones, the Descant manual, in which each key sounded as many as 32, 43, or even 56 pipes, and the pedal board, where each pedal key controlled 16, 20, or 24 pipes, were provided for powerful effects. Praetorius said it was quite loud.

Less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque, the positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. Both the portative and the positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the church organ remained in general use.

The positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless during the Classical period than the Baroque,. Both portative and positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Church organ remained in general use.

Positive Organ Structure

The positive organ was sized somewhere between the tiny portative and the huge church organ. You might think of it as about the same size as a spinet piano, although it would have been less wide and a little deeper, and possibly taller behind the keyboard.

The instrument is portable, but unlike the portative, it isn’t meant to be played while moving. It has a larger keyboard than the portative, usually having 49 notes or more (older instruments have slightly fewer), and a portative might have as few as 12 or 13 notes.

Many positives, both of the box and cupboard types, can be thought of as upper and lower parts that can be moved separately. The lower part contains the bellows, blower and treadle, and perhaps the largest of the pipes. The upper part contains the pipes and the manuals. Wheeled casters or a custom-made hand truck are used to move them.

The positive has more than one register, and because it was played with both hands, was satisfactory to play later music that used newfangled chords. The Orgelbewegung treatise (a 20th century revival of historical instruments) has created an interest in small positives that can be played with both hands. These small instruments are occasionally called portatives, especially if their pipes are arranged like those of the true portative.

The positive was usually used as accompaniment rather than as a solo instrument. It had a tender and gentle tone, and was popular during the Baroque period.

The hydraulis used water to determine the note played (see the Church Organ post for more). The positive developed from this ancient concept, where the pipes were sounded by moving air pressure that was maintained by the weight of water, and that could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes along the pipe. The air was moved by a bellows.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It was presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes (three stopped and one open) and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

The number of pipes controlled by individual keys and pedals was possible because of something called register-stops. These weren’t a new development in the Middle Ages but track back to antiquity. The Middle Ages appreciated the mixtures in which every note was accompanied by several fifths and octaves (overtones and harmonics), making the original note sound fuller and richer.

By the Middle Ages, it was understood that pipe structure affected the tone and color of the notes, and whole ranks of pipes were built with differing lengths but similar dimensions—some were wide, some were narrow, some conical, some inversely conical, some stopped, and some open—in order to get a certain uniformity of sound within the rank. In the 15th century, sharper and shriller reed pipes were invented, where the pitch was determined by a simple metal reed and the tone was colored by a belled mouth. All of these various groups of pipes could be connected by register-stops.

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on musical styles of the Italians, French, and northern lands. The best known builders were Arp Schnitger (1648-1718) and Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). They adopted the Dutch practice of dividing the pipes into a main group and subsidiary groups, each with its own keyboard and pipes having a particular character and function. The main group, the Hauptwerk (Great Organ), sits high above the player. Other groups include Ruckpositive, mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, a Brustwerk, directly above the music rack in front of the player, the Oberwerk, high above the Great, and the pedal organ, whose pipes are usually arranged symmetrically on both sides of the Great.

Only the largest German organs had all of these components. Yet even a modest two-manual instrument could create a great variety of sounds combining variously voiced principal, flute, and reed pipes as well as mixtures, in which pipes sounding upper harmonics add brilliance to the fundamental tone (the fundamental is the note you mean to sound and the harmonics and overtones are the other notes that make up that note).

The pipes were usually flue pipes in 4’ and 2’ and occasionally a 1’ tone. Positive organs with reed pipe registers were rare.

Innovators made it easier to move the slides by creating keys that could be pressed and returned to the original stopping position by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary, Vitruvius (c80-c15 BCE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The earliest image of keys is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks each of 18 pipes. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, not reeds). The player would have used both hands, the left hand for changing the drone note, and the right for playing the melody. This idea of playing against a drone wasn’t new; Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE-65 CE) makes reference to consonance on stringed instruments in the 1st century CE. (This is an indication of simultaneous differing sounds rather than any kind of polyphony.)

The introduction of pedals was probably because the largest pipes were hard to sound—great pressure was needed to overcome the air-pressure and make the wind move in the pipes. The feet were simply stronger, and so a keyboard for the feet developed. Most positives offer only one keyboard and no foot pedals, although some use pedals to control stops.

In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp). The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and also a great number of keys, and it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century when they were making other renovations.

The wind was supplied by a second person operating the bellows, but modern positives have electric blowers. In the Baroque period, they developed a reservoir to store air so that the bellows didn’t have to be pumped constantly. Air pumped from bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and goes from there into the soundboard, where the keyboard uses it to sound a note through the associated pipe.

The larger the organ, the more stops they can offer; some are specifically treble and some are divided, allowing each stop to be activated in the treble or bass portions of the keyboard. This makes it possible to play a melody and an accompaniment using different registrations at the same time.

Positives usually have few stops compared to larger organs. There are three that are standard—the 8’ stop, a 4’ flute, and 2’ principal (diapason). Somewhat larger positives might also have 2 2/3’ or other mutation stops and a small mixture of other pipes. Some have an 8’ reed stop, like a regal organ.

In a slider soundboards, the grooves underlying all the pipes are specific to a particular key. The sliders work across the grooves and are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off. The solid portions of the sliders close the pipes. When the register is to be included, the slider is pulled out until the holes are situated under the feet of the pipes so that the wind can enter unimpeded when the key is depressed. It was less likely to break than the spring version of stops, and was universally adopted in the Baroque period.

Positive Organ Name

I didn’t find anything to explain why the positive is named that way in English or any other language. It’s called a Rūckpositive in German, because the pipes were behind the player.

Positive Organ Players

Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) was a German who wandered all over Germany and England, and whose fame spread far beyond those boundaries. He opened three music schools and saw a lot of excellent musicians become professionals. He also did some work on changing the design of the organ. The English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian who came to study at the Paris Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. His improvisatory style expanded on the repertoire of Bach and the French Baroque, and in the end, the design of the organ adapted to accommodate it as well. This style included lyrical themes, contrapuntal development, and orchestral color. He reportedly had huge hands  that could easily span 12 white notes on the keyboard (most people can reach eight), which may have affected his style. He only wrote 12 pieces for the organ (he was into improvisation), but was considered the best organ composer after Bach.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was in France with the English occupying forces. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at the Duke’s court until he retired in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

Positive Organ Composers:

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) wrote the “Fauvel” motets (the story of a horse’s exploits), some of which were to be played on the organ.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) documented the rapid development of the positive organ by documenting the Halberstadt Cathedral organ, placed on record in 1618. The instrument had been built in 1361 and renovated in 1495. It had three hand-claviers or manuals and one pedal board (for the feet).


“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, 1949.

“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.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

Instrument Biography: The Cornetto

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The cornetto is a wooden wind instrument widely used throughout Europe from the 15th through the 17th centuries. It’s also called the cornett, which is not to be confused with the trumpet-like instrument called the cornet. A hybrid between a woodwind (like the recorder) and a brass instrument (like the trumpet), it was a long and slender tube, curved to one side, and had open finger holes. Sound was produced by blowing into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like that of the trumpet.

The combination of the mouthpiece and finger holes results in difficulties of intonation (pitch) and embouchure (mouth positions). Once mastered, it’s extremely agile and has a range of dynamics and expressions that span between brassy trumpet sounds to incredibly sweet flute-like tones.

After 1500, there are records of cornetti (that’s the plural of cornetto) and trombones performing together with human voices at secular feasts, in the theater, and during Mass. Just a few decades earlier, loud and soft instruments would never have been combined. (See Instrument Biography: The Harp for more about this concept.) Wind bands weren’t excluded from the Catholic church until after 1500. They were welcomed back by the Lutherans, but that’s another story for another day.

Cornetto History

In Medieval times, the cornetto was not part of social life the way the harp and lute were. Its use was limited to shepherds calling flocks and the tower watchman announcing the arrival of strangers. Larger horns were used to signal foot soldiers in war. But then it got fancier.

Its popularity increased during the Middle Ages. By then, trumpeters had formed a highly privileged guild that only reluctantly played with other instruments. The various sizes of trumpets and trombones made a pretty sound, but because the treble trombone (yup, treble) had a tiny voice, trumpet and trombone choirs let cornetti play with them.

The Church of St. Mark in Venice was the center of musical culture for most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, starting in the 11th century. Innovations abounded there, and it’s probably due to the gathering of great minds there that much of the music from those times is preserved.

The cornetto is mentioned in “Aucassin et Nicolette,” which was an anonymous 12th or 13th century musical play from France. In England, the cornetto was one of the principal types of wind instrument in the 13th century, along with recorder, shawms, double whistle-flutes, tabor-pipe, the horn, bugle, trumpet, organ, and bagpipe.

Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) mentions the grant cornet d’Allemaigne (the grand cornetto of the Germans, also known as the Zink) in several of his poems, most notably his “Prise d’Alexandrie” and “Remede de Fortune.” (I think it was a recording of “Remede de Fortune” that got me hooked on Machaut in the first place.)

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1555-1612) published a collection of motets, Mass movements, and madrigals as “Concerti” (a very early use of the term). He wanted them performed by voices, two organs, cornetti, and trombones, plus one or two violins.

It’s not known from what date the cornetto began to provide support for choral music, but this became its main function by the end of the Renaissance, notably in the Venetian polychoral music of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli in the 16th century.

Two cornetti were frequently used in consorts with three sackbuts (a form of trombone), and often doubled a church choir’s voices. By 1568, a first-rate permanent ensemble of instrumentalists was assembled at the Church of St. Mark in Venice, centering on cornetti and sackbuts and also including violin (which was a new instrument) and bassoon. Additional players were hired on major feast days, when as many as two dozen instrumentalists performed, alone or together with the choir of twenty to thirty voices.

Michael Praetorius didn’t care for the sound of the cornetto, describing it as “most unlovely and bullocky.” He knew lots of stuff about music, but I have to disagree with him about the sound.

The cornetto remained physically unaltered between the 17th century and the first half of the 18th, and it was a favorite in the Baroque period. The squiggly version called the serpent was particularly popular in France, providing the contrabass in wind ensembles. At the end of the 18th century, the serpent played an increasingly larger part in military bands.

Many examples of this instrument are in the Brussels Conservatory museum, mostly from late 16th century Venice, where Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo Galilei’s father) said that the best cornettos of his day were made.

The invention of the trumpet during the Classical period (1730-1820) provided the fanfare for the end of the cornetto’s popularity. The cornetto was harder to play than the trumpet because of its small mouthpiece, it was quieter and less limber, and composers simply stopped composing for it.

Cornetto Structure

Records of early cornettos say that they were made of natural horn, which is where we get the term “horn” for later brass instruments with a similar mouthpiece. Later cornetti were made of wood. The instrument is a hybrid between a woodwind and a brass instruments in that the shape, fingering, and material was like that of a woodwind, but the mouthpiece was like that of a brass instrument.

When the large German herhorn was pierced with finger holes in the 10th or 11th century, it became known as a cornetto or Zink. Cornetti were either straight and turned from a single piece of fruit wood, or curved. Curved cornetti were made of two hollowed pieces of wood glued together, and then a leather or parchment sheath was drawn over it to make it air-tight.

Straight cornetti that end in a carved dog’s or wolf’s head appear in some 11th-13th century paintings There are some surviving examples like this in Italy. Other iconography from other countries in the Middle Ages shows both straight and curved instruments being used.

Folk cornetti are still used in Baltic countries and parts of Russia. They are bound in birch bark, have four or more finger holes, and are variants on the Swedish cow horn.

Unlike other types of horns, the cornetto has finger holes bored into the length of the tube, like a flute. (Other horns have valves or slides.) The number of holes varied, but six was most common. With over-blowing, harmonics allowed a full octave or more in range, even with only six holes.

Typically there were six finger holes and a thumbhole, gathered comfortably at the end nearest to the mouthpiece. The instrument often curved to the right, with the player’s right hand placed lowermost, although many specimens are left-handed, curving the opposite way and with the hands reversed. The majority of finger holes are on the top side, with a thumb hole on the bottom nearest to the mouthpiece. When there were six holes, it was well suited for playing melodies.

Fingering is similar to other woodwinds of the period, although it is different in the upper octave. Only a few fingering charts survive.

There were a variety of sizes and shapes, especially during the Renaissance, when families of instruments were popular.

  • Cornettino: The highest pitched and smallest in size, was a fourth or fifth higher than the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto: The soprano voice. It was about 24 inches long and was also called the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto muto: Both straight and rounded forms had a built-in mouthpiece, a wider throat, and narrower bore than the traditional cornetto but also played the treble part. It was a quiet instrument, suitable for consort playing but not outdoor work.
  • Cornetto torto: A curved, octagonal instrument. It was often tuned to F, a fifth lower than the treble cornetto.
  • Tenor cornetto (the lizard): A double-curved instrument, tuned a fifth lower than the soprano. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) disliked its sounds and mentioned it specifically. Its wide bore makes it similar to a serpent, and therefore better for blending with voices or in a consort (a group of like instruments in various voice ranges. This list of cornetti, if there were at least one from each—or most—type of cornetto, could form a consort, for instance) rather than on its own. I don’t know why It’s also called the lizard, other than that it’s smaller than a serpent but looked similar.
  • Bass cornetto: A larger-cornetto, pitched a fourth or fifth below the tenor. The bass cornetto was popular in France but was also played in Germany at the end of the 16th century.
  • Serpent: In Italy and France, the serpent was the great contrabass cornetto, shaped like a double-S in order to bring the finger holes within the player’s reach. The serpent supplanted the bass cornetto in the 17th century.

There are three basic shapes: curved, straight, and double curved (S-shaped).

The simple curved shape was most common and was used for the cornettino, the cornetto, the cornetto torto, and the bass cornetto. The soprano (or treble) instrument was about 24 inches long and made of a single block of wood, usually plum, pear, or maple. The block of wood was cut into a curved shape and then split lengthwise. A conical bore was carved out of each half and the pieces were glued back together. The exterior was planed to an octagonal profile and the longitudinal joins secured by a series of bindings and a covering of black leather or parchment. Most virtuosos played the curved treble version, and in their hands, it competed with the violin or the voice in complexity.

The straight treble cornetto is made of wood, usually yellow boxwood, with a conical bore, like the curved cornetto, but turned on the outside to a circular shape, usually without ornamentation. The finger holes and mouthpiece are just like the curved version. This was likely to be the least common type, although it was widely used before 1550, especially in Germany.

The cornetto muto is made like the straight cornetto, but its mouthpiece was not detachable. The mouthpiece was turned out of the same wood as the body at the top end of the instrument. The conical cup of the mouthpiece merges into the bore, usually without a sharp break between the two sections, causing a softening and veiling of the tone quality.

The tenor cornetto was pitched a fifth lower than the treble and had an extra finger hole that was covered by a key, which was used by the little finger of the lower hand. The tenor was 30-50 inches long, generally made with a double curve (an S-shape) with the finger holes on the inside facet of the lower bend. The bell pointed downward and to the front, not outward and to the side, like the treble. It was mainly used from 1550 to 1650, although it was popular in England only after the beginning of the 17th century.

The bass instrument, called the serpent, had a range that could be extended by over-blowing, of about two and a half octaves. French philosopher and theologian Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) estimated that a single serpent could equal 20 of the loudest singers but could also be played with the quietest chamber music. To overcome unreliable pitch and poor tone quality, each instrument only played in one key (specific sharps and flats), so to make it useful in consorts with more flexible instruments, the player had to have several versions. The serpent militaire and the serpent Fovielle were used in military music until they were displaced by the ophiclieide (like an elongated keyed bugle). The serpent disappeared from general use by the middle of the 19th century.

Parts written in alto and tenor clefs are only playable by the serpent. There are straight versions of this deep bass cornetto, but they’re rare.

The player blew into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, similar to that of a trumpet or a trombone. The mouthpiece is usually horn or ivory, regardless of the material for the rest of the instrument. The cup was placed against the corner of the mouth, with the central position only occasionally employed. The pitch can be affected by softening the lips against the mouthpiece. This special embouchure is tiring to play for any length of time, so cornetto parts are often substituted by violins.

A late 16th-century surviving instrument’s mouthpiece is horn and is half an inch wide. It’s similar to a small trumpet mouthpiece in the deep curvature of the cup, but the rim is very sharp. It resembles an acorn cup. Many paintings show this sort of cupped mouthpiece.

The socket for the mouthpiece, which is slightly tapered, was sometimes strengthened by an external brass ferule, and both the upper and lower ends of the instrument were occasionally adorned with silver mounts.

Mouthpieces were made of ebony, ivory, or horn, but it’s hard to know which are original because many of the surviving examples are replacements.

Tonguing reached a high degree of complexity with this instrument. There were instructions from Italians Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego (published in 1536) and Bartolomeo Bismantova (published in 1677) that discussed force and speed of tonguing, in an Italian school of articulation.

Unlike other instruments where it wasn’t necessary to articulate each note by tonguing (like the bagpipe), the cornetto required every note to be tongued, except for trills and some cadential ornaments (wiggly bits that mark the end of a phrase). Other wind instruments with a reed or a pipe embouchure have tonguing sounds that include te, ke and pe, but the cornetto uses le, re, and de, with te and re for faster passages. The transverse flute’s te-ke “double-tonguing” technique for fast passages was considered crude on the cornetto.

The tone quality is considered close to the human voice, especially the boy soprano, although I think modern reproductions sound more like a quiet trumpet crossed with a recorder. They could be played loudly or softly in every key—most other instruments of the period were not so versatile.

The kind of sound produced makes it hard to classify the instrument as a woodwind or a brass instrument. It’s hard to play because of the combination of woodwind shape and limited fingering with the brass instrument’s mouthpiece, which is probably why it lost popularity, as more agile instruments were invented. Modern brass instruments are longer than the cornetto and allow the use of harmonics, with slides or valves to control the pitch.

Cornettos were suitable for indoors and outdoors music, both sacred and secular, and could easily be substituted for the violin and vice versa. It was treated as a true virtuoso instrument, like for Monteverdi’s “Vespers.”

The Name

The name means “little horn” in Italian, suggesting an animal-horn ancestry for the instrument. There are cow-horned shaped instruments in Medieval pictures that might be cornetti. Some resemble horns that are still used by Scandinavian herdsmen. In Sweden., these instruments go back to the 10th century. In England, images of these horn instruments go back to the 11th century. The octagonal carved wooden form appears in the later 13th century.

Cornetto is the diminutive of the Italian “corno,” which is one of the smaller animal horns.

Germany, it was called the Zink, a Zinke being the smallest branch of a stag’s antlers. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink or gerade Zink. The cornetto torto was the krummer Zink.

The curved instrument was called the krummer Zink or the schwarzer Zink in German, and cornetto curvo, cornetto alto, or cornetto nero in Italian. The straight instrument was the gerade Zink in German and cornetto dritto in Italian. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink in German and cornetto muto in Italian.

The tenor was the taille des cornets in French, the grosser Zink in German, and the corno torto or cornone in Italian. The bass cornetto is the basse des cornets in French and Basszink in German.

In England, it was called the cornett (with no O on the end). It was also called the cornet, but that’s an entirely different instrument in modern terms, made entirely of brass.

The rozhok (little horn) of the Vladimir and Tever districts in Russia are straight cornetti, with separate mouthpieces occasionally played off to the side, and come in two or more sizes. There may only be two centuries of the cornetto tradition in Russia.

Cornetto Composers

From the 16th century:

  • Andrea Gabrieli (c1515-1586)
  • Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612), who was Andrea’s nephew. I mentioned him in my piece on Thomas Tallis.
  • Claudio Monteverdi (c1567-1643) wrote an amazing “Vespers” that features cornetti.

From the 17th century:

  • Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
  • Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)
  • Heinrich Schūtz (1586-1672)
  • John Adson (c1587-1640) in “Courtly Masquing Ayres” in 1621
  • Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
  • Antonio Bertali (c1605-1669)
  • Heinrich Schmeizer (c1620-1680)
  • Matthew Lock (c1621-1677) in “Music for His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts” in 1661
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (c1644-1704)
  • George Muffat (1653-1704)
  • Johann Andreas Pachelbel (c1653-1706), although most famous for his “Canon in D,” he wrote loads of other things.
  • Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

From the 18th century:

  • Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) used a pair of muto cornets in a requiem.
  • Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” BMV 118, starring cornetti, but there are lots more pieces, too.
  • Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used a serpent in his “Water Music” of 1717 and “Firework Music” of 1749. He also wrote “Tamerlano” to include cornetti in 1724.
  • Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714- 1787) used the cornetto in “Orfeo et Euridice.”

From the 19th century

  • Giocchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) used a serpent in “The Siege of Corinth.”
  • Felix Mendelsohn (1809-1847) used a serpent in both “Meerestille” and “St. Paul.”
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) used a serpent in “Rienzi.”

Cornetto Players

Augustin Schubinger of the court of Emperor Maximilian was a member of the famous Augsberg family of wind players in the 15th and early 16th century.

Girolamo Dalla Casa (d. 1601) was an Italian composer and member of the Venetian School at St. Mark’s in Venice.

Giovanni Bassano (c1558-1617) was virtuoso who played for Giovanni Gabrieli.

You can find recordings by living musicians Bruce Dickey, Doron Sherwin, Michael Colliver, Alan Dean, and more.


“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, 1949.

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

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.


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.


Instrument Biography: The Lute

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The lute is the earliest form of long-necked, fretted, round bellied stringed instrument known to man. It’s a member of the chordophone family, along with lyres, harps, and zithers. Although this plucked string instrument with frets and gut strings, a round back, and a pear-shaped body is one of the most ancient instruments, it’s enjoying another resurgence in popularity. You’ll see what I mean by “another” in a minute.
The lute came to Europe from the Far East in the early Middle Ages. It had four or five strings and was used for solo lines in ensembles and was played with a plectrum. By the later 15th century, the lute had six doubled strings (called courses) and a distinctive way of playing with the fingers on the strings, by plucking instead of using a plectrum, had developed.

By the Renaissance, the plectrum had been completely given up and the lute was played only with the fingers, capable of great delicacy of expression, like a modern guitar. The lute was the most highly regarded of all the instruments. In 1487, music historian Tinctoris mentions earlier lutenists, such as Pietrobono.

Lutenists abounded in the 16th century, and the instrument developed a huge repertoire for solos, both designed for the lute and transcribed from vocal pieces.

A Little Lute History

The earliest evidence of lutes is in Mesopotamia, around 2000 BCE. The instrument had only two strings, but if you considered that music was monophonic (melody only, with no harmonies or accompaniment) against the occasional drone, nothing more was needed.

The lute first appeared in Egypt in the 15th century BCE, where it really came into its own. It’s thought to have come to Egypt through Asia. When the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers, they included singing and dancing girls and their accompanying instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change and nearly all of their own ancient native instruments were discarded or adapted in favor of these new ones. The standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; and lyres gave way to lutes. Even the delicious drums that seem so indigenous to Egypt’s music came from Asia at around this time. Egypt’s music became noisier and more stimulating as a result.

There’s a mural from the 15th century BCE showing a lute with nine frets. The tomb of Tutankhamen (who ruled c1332-c1323 BCE) contains images of instruments, including the lute, being played by slave girls.

The lute soon began to appear all over. The Egyptians borrowed music and lute technology from Mesopotamia and Syria; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. The harp, lyre, double oboe, and the hand-beaten drum were all played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, along with the lute.

In India, a group of girls sent to entertain men in the 1st century CE would have been accompanied by harps and drums, as well as lutes, lyres, and double oboes. Lyres and oboes didn’t catch on, as their tuning would have been foreign (Greek modes never made it to India), but the lute was accepted. (You can read more about the Greek modes in my blog Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes.)

An Iranian Christian leader called Mani (c215-276 CE) demanded that his adherents make music as part of their worship. The teachings of Manichaeism are found in a collection of liturgical hymns, and for a long time, he was considered the inventor of the modern lute, meaning that after Mani, the number of strings and frets didn’t change (much).

Because music has no place in secular Islamic culture, in the 6th century CE, the prophet Mohammed banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He specifically mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Surprisingly, he thought drums were okay for social festivities.

Neo-Platonist Ya’qüb ibn Ishäq al-Kindï  (called Alkindus) (c790-c874 CE) mentions the fretted lute and describes sounding intervals of fourths, fifths, octaves, and other intervals simultaneously with the melody (the beginnings of harmony? Or perhaps faux bourdon?). He also described eight rhythmic modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes for more on this kind of thing).

It’s believed that the lute was introduced to Europe by the Saracens, and there’s an ivory carving dating from 968 CE that provides the oldest piece of evidence of the lute being in Europe.

In the 11th century, jongleurs (a kind of wandering minstrel) in France were expected to play an instrument. These could be a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery, or a small organ. Guiraut de Calanson wrote, in “Conseils aux Jongler” in 1210, that an accomplished jongleur had to play the lute.

In Europe, the lute’s use seems limited to Spain and France until the 13th century. In the 14th century, Juan Ruiz, a Spanish poet known as the archpriest Hita, made a list of all the instruments in Spain, including the lute. By then, the lute was also known in Italy and Germany, and was mentioned by both Dante and Boccaccio, and by Heinrich von Neuenstadt. Even so, it was used sparingly because the mandola (a relative) was preferred. The mandola was also easier to construct and to play.

By the 15th century, the lute pushed the mandola into the background and became one of the most important instruments of the period (resurgence number one). More strings were introduced to the instrument, increasing from five to eleven, with the highest strings reserved for the melody, and the others, arranged in pairs, for the accompaniment.

The lute’s popularity in the 15th and 16th century is probably due to its ability to play chords, which were a new invention. The lute could play a melody and accompany itself at the same time, which meant that a single musician could entertain the crowd.

By the 16th century, the lute was far and away the most influential plucked instrument, much like the piano would be in the 19th and 20th centuries. The lute was an essential part of chamber music, but it was also present in larger ensembles, and was much favored as a solo instrument. It was super popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in France, becoming the central instrument for roving vagabonds, who lived and played outside the law, as had their forebears the Troubadours and Trouvères in the 11th through the 13th century.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the lute had lost much of its high esteem because music was becoming so complex. In order to adapt, the number of strings increased in the bass, but it still couldn’t compete with the deeper archlute or theorbo (relatives of the lute). By 1727, when E.G. Baron wrote his “Treatise on the Lute,” the instrument was nearly completely out of favor. Lute music stylings were taken over by keyboards, like harpsichordists, organists, and pianists.

Nowadays, no one seems to be composing for the lute. When you hear it played, it’s usually a performance of Renaissance music. But thanks to the uptick of interest in historically informed performance since 1979, lutes are not uncommon at early music concerts (resurgence number two).

Lute Structure

The lute was originally similar to the vièle, which has a pear-shaped body, a shallow bowl, and a neck that comes out of the body without demarcation. The main difference is that the vielle’s strings come from a tailpiece and over a bridge (a 90-degree angle), and the lute has a string-holder that is glued directly to the table (the front face) of the lute (a straight line). The lute’s tuning pegs are at right angles to the neck because the peg box is bent toward the player at a 90-degree angle, making the pegs parallel to the table; the vielle’s tuning pegs are perpendicular to the table (like a guitar). The lute is distinctive in its vaulted back and bent-back peg box that holds the tuning pegs.

Early forms of the lute had a soundbox made from a tortoiseshell with a stretched leather table. Strings were gut on a wooden ridge, and placed in a spreading fan pattern. (It must have been pretty!)

In the 13th century, luthiers began to separate the construction of the body and the neck. They also made the back out of staves rather than a single piece of wood, which made the instrument more resonant. It was at this point that the number of strings increased from six to ten and were tuned in pairs, either identically or in octaves.

To improve the grip of the left hand on the stringboard, gut nooses, now known as frets, were tied around the neck, increasing from four to eight frets in due time. The body became larger as the need for louder music grew. Multiple sound holes on the table merged into one single and fairly large hole, usually carved into a decorative rose.

By the Renaissance, lutes were often made of precious materials such as ivory, ebony, or Brazil-wood.

In the 16th century, lutes were lightly constructed, often with six or seven doubled strings (called courses).

The oldest lutes had three to five strings, usually plucked with a little rod or plectrum, or, rarely, with the fingers. As time progressed, strings were added and finger plucking grew more popular than strumming or plucking. Modern (post-Renaissance) lutes have between 15 and 24 strings, some doubled into courses, and some single strings.

By the 10th century, it was common for the strings to be tuned in fourths like a modern guitar.

Origins of the Name:

In Persian, the name of the instrument is al’ūd, which means “the wood.” This evolved into the “oud,” and then became a lute in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. The instrument is still commonly used in Arabic music.

The Greeks used the same Sumerian noun for the long-necked lute as the word for “bow.” Sadly, the source that gave me this tidbit didn’t say what that word was. (Does anyone speak Sumerian?)

Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the English were playing the lute. The guitar reached England in the 13th century, before the introduction of the lute, which is kind of backward to the rest of Europe. It doesn’t appear in English carvings or illustrations until the 15th century, but it’s mentioned in the list of instruments at the Feast of Westminster in 1306.

Obviously, the lute made its way to France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Michael Praetorius, in the 16th and 17th centuries (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) for more on this great musicologist ) describes Recht Chorist or the Alt-Laute as the parent to the contemporary lute. Perhaps in Germany, these were names of earlier instruments, but clearly, it wasn’t invented there.

Descendants of the Lute

The following list is alphabetical rather than chronological.

The angelica was a kind of theorbo with 17 diatonically tuned (do-re-me) strings. It’s also called the Angelique.

The archlute, as the name implies, is a much larger form of lute. It was made as early as the 16th century but only came to importance in the 17th. It had diapason strings, meant to stay open, that ran beside the finger board, and allowed sympathetic-string ringing, like a harp’s unplucked strings. It had 16 or 17 single strings on two peg boxes.

The chitarrone reduced the size of the body but increased the length of the bridge piece that connected the two peg-boxes. The instrument was a monster, being from five to six-feet long.

The colascione was a European long-necked lute with 24 movable frets and three courses of metal strings. Its body was occasionally made partially of parchment. (You may recall that parchment was very thinly tanned animal hides, not a form of paper.)

The long-necked lute was a medieval instrument with strong Moorish associations and might be the same instrument that’s called guiterre moresche. Both are described with a long neck and a small body with a movable bridge, and only three strings.

The mandore and mandola were small lutes with short necks and four doubled strings. These instruments were also called the pandurina, mandurina, Mandüchen, and mandolin. It has the characteristically backward-bending head and five or six pairs of strings, which later became single strings (like in the mandolin).

The pandurina was a small-sized mandora with four or five strings and was played with the fingers or a plectrum. Despite its Italian-sounding name, its use was limited to France.

The theorbo’s had two tuning heads. The main head was only slightly bent and the second peg-box was joined to the first by a short connecting piece.

The theorbo-lute kept the traditional bent-back head of the lute and had an additional peg box beside the main head for additional strings.

Famous Lute Players

You may have heard of the famous English lutenist and composer John Dowland, but there will be others in this list that are more obscure. There’s Francesco de Milano, Michelangelo Galilei (uncle of Galileo), Henry VIII of England, James IV of Scotland, and Pietrobono, mentioned by Tinctoris in his medieval treatise on music.

Current big names in as lutenists are Munir Nurettin Beken, August Denhard, Lutz Kirchhof, Jakob Lindberg, Paul O’Dette, and Marco Pesci.

Famous Composers

There are too many composers for the lute to name even a very small percentage, so I’ll just include the biggest hitters. Guillaume Machaut (see Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377)), Franscesco Landini (biography to come), and John Dowland are probably the most famous, with Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres (after 1601-c1671), Francesco di Milano, Albert de Rippe, and Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo’s father) making the list.

One of the greatest innovators was a fellow called Denis Gaultier (c1597-1672), who ranked as the highest official in a French province after the governor himself. Gaultier invented his own nomenclature for modes, where Dorian appeared as D major and Sousdorien as A major. (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes for more on that sort of thing). Although dance rhythms appear in his works, he named none of them after dances, which was the usual practice of the day.

Happily, people are still making music on lutes, and I hope this little article makes you want to go out and hear a concert or twelve.

You can check out more of my blogs on


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

“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint)

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

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

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

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

“Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” edited by Russell E. Murray, Jr., Susan Forscher Weiss, and Cynthia J,. Cyrus. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010