Faà di Bruno, Giovanni Matteo [Horatio, Orazio] 83


II. The Western transverse flute



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II. The Western transverse flute


1. Terminology.

2. The modern flute.

3. Other members of the family.

4. History.

Flute, §II: The Western transverse flute

1. Terminology.


Before the late 18th century, the term ‘flauto’ or its equivalent, without a modifier, almost always referred to the Recorder, evidently the dominant instrument of the two during much of their history, and sometimes specifically to the treble (alto) recorder, the most characteristic member of the family. Similarly ‘flautino’ or ‘flauto piccolo’ referred to a small recorder, a descant or even a sopranino. If, in earlier times, a transverse flute was intended, a modifier had to be added to the noun (e.g. cross, German, transverse, traversière, traverso).

Flute, §II: The Western transverse flute

2. The modern flute.


The modern flute is a tube of metal, more rarely of wood, about 67 cm in length and 1·9 cm in bore diameter (see fig.6c below). It is built in three sections fitted together with tenon-and-socket joints: a head joint with the mouth-hole or embouchure (raised in metal flutes to give the hole its proper depth); the middle joint with the principal keywork; and the foot joint with the keys for the right little finger. In the head joint the bore is terminated by a plug or stopper, usually threaded, which can be shifted to adjust intonation. The junction of the head joint with the body is also used as a tuning-slide, which can be pulled out to lower the instrument’s pitch.

The sound is produced by blowing across the mouth-hole, activating the air in the tube. The basic scale of the flute begins on d', but keys on the foot joint extend the compass down to c' and on some flutes to b. The instrument is functionally in C and thus non-transposing. It has an effective compass of just over three octaves, overblowing at the octave, so that the fingering of the first octave is duplicated in the second; the fingering of the third octave differs from the other two. Control of the sound is achieved principally by the player’s lips, and thus the embouchure is an important part of the flautist’s training.

The mechanism of the modern flute is based on Theobald Boehm’s design of 1847, as modified by 19th-century French makers (see §4(iii)); there are a number of small variations between types. Practically all have a closed G key, and they may be fitted with various trill keys, rollers and special mechanisms to enhance the instrument’s playability. Flutes with keys having solid, airtight surfaces (as Boehm originally designed them) are called closed-hole flutes; on open-hole or ‘French-model’ flutes, five of the keys are perforated so that the finger forms part of the seal. Pitch levels of the later 20th century, higher than Boehm’s, have compelled makers to devise adjustments to his specifications for internal tuning: several slightly different scales have been used, the best known of which is that devised by Albert Cooper (b 1924). Materials used for the tube and mechanism include nickel-silver, sterling silver, gold and platinum, while the springs are usually of tempered steel or phosphor bronze, occasionally of gold or another metal. The choice of material, especially for the head joint, influences the flute’s tone: wooden flutes produce a rich tone with a very full fortissimo in the lower register; metal flutes produce a limpid, flexible tone with great carrying power and also allow the player very sensitive control over the tone-colour; gold produces a mellow sound while silver is more brilliant. To achieve a combination of these qualities a head joint of wood or gold is sometimes fitted to a tube of silver.

The modern flautist is expected to be able to play a broad repertory. Distinct styles and techniques for playing Baroque, Classical, 19th-century, avant-garde music and jazz have all become part of the flautist’s training, and the well-rounded orchestral flautist must also be an accomplished piccolo player. The flute is highly popular among young people, especially girls, although there is still a high proportion of male players in some countries such as Ireland and Italy.



Flute, §II: The Western transverse flute

3. Other members of the family.


The flute with c' or b as its lowest note (sometimes called the concert flute) is the most common representative of a family of instruments of different sizes and pitches. Other sizes were developed to play various parts in consort or band music or for other special uses, some of which no longer exist. Mechanically and acoustically these variants share the history and development of the concert flute. Only the principal members of the flute family that are employed in art music are discussed here, although other types, such as the G treble of the Irish flute bands, are well-known in particular places. Military band flutes are sometimes pitched in D rather than C to match the B and E standards of brass instruments and clarinets, but these are not, strictly speaking, separate sizes.

(i) Piccolo


(Fr. petite flûte; Ger. kleine Flöte, Pickelflöte, Pikkoloflöte, Oktavflöte; It. ottavino or, more rarely, flauto piccolo). A small flute pitched an octave higher than the concert flute. It is a transposing instrument, its music written an octave lower than sounding pitch. The piccolo is fingered like its larger relative but, as it has no separate foot joint, its range usually extends down only to d'', although Verdi in his Requiem and Mahler in his First Symphony wrote for it down to c''. ‘Old-system’ piccolos were used well into the 20th century even after the Boehm-system flute had displaced other types (fig.5). The most common model at the end of the century was a wooden, two-piece instrument with Boehm-system keywork, having a conical bore and either a wooden or a metal head and a range of d''–c'''''.

In the 18th-century ‘petite flûte’ or ‘flautino’ could indicate a flageolet or small recorder as well as the piccolo, and it is thus not always clear which instrument a composer had in mind. However, the transverse piccolo was used in 18th-century France: Michel Corrette mentioned it in his Méthode (1740), and Rameau (Dardanus, 1739) and Gluck (Iphigénie en Tauride, 1779) scored for it. Since Beethoven (Egmont Overture, Symphonies 5, 6 and 9) it has been an integral part of the symphony and opera orchestra, often used for special effects. Late 19th-century composers such as Richard Strauss and Mahler made the piccolo a full member of the orchestra, integrating its sound into the orchestral colour. As parts became increasingly difficult, piccolo playing became a speciality, and by the end of the 20th century most large orchestras had a principal piccolo player ranking with the other principals. The piccolo’s brilliance is a feature of the military band repertory, and the military piccolo appears occasionally in the orchestra (as for example, in Berlioz’s Grand Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, 1840, originally for military band, which also includes third flutes in F).




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