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The Western Concert Family of Flutes

The term “Western concert flute” is used for present-day flutes that are descendents of the European line of flute development. This instrument is also commonly called:

  • the “C flute” (because it is typically tuned to the key of C),
  • the “classical flute” (although this term really refers to an earlier version of the Western concert flute),
  • the “silver flute” (because it is often made at least partly of silver), and
  • the “Boehm flute” ( because of the huge impact of Theobald Boehm during the 19th century).

First, we look at the historical development of the Western concert flute, and then a look a the various keys and sizes of the instruments in the family. A general reference for information on this page is [Powell 2002].

The Medieval Flute (1000–1400)

In medieval Europe, the word “flute” meant a medieval recorder. Transverse flutes made their appearance from Asia, via the Byzantine Empire, and were known first in Germany and then France. They were dubbed “German flutes” to distinguish them from the recorder and began the long process of displacing the recorder as the primary woodwind instrument ([Lander 2009] A Memento: The Medieval Recorder).

Medieval flutes had six open finger holes, a cylindrical bore, and were made from a single piece of wood. They were in use from about 1000-1400 CE.

Replica of a Medieval Flute

Replica of a Medieval Flute More information

The flute shown above is a recreation of a Medieval flute built by Boaz Berney, based on the research done by Renaissance flutist Claudio Santambroggio. The flute is patterned on an instrument in the Musikinstrumenten Museum in Berlin (Berlin Musical Instrument Museum). Santambroggio identified the flute as Medieval based on “its wide bore and thicker walls - more than on any surviving tenor renaissance flute. Another interesting feature is the grouping of its holes, not two groups of three holes, but a single group of six holes, more or less equally spaced.

The Renaissance Flute (1400–1600)

The Renaissance period brought about significant changes in flute design. They were still one-piece instruments with a cylindrical bore made of wood, but the bore became much narrower for its length and the finger holes became smaller and separated into two groups.

Recent replicas of Renaissance Flutes

Recent replicas of Renaissance Flutes More information

These design changes dramatically improved play in the upper registers, where it could be played lightly and delicately. However, there were tradeoffs in the sound of the instrument in the lower register, which was quiet and slow to respond.

There were also smaller fifes produced for military use.

Compare these flutes shown above with the Broken Flute Cave Flutes … the comparison is striking!

The Baroque Flute (1600–1760)

Another dramatic change in the flute was introduced by French instrument makers around 1670. They crafted instruments of three joints, and then four joints beginning around 1720. The Baroque flute introduced a tapered ("conical") bore that became gradually smaller at the foot end of the flute, and also at the foot end of the flute to extend the player's reach.

These changes allowed players to play in other keys (using cross fingerings), improved volume and tuning in the upper registers, and the sliding joints allowed the flute to be tuned with other instruments.

Baroque Flute by Johannes Scherer, 1722

Baroque Flute by Johannes Scherer, 1722 More information

I took a photo of this Baroque flute in the Musical Instrument Museum in Berlin on March 3, 2010. It was made in 1722 by Johannes Scherer, Museum Catalog Number 1531.

These changes in flute design coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, a movement that emphasized logic, reason, mathematics, and the scientific method over superstition and religous doctrine. These ideas would become some of the founding principles of the American Revolution beginning in 1775 and the United States Constitution that followed in 1787.

For detailed plans on four Baroque flutes in the Dayton C. Miller collection, see Baroque Flute Plans.

The Classical Flute (1760–1820)

The term "Classical Flute" refers to the historical "Classical Period" during which the composers Beethoven, Mozart, and Hayden were active. The music of the period called for orchestras, and the flute was included.

The classical flute was typically made of four joints of wood, with a conical bore and six heys:

Classical Flute, about 1800

Classical Flute, about 1800 More information

The instrument above was “stamped PARKER/LONDON and was probably made about 1800” according to Rick Wilson on his Historical Flute Page at OldFlutes.com.

While European flute makers were creating new design innovations, American flute makers seemed to focus on craftsmanship and were building flutes that were relatively conservative in design. This piccolo, by Asa Hopkins of Fluteville, CT, was constructed around 1830 but has the design and mechanisms of the Baroque design:

Piccolo by Asa Hopkins, about 1830

Piccolo by Asa Hopkins, about 1830 More information

However, another American flute maker, George Catlin (1778–1852), spent his entire career producing innovative designs.

Flutes by George Catlin, 1812-1850

Flutes by George Catlin, 1816-1850 (top three) and 1812 (bottom) More information

These flutes varied so much that, according to Rick Wilson on his Historical Flute Page at OldFlutes.com, were it not for the identifying stamp on the body of the flute, “one would never guess that they were made by the same maker” ([Saenger 2007] Rick Wilson and the "Old Flutes" Website).

Amazingly, while this George Catlin was making flutes in Philadelphia, another George Catlin was travelling around Indian Territories and is responsible for the second oldest Native American flute currently known. According to [Langwill 1993], the two George Catlins were third cousins, once removed.

The Boehm Flute

No maker had more creative influence on the present-day Western Concert Flute than Theobald Boehm (1794-1881). He was an accomplished flute player who was also a skilled goldsmith and mechanical craftsman. His steady stream of innovations, from his first flutes in 1810 to the perfection of his "modern silver flute" in 1877 not only revolutionized and standarized the Western Concert Flute, but were applied to all other Western-tradition woodwinds that are played today.

His impact was so significant that the present-day Western Concert Flute is often called the "Boehm Flute". Here is a progression of flutes from the Dayton C. Miller collection of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. that demonstrates the developments of his flutes:

Theobald Boehm Flute
Theobald Boehm Flute
Theobald Boehm Flute
Theobald Boehm Flute
Theobald Boehm Flute
Theobald Boehm Flute

Six Flutes by Theobald Boehm More information

 


The Family of Western Concert Flutes

The present-day family of Western Concert Flutes includes many sizes and keys. Here are the most popular ones plus a few unusual sizes, from high to low:

Piccolo

Range: C5 to C8

Piccolo made of Wood

Piccolo made of Wood More information

 

Concert Flute in C

Range: C4 to C7 or F7

Western Concert Flute

A Western Concert Flute More information

 

Bass Flute in C

Range: C3 to C6

Bass Flute

Bass Flute Larger image

Contrabass Flute in C

Kotato Contrabass

Kotato
Contrabass More information

Also called an Octobass Flute

Range: C2 to C5

Here are some measurement of the Contrabass flutes produced by flutemakers Kotato and Fukushima of the Ogura Flute Works (pictured on the right):

  • Full length of the sound chamber: 2.7 m (8.9 feet)
  • Sound chamber diameter: 50 mm (1.97")
  • Height: 200cm (6.56 ft)
  • Weight: 4.8 kg (10.6 lbs); 15 kg (33 lbs) with case

 


Double Contrabass Flute in C

Lowest Note: C1

Kotato Double Contrabass Kotato Double Contrabass

Double Contrabass in concert and by Kotato More information Larger image

Here are some measurement of the Double Contrabass flutes produced by flutemakers Kotato and Fukushima of the Ogura Flute Works (pictured on the right):

  • Full length of the sound chamber: 5.4 m (17.7 feet)
  • Sound chamber diameter: 80 mm (3.15")
  • Height: 240cm (7.7 ft)
  • Weight: 15 kg (33 lbs); 30 kg (66 lbs) with case

 

 

 


Hyperbass Flute in C

Lowest Note: C0 or about 16 Hertz - a frequency that is felt more than heard (20 Hertz is generally considered the low end of the range of human hearing).

 

 

 
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