The history about the flute is quite interesting. I never bothered to learn about it early on. Had I been more diligent, my knowledge would have made for more personal wins at Trivial Pursuit on family game night, Jeopardy, and even Wheel of Fortune, as the respective player at home. This information is great whether you are a flute enthusiast, a history buff, or a college Music Theory student trying to put that end of term paper together.
Beginnings – The birth of the flute
To date, the oldest flute discovered is what scientists believe is the fragment of the thigh bone of a juvenile cave bear. This artifact was found to date back to around 43,000 years ago. It had two to four holes and was found in what is now Divje Babe, Slovenia. Others contend that a different artifact found in a cave in what is current Ulm, Germany, dating back 35,000 years ago is the first flute. This German artifact is also made from a bone of a vulture’s wing. It boasts of a v-shaped mouthpiece and five holes. What’s 8,000 years between friends?
The “Bear” Bones
It is common that bones from different creatures were used for many different things throughout history. Ancient peoples used all the parts of any animal used to feed their families. They were not wasteful but rather industrious when it came to fashioning the many parts of animals to use as food, shelter, weaponry, utensils, blankets, clothing, and many other items. The durability of bones made them a good source for early people. From before 900 B.C., to the late 1800s, animal bones have been put to use in the creation of many useful items, especially by indigenous peoples around the world. And, even currently in under-developed areas where indigenous peoples live off the land.
Early Uses of the Flute
The earliest of flutes could be played in two different ways. They could be played vertically, much as the recorder is played today, and also horizontally, known as the transverse position, which is the modern way to play the woodwind flute. Amateur flute players would get together as a “consort” and play their flutes together, making beautiful music. This practice would evolve into both “concert” music and “orchestra” music, where stringed instruments were joined with the flutes. These sessions would take place in the homes of affluent or wealthy and cultured people of the era.
Early uses also saw the flute used in military processes, often being used as warning signals, and marching tools as well. The flute was also used in “court” music throughout kingdoms of the early era. As the flute became engrained as a status symbol, the flute had an E flat tone added, and the flute was sectioned into multiple pieces to make it more amenable to travel. Many composers of the day including Bach, Handel, Blavet, and Vivaldi wrote melody lines exclusively for the flute.
Famous Historical Flautists
J.J. Gantz strolled from town to town in the 1700s playing mini concerts on his Baroque era flute. J.G. Tromlitz was a German flautist, who fashioned his own design, a flute with keys, and played it as well. Theobald Boehm of Bavaria realized a key design which was very complex and comprised of interlocked rods which would allow accurate fingering of notes with a more natural hand position. The flutes of today are models of the design invented by Boehme. With rescaling done by Albert Cooper in the 1960s, no other major changes to the flute have taken place.
From very humble beginnings, make no bones about it, the flute has become one of the most beautiful musical instruments in the world. I enjoy learning new things about it, and its history, as well. What is some of the flute history you find interesting? Please add comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.