Ever wondered what the origins of the modern flute look like? Ever wondered if Bach would have enjoyed writing for a modern flute? Surely, he would.
However, a survey of historical flutes reveals the beauty in their peculiarities.
Here, we'll take you back in time to the Baroque flute, and examine its similarities and differences from the modern concert flute.
Before we begin, let’s watch this excerpt from Rachel Brown’s lesson on the Baroque flute, available exclusively on tonebase Flute:
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Without further ado, let’s hop into our analysis of the Baroque flute.
The modern flute
People have asked Rachel Brown whether or not Bach would have enjoyed writing for a modern flute.
She is convinced that he would have, given his ability to engage with practically every instrument available to him. She believes Bach loved the flute of his day, and had he known the modern concert flute, he would have written for it in a unique style that only it could offer.
The modern concert flute, invented by Theobald Böhm in the 19th century, has a small taper at one end of the head joint, and the body of the flute has a uniform diameter throughout, creating a cylindrical bore.
It has 12 evenly spaced holes, one for each note of the chromatic scale. In terms of acoustics, this produces a very even scale.
Therefore, a passage in E major can have exactly the same color as a passage in E-flat major.
The baroque flute
The baroque flute, however, is constructed differently.
The head joint starts straight and gradually tapers towards the end of the instrument. Unlike modern flutes, the bore constantly changes in diameter and is not the same for each hole.
There are only eight holes, and they are not equal in size or spacing.
While playing a chromatic scale, one can hear the differences between the cross fingerings on the instrument, where some holes are open, and others are closed, producing inherently softer and weaker notes.
Although some notes on the flute may be weak or mellow, the stronger notes do not necessarily need to be played in a more mellow way to match them. Depending on the key in which the music is played, the combination of weak notes changes, and it is important for the musician to adapt accordingly.
With a historical flute, music in E-flat major would not sound the same as E major, because the strong notes occur in different places within the scales.
The images above show examples of the instruments Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Telemann would have used. They wrote very deliberately for this instrument, choosing keys that would result in the tone colors they envisioned.
While modern instruments offer more flexibility concerning sound and tone, richness and authenticity can be found in exploring the Baroque repertoire with historical instruments.
By being guided by the affect built into the music, the character of the dances, the different keys, and the real spirit of the era, players can truly bring this music to life.
Pitch exploration on three baroque flutes
Let’s explore the pitch between three different flutes.
Today, pitch has been standardized to A440 so musicians can play together easily anywhere in the world. Modern musicians tend to play Baroque music at 415, one semitone lower than A440.
However, in the 18th century, pitch was never standardized, so Brown brought three flutes to showcase the variety that would have been present in different regions.
From London to Paris to Berlin to Italy, one could hear very different pitches, making studying the period all the more fascinating.
In her lesson, Brown performs two excerpts on each flute: the opening to Bach’s E minor sonata, and Vivaldi’s Gardelino Concerto.
First, let’s start with the middle flute, pitched at A415 (sounding one semitone lower than a modern flute).
This flute is a modern reproduction of a flute made by Carlo Palanca in the second half of the 18th century. This particular flute was made by Martin Wenner, a German flute maker.
The second flute (pictured below left) is a copy of a Scherer, a flute maker of whom very little is known, even the location of his workshop.
However, the original flute made by Scherer is a very fine instrument. The copy used by Brown is made by Rod Cameron, a Scotsman who now lives in California.
The Scherer copy produces a deeper sound as this flute is pitched another semitone lower, with the A at 392, a whole tone below the modern pitch. This characteristic gives the instrument a wonderful depth of sound.
In fact, it is the instrument Brown chose to record the Bach E minor sonata. For the more lively Vivaldi piece, it sounds more full-bodied.
The third instrument (pictured right) is made by Fridtjof Aurin, a German flute maker in Düsseldorf.
It’s a copy of a Venetian instrument by Castel, which was pitched one semitone higher than the Baroque pitch (roughly equal to modern tuning).
It’s a significantly smaller instrument compared to its larger counterparts, making it a bit easier to play. This is most likely the one Vivaldi would have heard during his time.
The inspiration to play Vivaldi's music on this instrument came from an unexpected source.
One day, Brown heard a group of goldfinches singing in her garden. The very delicate tweeting that she heard was a revelation to her, and she was determined to find an instrument that would produce a similar sound in the high register. Bach’s sonata, however, sounds a bit thin for her on this instrument.
There you have it, a basic overview of the differences between the Baroque flute and the standard concert flute.
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