Concert Flutes by Paul Cranford

Flutes belong to a larger family of instruments known as woodwinds. Unlike other members of the family such as whistles and recorders, which are held vertically , the wooden Irish flute of today, modeled after the mid-nineteenth-century concert flute, is part of a larger family of transverse flutes. All evolved from simple keyless bamboo and bone flutes.

Over the centuries, as music became more sophisticated, instruments had to follow suit. During the Renaissance, flutes had a straight, cylindrical bore and small sound holes. The music they played was mostly limited to hexatonic scales (no semitones or major & minor scales). In the early baroque period, chromatic notes (semi tones) became possible as 'cross fingering' techniques developed - but this was somewhat cumbersome. As baroque flutes became accepted as solo instruments, they were required to respond faster, sound louder and be able to play in tune in many different keys. To increase volume, both the bore and the sound holes were enlarged. The larger holes made cross-fingering difficult so various padded keys fashioned out of metal and springs were added. During the same period, makers discovered that conical bores helped correct intonation problems while maintaining richness of tone. Another innovation of this time involved instruments constructed of multiple interchangeable sections. This allowed different scales and temperaments to be played on one instrument.

During the early 19th century, as the classical era commenced, the concert flute generally had 6-10 keys and was made in 3 or 4 sections. It was made of a very dense wood such as cocus, boxwood or African blackwood, and had a conical bore coupled with a cylindrical head-joint. Sometime during the 1830s, Theobald Boehm, a German musician and instrument maker, visited London and was inspired by the virtuosic playing of Charles Nicholson. Theobald returned home and eventually reinvented the flute to make it more playable for modern trends. To increase volume, he reverted to a cylindrical bore in conjunction with a conical head-joint. To play more in tune, and to quicken the response, he refined the keying system. Nickel-silver, silver and gold gradually replaced wood as the material of choice. To his credit, after perhaps 50 years, the entire classical world switched to Boehm system flutes.

Before these new Boehm system flutes took over the classical world, wooden concert flutes were desirable, but generally too expensive for folk musicians. In traditional circles, pipes and whistles (FLUTES - from pg. 1) were cheap and popular. Both of those instruments are keyless. The open holes allow the use of various finger movements for rhythmical embellishments etc. The concert flute, with its six open finger holes, and without a modern Boehm mechanism, while limiting the number of keys possible to play in, makes a piping style possible and natural. Fingering is more-or-less like a big tin whistle and transition to this classical flute wasn't difficult. Flutes made in London about 1850 were some of the finest ever built. They became plentiful and proved well suited to Irish music. These quality instruments of the mid 19th century, cast off in favour of Boehm's modern innovations, quickly found new homes amongst folk players. Within a couple of generations, influenced by piping, fife and whistle traditions, an Irish style emerged. It is a fluid, robust and percussive way of playing.

For nearly 150 years, in Celtic circles, there were enough instruments to go around. However, with the explosion of interest in Irish music which started in the 1970s, it came time for new instruments to be built again. Several quality makers have emerged around the world. Most have copied the traditional designs from the classical period (by English makers such as such as Rudell and Rose etc.). Aficionados find the acoustic balance between fiddle and flute to be a near-perfect blend (listen to Father Quinn & Rev. Hastings on Slan le Loch Eirne - for more info., go to pg.5 ). For band or dance playing, or even noisy sessions, amplification is often necessary. This has inspired makers such Seattle's

Peter Noy to refine flute designs further. Peter's experiments with the head-joint have dramatically increased volume. Amongst others, his instruments are played by Michael McGoldrick and Stewart MacNeil (of the Barra MacNeils).

Traditional music played on wood flute sounds like no other. Played in folk circles today from Baluchistan to Brazil, from Ireland to Cape Breton, it is hard to think of a place and time without flutes.

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