The flute is an instrument which is traditionally made of wood, or more commonly, metal and belongs to the Woodwind instrument family. It is played by blowing a stream of air over an opening on one end of the instrument and is held to the side. It’s pitch is changed by a players fingers covering circular holes, also known as tone holes (there are typically 16 tone holes on a flute).
Like the oboe (another woodwind instrument) the flute is constructed of three parts – the ‘headjoint’, the ‘body’ and the ‘footjoint’.
The name ‘flute’ first became used in the English language in the 14th century. It is believed to have derived from the word ‘floute’ which first entered the English language in the middle ages.
Today a musician who plays the flute is known as a ‘flautist’. This name cam about in the 18th century with its origins being Italian.
Throughout history flutes have been used and mentioned widely across a range of times, locations and religions. It is believed that the oldest flute (found to date) is from around 43,000 years ago from eastern Europe. Flutes (or an instrument resembling what we believe to be a flute) from the past have been found to be made of bone/wood, and with between 2 – 5 holes.
In the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries it was very uncommon to see the flute in Europe. During the medieval period the popular instrument in was the recorder, which some consider to be the flutes predecessor. The flute was first introduced in to european society in the 14th century, when it came over from Asia during the Byzantine Empire. It was first introduced in Germany and France, known as ‘the German flute’, it wasn’t till a century later that it became popular across the rest of Europe.
In the late 15th century flutes saw a revival in the form of military renewal in Europe. The Swiss army used the flute as a form for signalling and in turn helped spread the popularity of the flute across the continent.
Flutes were used in the 16th century and began to feature in court and theatre music. Following the 16th century, flutes began to be included in chamber ensembles (classical music which was composed for small groups of instruments).
During the Baroque period the flute was redesigned to resemble the form we recognise today. During this period the flute was also used in orchestral music as well as chamber ensembles. The Baroque era showed the flute in a new light and it became an instrument that was included in scores of opera, ballet and chamber music, with more composers writing music for this instrument (including Vivaldi, Bach and Handel). While these composers wrote the music, more musicians took up learning the instruments (although not as their main instrument – most of the time musicians would play the Oboe or another Woodwind instrument as their main).
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a rise in the popularity of the flute, with musicians playing it as their main instrument and it being used in orchestral music, featuring symphonies and concertos.
Traditionally there are between 2-4 flutes in an orchestra. They can be found in the Woodwind section of the orchestra which is situated centre stage, opposite the conductor. A musician who plays the flute is call a flautist, and just like in other sections there is a main/principal flautist. The flute is the only instrument in the orchestra that blends with every single other instruments. It is the perfect background instrument and its sound is considered to be ‘magical’.