Quick question: What is the oldest extant musical instrument in the world? If your answer is flute, you are right. The flute, of course, is the oldest extant musical instruments we know. Paleolithic people, for example, made use of a rudimentary form of flute with hand-bored holes. The oldest ones found dated back to 43,000 to 35,000 years ago.
Earlier historical indications of the use of flute were recorded in Egypt, Greece, and China. The flutes used then were fashioned out of wood. However, the earliest dated flute use was around 900BC, as shown on China’s cave walls. The Romans, however, were also known to use a flute-like instrument.
Flutes During Pre to Post Roman Empire Period
There were pre-Christian portrayals of the use of the flute in the Roman and Greek artifacts. Additionally, the Etruscan reliefs from the second to third centuries also showcased a flute-like instrument. The Etruscan illustrations, however, depicted a cross-like flute. The following centuries up to 200 AD did not indicate any innovation in the flute. During the fall of the Roman Empire, the flute seemed to have faded to oblivion.
The Middle Ages Flutes
Flute reappeared in Europe in the 10th and 11th Centuries. From Byzantium Empire, however, the flute began to be introduced back to Europe. By the 14th century, the flute had wholly made a comeback in Europe, particularly in the non-Germanic European States like Spain, France, and Flanders. Hence, we could have some extant pictures of the flute from Western Europe’s various regions.
By the 16th century, the flute had become very popular on the Italian musical stage. These flutes are simplistic in design, with a stopper at one end, along with six holes and a blowhole. They also came in different sizes.
By the 1600 century, the middle-sized flute pitched in D was very popular. However, this type of flute lost its appeal in the first half of the 17th century. This loss of appeal was due to the violin and other instruments’ popularity.
Then, Jean Hotteterre made some innovations in the flute in 1670. He changed the flute’s body design into three pieces: a body, a foot joint, and a head joint.
The Evolution of the Modern Flute
Despite the humble flute’s antiquity, it was only in 1847 when it underwent a radical transformation. The German instrument manufacturer, Theobald Boehm, showcased at the Parish Exhibition a revolutionary type of flute. His flute came with a metal tube with many keys attached.
Compared to the earlier flutes, Boehm’s flute made it easy to get a note. Boehm’s instrument dramatically improved the flute as it overcame the limitations of the old flute. With his significant innovations, he essentially modernized the flute.
Theobald Boehm was a Bavarian goldsmith. He was also a flutist and a composer. Thus, he was better positioned to innovate the flute and create the very first modern flute.
From 1821 to 1831, Boehm made several concert tours across Europe, sometimes using his flutes made from his Munich workshops. When he visited London in 1831, he made an experimental flute that came with a new mechanical means for fingers to control holes beyond the fingers’ reach.
The following year, he again innovated the flute with his ring-key flute. Many prominent Parish performers took up the new flute. Later, it was officially adopted by Brussels Conservatoire.
The cylindrical Boehm’s flute solidified its status at the influential institution of the Paris Conservatoire when Lois Dorus, an early advocate of Boehm flute, became the Professor at the Paris Conservatoire.
Moreover, the French makers modified the Boehm flute. It was later made the official instrument of the Paris Conservatoire. American workshops also began to adopt the French pattern. Soon after, the French design became the standard form of all modern flute.
The innovations introduced by Boehm had also been applied to other woodwind instruments with different degrees of success. His ideas also contributed to the enhancement of various musical instruments like the music boxes and the pianos. In the mid-20th century, the flute further evolved its tone and intonation.
The contemporary flutes come in a wide variety of designs. You will see fipple flutes that include the whistle, gemshorn, Recorder, flageolet, tin whistle, fujara, tonette, and ocarina. Moreover, you will also encounter many side-blown or transverse flutes like the Western concert flute, fife, piccolo, bansuri, and dizi. There are also end-blown flutes like the ney, kaval, xiao, shakuhachi, danso, quena, and Anasazi flute.
Whatever flute you may be playing or possessing, one thing is sure—if you know how to play the flute, you will always be ready to entertain other people with your flute playing skill. Moreover, you will always have a ready audience if you play the flute well.