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Seventeenth-century flutes

  Flute after Richard Haka (d1705), Amsterdam

The consort flutes of the 16th century were played chefly in the upper part of their range, and designed to blend with the other flutes in the consort rather than to stand out. But the new solo music called for instruments with a more individual character, including a stronger lower range and more of an ability to play loud and soft, like a human voice.

At some time during the 17th century makers determined that narrowing the bore toward the bottom of an instrument made its low notes stronger and allowed the second octave to be played with the same fingerings as the first. Adding a key for E flat made that note more even in tone with the rest, and building the flute in three sections made manufacture easier.

The earliest extant flutes of this new kind were made in the Netherlands (picture at left) and perhaps in Italy. But we first hear of the new flutes in the hands of musicians at the court of Louis XIV of France, where they were often played in intimate private concerts in the chambers of the king and his courtiers. Their repertoire consisted of simple folk-songs, often elaborately ornamented and performed with singers, lutes, and sometimes other instruments. The flute was thought of as a sweet, tender, and languishing instrument ideally suited to express feelings of love.

Chapter 3, "Consort and solo: the seventeenth century' of Ardal Powell's The Flute (Yale University Press, 2002) contains more information on this topic.


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