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Historical flutes as folk instruments

Types of flute that have become obsolete are not always thrown away or salted away in collections. Some remain in use in folk music styles for which they have become the 'traditional' type.

The best-known example, the so-called 'Irish' flute, is a model that was popular and relatively expensive in early 19th-century England. It seems to have first entered Irish traditional music, joining the fiddle and Uilleann pipes, about a century later, when its market value had fallen almost to nothing.

Irish players value the Nicholson-type flute's strong tone, especially in the first octave, but they generally don't use its keywork, preferring the effect of fast finger movements on the open holes. They tend to play in the keys of D and G rather than the flat tonalities such as F, B flat, and E flat, the original makers and players enjoyed.

A Nicholson-style 8-keyed flute, a model still favored by Irish traditional musicians

The Cuban charanga, an orchestra of piano, strings, vocals, flute, and percussion, traditionally uses a wooden five-keyed flute of the type commonly imported into South American countries from France during the 19th century. Today's musicians modify their antique instruments to help them play in the extreme high register, where Charanga flute parts usually lie. The modern flute is also sometimes used in Charanga Orquestas.

Go offsite Read more about the history of Charanga music at the Latin American Folk Institute

Take a look at how the Louis Lot-style Boehm flute became the standard model for modern flute manufacturers whose early 20th-century customers wanted to sound like Paris Conservatoire flutists. Hasn't the old Louis Lot flute become the 'traditional' flute of the modern orchestra in just the same way as the Nicholson flute is the traditional Irish flute, or the 5-keyed French flute the traditional Charanga instrument?

Ardal Powell's The Flute (Yale University Press, 2002) contains more information and reflections on flute-playing traditions of many kinds.

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