Translate this page into  
Translation by GO! Network

Music score

What is an Irish flute? (Part 1)

Irish flute


Suite101 Featured Site

Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683), Man playing the flute This page was getting so long, I've split it into parts. It seems to be turning into a sort of history of the development of the flute. The "Irish flute" has its own place in this long history, of course. If you want to, you can avoid all the history and just skip ahead to the simple answer about the Irish flute.

The following pages have been pulled out and set up on their own. They are also referenced at the corresponding point in this page.


When Krishna plays the flute the whole world is filled with love. Rivers stop, stones are illumined, lotus flowers tremble; gazelles, cows and birds are entranced; demons and ascetics enchanted. (Bhagavata-Purana)


Is there such a thing as an "Irish flute"? And if there is, where did it come from? The full story leads us to explore a number of historical trends and changes in what is expected from musical instruments. In particular, I've quoted from the noted European conductor and theorist Nikolas Harnoncourt. He states that a particular style of music (Baroque, say, or Irish traditional) functions much as does a language. One component of such a language are the instruments used. In classical music circles, this view is referred to as "historically informed performance".

Traditional music is not unaffected by changing trends in art music. The use of readily available instruments from the much larger classical marketplace is an important factor. The modern violin and bow, for example, seem to fit the needs of the traditional fiddler. However, in order to speak the language of traditional music, they are used with techniques much different than the norms of 20th century violin technique (which features a wide constant vibrato and the use of higher playing positions rather than lower, for example). Frequently, the language of traditional music preserves the usage of classical music from centuries earlier. The flute is a particularly interesting example, because traditional flute players have gravitated to a particular historical period, the early 19th century, as providing the optimal instrument for their needs. One interesting question is whether there was any native tradition of flute playing in Ireland before this period.

I also quote (in translation) the key figure in the development of the modern flute, Theobald Böhm (or Boehm for people who don't have umlauts), who published in 1871 a classic book summarizing his life's work. Interestingly, his opinions are not what many in the modern classical music world would expect. And he even had a good word for traditional Irish and Scottish music!



Renaissance flute


Medieval and Renaissance flutes were cylindrical tubes. On these instruments the higher octave was not in tune with the lower. So generally flutes were made in families of differing sizes. A number of Renaissance instruments had only a one octave range, such as crumhorns, bagpipes, etc. These instruments were normally used as part of a group. In this period, recorders were much more common than flutes. One of the first descriptions was given by Martin Agricola in his Musica instrumentalis deudsch (1529).

The following is a sample composite fingering table for Renaissance flute (fingering tables from the period vary substantially). The pitches are given an octave lower than the sounding pitch, i.e., the notation is the same as abc notation, not the way most music books (such as those quoted below) give it. The irregularities of the fingerings show an attempt to correct the intonation; nevertheless, in additional to this, the performer was required to compensate the intonation to a much great extent than on an instrument of the Baroque period or later.

Renaissance Flute Fingering (Agricola/de Fer)

D E F F# G G# A Bb B c c# d e f f# g g# a bb b c' c#' d' eb' e' f' f#' g' g#' a' bb' b' c'' d''
6
5
4
3
2
1
6
5
4
3
2
-
6
5
4
3
-
1
6
5
4
3
-
-
6
5
4
-
-
1
6
5
-
3
2
1
6
5
-
-
-
1
6
-
4
-
-
1
6
-
-
-
-
1
-
-
4
3
2
1
-
-
-
-
-
1
-
5
4
3
2
1
6
5
4
3
2
-
6
5
4
3
-
1
6
5
4
3
-
-
6
5
4
-
-
1
6
5
-
3
-
-
6
5
-
3
2
1
6
-
4
3
2
1
6
-
-
3
2
1
-
-
4
3
2
1
-
5
4
3
-
-
-
5
4
-
2
1
6
5
-
3
2
1
6
5
-
-
-
1
6
-
-
-
-
1
6
5
4
3
-
1
-
-
4
3
2
1
-
-
4
-
-
-
-
5
4
3
2
1
6
5
-
-
2
1
6
ø
-
-
-
-
-
-
4
-
2
1
-
5
4
3
2
1

Now you might ask, if cylindrical Renaissance flutes were out of tune between octaves, why is a cylindrical bore whistle in tune with itself between octaves? I'm afraid the theory is a bit beyond me. But as I understand it, it has to do with the relationship among the diameter of the tube, the thickness of the tube and the size of the fingerholes. A whistle has a fairly thin tube and large fingerholes. If you scale a whistle up so it sounds an octave lower, in flute range, it would be difficult to scale the fingerholes by the same amount, because they would be larger than your fingers. Also, if you made such an instrument out of wood, you would have to use a good thickness of wood or it would be too delicate. Such were the problems facing the old flutemakers. (Also, it has to be said, many whistles are not really in tune between octaves.)

Looking at modern instruments, the modern cylindrical Böhm flute has thin metal walls and very large holes which are closed by a key mechanism, not directly by the fingers. We have conical bore whistles, such as those made by Clarke and Copeland, which have a characteristic breathy tone. We also have low whistles, played in the same range as the flute, which are made with thin metal walls, and are notoriously cranky instruments to play, although they have been turning up on a lot of recent recordings, usually supplied with copious amounts of reverb. Now back to the flute …


At the beginning of the baroque period it was discovered, some say by one Jacques Hotteterre (this is a topic of debate), that by giving a conical taper to the bore of the flute, the second octave could be brought in tune with the first. This suited the new needs of the baroque composer, who had given up the old polyphonic ensemble style for an accompanied melody style, which needed a wider range of notes from a single instrument. Thus began the decline of the recorder and the ascendancy of the flute.


Baroque flute




Kells head Go to the traditional music instruments index page.

BookGo to music encyclopedia directory


Hearth Go to The Standing Stones home page

Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)


Background on this page from Xorys historical flute website. Used by permission.

Stonehenge border


STANDING STONES is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a federal service mark. Unauthorized use of this mark for performing live or recorded music, or providing music-related information over the Internet, in interstate commerce in the United States, is prohibited. For full details on the activities covered by this mark, consult the US Patent and Trademark Office database.