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Arts >> Comparison of Baroque Flute and Modern Flute
A comparative study of the use of the baroque and modern flutes in composition, with specific reference to – Sonata IV for flute and continuo by J.S Bach, and Sonata for flute by Hindemith
The baroque, or transverse flute is of great interest to me, mainly because of my own flute playing experience. I have always considered the baroque flute a much softer and more beautiful instrument, and it is because of this interest that I have decided to carry out my investigation upon the differences between the two flutes, particularly in composition. The first part of this will be a look into the development of the baroque flute, as it is my main focus, and what its capabilities were for composition. Then I will compare the flutes, following that, looking at the pieces chosen, one written for a baroque flute, and one for a modern flute. From these, I should be able to obtain some conclusions about the differences in composition for both flutes.
The earliest record of a flute is in a ninth century BCE Chinese poem Shih Ching, but the first pictorial evidence of a transverse flute comes from the second century BCE, found on an urn in Italy. The transverse flute developed from the recorder, and during the baroque period, there were four main flutes in use – treble, alto, tenor and bass. Each of them were pitched a perfect fifth apart (apart from the alto and tenor, which were very similar), and they had a range of around two octaves. Because the bass flute had such a weak sound and small range, it was usually replaced by a sackbutt. The tenor flute – the predecessor of the baroque flute has the most surviving copies. It was first noticed to have the range of the female voice by Michael Praetorius in 1619,
“ Certain instrumentalists are of the opinion that the pitch of the transverse flute (and the recorder) is that of a true tenor. Yet if one plays this note against an organ pipe, then it is in fact a true treble.” (De Organographia, p21)
Flutes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were made by boxwood, but more elaborate and expensive flutes made from ivory or ebony were also available. In 1660, Quantz added the D# key, as the 7th hole was too far from the 6th for fingers to reach. The most important change in the seventeenth century was the shape of the flute. In the sixteenth century, it was cylindrical, and by the eighteenth century it had become more or less conical. Addition of more keys was a slow process, as many professional players resisted the change. The reasons for resistance were that the keys make more slurs impossible, they leak, and although they were useful for solos, the orchestral parts were too easy to require them. By the beginning of the ninteenth century, flutes only had six keys, and eight fingerholes. The flute was still made of wood, with the keys being of brass. However, within 20 years, in 1820, two more keys had been added.
Hotteterre played a large part in the development of the transverse flute, and in 1707, published his book ‘Principles de la Flute Traversiere’. In this he showed how to distingish between enharmonic notes, such as F sharp’ , F sharp’’, C sharp ‘’’, G flat’, G flat’’, and D flat’’’. He showed how notes with a flat are actually higher than those enharmonic equivalents with a sharp. He based intervals on compromises, his octave only had twelve notes, rather than using the pureness of the major 3rds in all keys, as had been done before him.
Before the seventeenth century, all music for the transverse flute was played an octave higher than it was written. In the seventeenth century, instrumental music was becoming more widespread, but the flute remained largely ignored, and instead had to make do with violin or oboe parts. Quantz said of his first flute lessons in 1719 –
“ we only played fast pieces, for this was my teachers great strength … At that time there were few pieces that had been specifically written for the flute. On the whole one made do with oboe and violin pieces, which one adapted as well as one could” (Marpurg, Historisch – kritische Beytrage zur Aufnahme der Musik, Berlin, schutzens Witwe 1754, i, 209-210)
The recorder possessed sonatas by Jaques Paisible (c1650 – 1721) by 1698, but flute sonatas only began to surface from 1715, the first by Johann Christian Schickard. In 1727, Robert Woodcock (in London) published concertos for wind instruments with strings and basso continuo. He was followed by Vivaldi, who published 6 concertos in Amsterdam in 1730.
The obvious difference between the baroque and modern flutes, is that the material for the baroque flute is wood, and the modern is metal. The baroque flute also is conical, so the end that is blown into or across is wider, while the modern flute is cylindrical. The production of sound is basically the same, though the baroque flute requires less breath, and responds to the breath slowly, resulting in pear-shaped notes, with mellow tones that blended with each other and with the strings. Fingerings outside of the D major scale were incredibly difficult, and were often out of tune. The pitch was adjusted by turning the flute away from the mouth, as with the modern flute, and also by the embouchure, and by control of breath. On the baroque flute there are 2 different sets of accidentals, as previously discussed with reference to Hotteterre (paragragh 4). The modern flute was designed with equality in mind, and also with attention to ease of fingering and tuning – as modern composers require. However, with this gain of equality, the flute lost the quality of the difference between the sounds of each tonality.
The baroque flute was capable of 2 and a half octaves, instead of 3 octaves for the modern flute, and the upper notes were softer than the lower ones, another difference between the flutes, the modern flute’s notes all have equal importance. This however, is not a downfall of the baroque flute, as it was interesting to hear the texture produced by this difference in strength of notes. Because the notes were so soft, the dynamics had to be built into the melodic line. Another outcome of the soft notes was that the flute was only able to add colour to an ensemble rather than be a soloist.
Composers gradually became aware of the sound of the woodwind instruments being so unique, and began to write specific parts for them, so that they gained more individuality. As orchestras grew in size, and concert halls also grew larger, a much louder sound was required, which was not a quality of the wooden transverse flute. This led to the introduction of metal for the material of flutes, which enabled them to become much louder, as required. However, with this change of material, the unique rich, rounded sound of the baroque flute was lost. The introduction of keys enabled players to explore tone colours much more and also made the sound of the instrument much smoother. This also meant that chromatic scales became much easier and equal. The flute gained many qualities that were and are useful and necessary for modern composition, but in the process lost many qualities which contribute to the character of the baroque flute, and which I consider make it so beautiful, so there were as many losses as gains resulting from the changes. The flute blends less well with the strings, and the contrast between tonalities that was so dramatic, either dark and closed or bright and open, was lost also.
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