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What is an Irish flute? (Part 2)

Irish flute


In this section of the document, we actually get around to answering the question!


de Pougens (1753-1833), Man with a FluteOriginally the baroque flute was a conical bore instrument in the key of D, with six rather small finger-holes and one key (E-flat). All other notes in the chromatic scale were produced somewhat imperfectly by cross-fingerings. During the late 18th and early 19th century it was discovered that the rather weak tone of the baroque flute could be improved by making the holes larger. However, this also resulted in making the cross-fingerings even more out of tune than they were before. So keys were added for the chromatic notes. The end result of this evolution was the 19th century 8-key wooden flute for which composers such as Beethoven wrote.


Around 1850 the key system was totally revamped by Theobald Böhm who designed a cylindrical bore instrument with a conical head joint. (To be more accurate, the head joint was a parabolic section.) The Böhm flute came to be made of metal (not what Böhm himself preferred) resulting in the modern orchestral flute, which is pretty loud and reasonably in tune, but was frequently criticized for having a bland tone. To counter these criticisms, classical flute players, beginning in France around 1890, started adding a wobble to their sound (technically known as "vibrato").

Böhm eliminated cross-fingerings by putting a hole for every note of the chromatic scale, sited at the optimal location on the tube, and making these holes very large. Of course, both the size and location of the holes were unsuited to being reached by the player's fingers. Instead, keys were placed in a comfortable location and connected to pads covering the holes by an axle mechanism. The mechanism was also used to solve the problem that with only 10 fingers we could not close all eleven holes required, not to mention holding the instrument at the same time. Extra keys were also added to facilitate certain awkward finger changes.

Once again, the changes in the instruments was the result of changing musical requirements. In the Baroque and classical periods, there was a concept of varying weakness and strength. This affected things like keyboard fingering, violin bowing, and so on. In the Romantic period of the 19th century, the concept emerged that everything in music should be the same: all fingers should be equally strong when playing the piano (hence a new fingering system was invented), upbows should be as strong as downbows (hence a new kind of violin bow was invented), and all keys should be equally easy to play in (hence modifications to wind instruments such as Böhm's).

Boehm flute

Needless to say, the Böhm flute was designed for equal temperament.

Of course, once the Böhm flute became available, composers began writing for its particular capabilities. It is difficult, for example, to imagine the famous chromatic scale that begins Debussy's Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune played on any other type of flute.

Baroque flute

In general, it was composers who preferred the new design rather than players. The Böhm flute allowed for the relentless modulation and chromaticism beloved of the Romantic composer. The performer's attitude is typified by the following letter which appeared in the English publication The Musical World in 1843.

Ignace Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Un morceau de Schumann, 1864 Another change that occurred in the 19th century was that music was not longer performed for a small, wealthy, aristocratic audience in a small room. Instead, it was performed in large concert halls for a ticket-buying public. The larger the hall, the most tickets could be sold. Since amplification had not been invented, the push was on for louder instruments and larger orchestras. Pianos became larger and larger. Violins were all rebuilt to increase their volume at the expense of the tone. (Since Stradivarius instruments reacted better to being rebuilt, it was at this period that they came to be regarded as the ultimate instrument. During the Baroque period, Stainer was considered the greatest violin-maker. Supposedly among the 500 or so existing Stradivarius violins, only one still exists in original form.) Another result of this trend was the preference for the higher end of the range of each instrument. Cellos began playing in the range formerly used by violins. Violins moved up into a range higher than had ever been used before.

In the flute world, the result of this trend was the increasing use of the 3rd octave. A modern classical player hardly does anything else. (In order to get still higher, the piccolo came into more common use.) This also caused difficulty with the old flutes, since not all the notes in the chromatic scale could be played in the third octave.



The Irish flute ... finally!

When the change to the Böhm flute came, all the old wooden flutes began to show up in pawn shops for low prices, where the Irish began to buy them. (In fact, it's a question whether the flute was used much at all in Irish music before this, more than the oboe, for example. [Note 2]) For Irish music you don't really need all the chromatic notes. Also, the extra holes bored in the tube for the keyed notes tend to harm the tone. So flutes made nowadays for Irish music generally follow the pattern of the 19th century wooden flutes with large holes, except that the instruments have only a few keys, or none at all. The resulting instrument, not quite a baroque flute and not quite a 19th century classical flute, is often called an "Irish flute". Since all those pawn shop instruments are now long gone, and commonly available flutes are all of the Böhm type, a small number of flutemakers, such as Terry McGee (quoted as an internet guru), have started supplying high-quality flutes of the Irish type.

Since Irish music in the 19th century was usually played in the home, where there was no need for extreme loudness, the harsh and shrill notes of the third octave were never used. [Note 3] Today, when Irish music is frequently performed in large halls, the invention of amplification has removed the need for any change in performance style from the old home style.

There was a period in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Irish music revival was beginning, when no wooden flutes were available at all. So a certain number of people began using the Böhm flute for Irish music. But in general the wooden "Irish" flute is the preferred instrument.

Nicholson flute


The inspiration for Böhm's modifications to his flute design came after a concert tour in England, which received good reviews but left him unsatisfied with his instrument. In particular he was impressed by the playing of the English virtuoso Nicholson, whose forceful playing set the pattern for English classical flutists for the next 100 years (nowadays the FrancoAmerican "international" style has more or less replaced the traditional English classical style). The Nicholson style is still preserved, however, in traditional Irish flute-playing.

There is another style of music in which old wooden flutes are preferred, which is Latin-American music. But they go for a totally different model of flute, since they mostly play in the third octave, which isn't used at all in Irish music. This is because the flute has to be heard over a fairly large ensemble of other instruments in Latin music. Therefore, Latin and Irish musicians covet entirely different types of old flutes.

Irish flute playing has a number of characteristics of style which result in a sound quality much different than is usually taught in modern classical circles. This unique sound is sometimes attributed to the use of wooden instead of metal instruments, or, by the more knowledgable, to the conical bore. However, much of this sound is in reality due to the technique of playing the instrument. This can be clearly seen by contrasting the playing of, for example, James Galway, with that of Joannie Madden of the group Cherish the Ladies. Both use a modern Böhm flute. Madden sounds like a traditional Irish player; Galway does not.

As has been mentioned, the Irish style has been influenced by the English classical school of the early 19th century. Other influences probably come largely from the piping tradition. The characteristics of this style include the absence of tongueing (note articulation being produced by the use of grace notes as in piping), the use of a strong attack in the lower register, the use of typical traditional ornaments such as long and short rolls, double-cut rolls and crans, the absence of breath vibrato as taught in 20th century classical style, and the use, as an ornament only, of flattement or finger vibrato. Playing is always legato and makes little use of volume change except as a rhythmic device. The exaggerated staccato of the classical flautist is not used, and crescendo and rubato are avoided in favour of clarity of the melodic line. In place of the strident, harsh tone used by the classical flautist, the Irish flute-player aims at a full, rich, mellow sound.


An interesting question is raised in an article by the noted Irish fluter Desi Wilkinson, published in The Companion to Irish Traditional Music . He raises the possibility that there may have been flutes in Ireland at a much earlier date than generally thought. We start with a good summary of the conventional viewpoint, summarized by the well-known Irish flute-maker Hammy Hamilton.

One reason that the availability of modern instruments patterned on 19th century models is important to the increased use of the flute in Irish music is that many of the old Nicholson-era flutes were designed to play at the concert pitch used in 19th century England, which could be as high as A=455. Although the tone of these instruments was much admired, it would be difficult play them along with fixed pitch instruments such as concertinas which were tuned to the modern standard of A=440. Although such flutes can be tuned lower, since most of them were equipped with a tuning slide, both tone and intonation suffer when this is done. A modern instrument built for A=440 is easier to play in tune and has better tone.

Although a one-octave range is not sufficient for Irish music as played today, there is a significant repertoire in Donegal coming from the píob mór (similar to Scottish highland pipes), which could be played on such an instrument. Such tunes are often played by two fiddles in octaves in the Donegal style. It's not improbable to imagine that such tunes were once common in the neighbouring counties to the east and south such as Fermanagh, Sligo and Leitrim.

Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536), Officer accompanied by four soldiers As I mentioned earlier, the Renaissance flute is frequently found pictured in military situations during the 16th century. These same pictures also frequently show Irish mercenary soldiers. It is quite possible that some of these soldiers may have brought back flutes that were copied by local artisans.

The flute may go back even further in Ireland. The medieval flute was not particularly popular in England, but it was attested on the Iberian peninsula, and it is known that many Irish travelled to the popular religous pilgrimage sites of modern Spain and Portugal. In part this may be because Irish mythology states that the Milesians, the current inhabitants of Ireland, came originally from Spain.

The Irish, then, had opportunities to encounter flutes at quite an early date. They also had an existing tradition of making fipple flutes (whistles), mostly for children. Crude side-blown flutes may have been made in the same way, based on continental models.



Note 1.

Note that Böhm's concept was quite similar to what Saxe did with the saxophone family. Saxophones basically have only a two octave range, which has caused some in the "art music" crowd to argue that they should not be considered as "serious instruments" (as though players such as Charlie Parker or composers like Duke Ellington should be considered lightweights, I suppose). Of course, saxophones have never really been accepted into the orchestra, although they form the heart of the jazz big band, where they are the equivalent of the orchestral string section. "Serious" saxophonists seem to respond by working at playing harmonics, rather than questioning the assumption that in order to be a "serious" musician you have to be able to play a tenor sax in the range of a soprano sax (rather than getting a different sax to play those pitches).

The difficulty in producing a workable bass instrument of the flute type prevents flutes from forming a complete family as can be done with saxophones, which exist in sizes from bass to soprano. (There may be contrabass and sopranino saxes too, but they are very rare.) The range of the bass recorder, for example, goes only down to the F below middle C, approximately the same as the modern alto flute. And both these are fairly quiet instruments. (There do exist larger, lower recorders than this, although they are rare, and too quiet for modern tastes.) I think the reason for this is the limitation of our lung power in causing large volumes of air to vibrate, since an organ pipe can certainly produce low frequencies using a mechanical air supply.

Personally, I'm sure they would have loved to have had saxophones in the Renaissance! The tone colour fits right in with shawms and other loud instruments that they liked then. But without Böhm's pad, key and axle system, there was no way to close fingerholes of the size needed for a sax. [Back]

Note 2.

The reason to bring up oboes is that some 18th century collections of Irish tunes specify that they can be played on the violin, German flute (i.e., transverse flute, as opposed to the "English flute", which is a recorder), or oboe. The publisher was obviously trying to maximize his target audience. While I don't know of any records of oboes being used in Ireland, they were sometimes used in Scotland. This would have been a Baroque oboe, of course. Modern oboes have been redesigned to be a lot louder. During the Middle Ages, folk instruments of oboe type were used in both Scotland and Ireland. [Back]

Note 3.

Fifes were often used in Ireland by marching bands (not just by Ulster Unionists!), a situation where more volume and high pitch might be useful. Marching bands of this type have mostly gone out of fashion in this century (except again for the Unionists). [Back]


Flute links:

Brad Hurley's A Guide to the Irish Flute is an excellent source of information.

Gordon Turnbull's The Flow site contains interesting information about the different regional styles of Irish flute playing.

The home page of Larry Krantz has the FAQ from the FLUTE list, which is mostly about the modern "classical" flute, but contains some historical information as well.

This FAQ or something very like it also appears at another site.

Larry Owen's www.woodenflute.com site, now revised and improved.

The World of Flutes site has many articles, mostly in reference to the Böhm flute, but some interesting ones include 19th century performance practice and the conical bore Böhm flute. Sample: The first flute in the premiere of Parsival in 1882 was Rudolf Tillmetz, who was playing a cylindrical Boehm flute (in spite of constant criticism from his colleagues). Wagner did not like it, saying something to the effect "that's not a flute, that's a cannon".

How does 19th C. Performance Practice differ from that of today? (from the flute FAQ site)

Rob Greenway’s Irish Flute Pages has a lot of useful information for the aspiring Irish fluter, including advice on vibrato.

Hammie Hamilton, Irish flutemaker, is also the author of the highly respected book The Irish Fluteplayer's Handbook.

Terry McGee of Canberra, Australia, (I own one of his flutes) has an informative website.

Association of the Celtic Flute

The Care And Feeding Of The Irish Flute by Mickie Zekley (Lark in the Morning).

The Chris Wilkes Flute Page. The waiting list for a flute is now six years.

The Flute Interviews with various Irish fluters.

Biography and profile of Matt Molloy, well-known Irish fluter and member of the Chieftains.

Biography and profile of Michael Tubridy, another well-known Irish fluter and former member of the Chieftains.

The Flutes Are Fun! site has an interesting collection of links.

Flute history articles and reference tools from Folkers & Powell. Tour of a flute-maker's workshop and searchable database of 18th century flutes.

Gemeinhardt Co.'s History of the Flute.

Musica Antiqua's Transverse Flute page (Renaissance flute).

Xorys: My Historical Flutes has many pictures and discussions of historical flutes.

Steven's Flute Page has a large collection of flute-related links.

Flute Research Guide from the Indiana University School of Music.

Neanderthal flutes discovered in a dwelling site dating to 85000 BC.

Flutes in the Great Leap There has been at least a dozen flutes found between the time period of 28,000 to 22,000 years ago.

Neolithic flutes dating to 9000 BC discovered in China. One is still playable (site has sound sample).




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