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The Internet flute gurus discuss Baroque and Irish flutes.

Irish flute


The following discussion, quoted from the IRTRAD-L list, contains further insights on the topics of Baroque and Irish flutes. A hint about the "rain barrel" joke: the story is that in the old days Irish flute players kept their instruments in rain barrels to improve the tone. Of course, the best tone would be obtained immediately before the instrument fell to pieces.


Why do Irish flutes not have an F natural fingering like on the Baroque flute, which is: xxx xox ? On an Irish flute it's hopelessly out of tune, where as on the Baroque it's not. Is it because the spacing of the holes on the Irish one gives a more 'in tune' D scale without the use of a pinkie key?


de Pougens (1753-1833), Man with a FluteIt's actually more the size of the holes which makes F natural (xxx xox) possible on the baroque flute but not possible on the Irish flute.

In the baroque period, the flute played with recorders, harpsichords and other relatively civilised instruments. The baroque flute had one key—Eb—and achieved all other chromatic notes by cross fingerings like the F natural quoted. They were not altogether successful, but a good player could "lip" them into tune.

As the baroque gave way to the classical period, additional keys were added to improve on the cross fingered notes. The "short" F key was one of them. You could still play a cross fingered F if you wanted to.

As Classical gave way to Romantic, and harpsichords gave way to piano, good Cremona fiddles had their bassbars thickened and their necks reset to be able to compete with the louder instruments and larger orchestral forces, and flutemakers made bigger embouchures and bigger fingerholes to stay in the race. The 19th century progress ethic was in full swing. The bigger fingerholes made the crossfingerings unworkable, and the four key flute was superseded by the eight key instrument, the basis of the Irish flute we know today.

Halfway through the century, Theobold Boehm invented his new flute, changing both bore and key systems again to achieve an increase in carrying power (and making rather a lot of fine old flutes redundant and thus available to Irish musicians—thank you Theobold!).

So, getting back to the original issue—the baroque flute is not all that useful in Irish music today. It's too quiet to compete with accordeons, pianos and power fiddlers and the F-sharps are too flat (which is what makes the F naturals possible). At the speed at which Irish music is taken, the player does not have time to lip up the F# and make use of the Eb key to humour it. For baroque music though, the one key flute is naturally unequalled. It is sumptuous, evocative, sensuous and thoroughly scrumptious!

Interestingly, as a longterm maker of both, the ratio of Irish style flutes to baroque style flutes I am asked to make is about 50 to 1. Says something about the vigour of the Irish music revival compared to the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) movement. Interest in flutes for classical music (4 to 8 key) is still about zero. There are not even very many recordings of classical music on wooden flute. HIP has a long way to go!

(There's more information about Irish, classical and baroque flute types on my webpage.)


On the flutes used during the baroque, both the F and the F-sharp had to be lipped into tune. This was a compromise use to allow the (very skilled) flutist to play in both the sharp keys and flat keys (and in C) on a flute with one key (the D-sharp). This is a very difficult skill to learn, and problematic at fast tempos.

By the time the flute had evolved into the early and mid 1800s, a key (or keys) had been added to give an F-natural xxx xxko, and the xxx xoo finger was adjusted to give F-sharp without (much) lipping. It is this latter group of flutes (mostly made in London and Germany) that were in use when the Boehm system flute came into vogue among the orchestral musician and gentry interested in art music. Supposedly, the older flutes (used) became available in relatively large numbers at relatively low prices, so that the folk musicians could afford them more readily. These then entered the Irish tradition in large numbers. They are still not "Irish flutes", of course, just the flutes most often used in Irish music.

Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683), Man playing the flute Since most of the tunes are played in G, D, or A, the F-natural key is not used much, and many flutes are now built for IrTrad without this (or any) keys. In addition, the intonation of the F-sharp has often been adjusted so that no lipping is needed. (On the older flutes (including the baroque flutes)—the D-sharp key needed to be open to get the F-sharp in tune (without lipping), and D-sharp key is also deleted from the keyless flutes. These newer keyless flutes are great for Irish music but not as useful for music in C or in the flat keys. Half-hole or split fingerings can't give a decent F-natural.

The smaller holes of Baroque flutes make them quieter than the later flutes. As the orchestra increased in size, the hole size (both tone hole and finger holes) was increased to make the flute louder so that it could compete against the growing number of strings and brass.

Same principle in sessions—baroque flutes can be used for Irish music just fine, but they will be drowned out at most sessions. Also, there is something about the larger hole size that helps get that woody tone that has become the norm for our music.

PS Anyone have a plastic rain barrel for my plastic baroque flute?



I manage to play traditional music very happily on my baroque flute. I seem to be able to make it loud enough to at least get by, and have few problems with intonation. I guess baroque players also played prestissimo on occasion. I can also play G minor hornpipes rather more easily than my eight-keyed colleagues.


Courageous, Peter! How do you finger the lower F# in particular on fast tunes?

Make sure the D# Key's open! Lipping is also important, but I must confess I probably do it better than I describe it. One of the nice things about playing just about any flute is the need to adjust blowing and embrouchure for different notes. The baroque instrument just needs more of it. Where it pays you back for your work is in the variety of colours it produces.


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