The Renaissance Flute

University of Houston Student Project by: Lilia Gamez



An increasing interest in early music these days has carried over into the realm of the Renaissance flute. The Renaissance flute is a unique instrument and very different from the flutes of the later years. It looks extremely simple, but has certain characteristics in common that are much different than the flutes of any other period. Although the flute is traditionally known as a folk instrument, the transverse flute was not mentioned in European writings before the middle ages._1_

When the flute was mentioned in Renaissanace years, it could mean a different number of things. Originally, the word "flute" was used all over the continent to mean all flute-like instruments. This included the recorder, as it was known in England. To help continental musicians distinguish between the two instruments, different names were applied to each. Names for the recorder included "flute," "flauto dolce" in France, "flauto" or "flauto dritto" in Italy, or "Flote" or "Blockflote" in Germany. The transverse flute was called the "flute de allemagne" in France, the "fiffaro" in Italy, and the "Querflote" or "Zwerchpfeife" in Germany._2_ This paper will examine the Renaissance transverse flute of European descent. The Renaissance flute is considered to be the transverse flute that existed in Europe between 1500 to 1670

The history of the Renaissance flute begins in Germany. By the 12th- century the flute had become a popular German aristocratic instrument used to perform with the minnesinger fiddle. In the 14th century its popularity expanded west of the Rhine river into France. Machuat included the transverse flute in a list of instruments in La prise d’ Alexandrie, calling it a "fleuste" or "fleuthe traversaine et flautes dont droit joues guand tu flaustes" (in other words... transverse flute or flute you play upright when you are fluting)._3_The Germans became so strongly associated with the transverse flute that it became known in England as the German flute and in Spain as the "flauta alemana."

By the late 15th- century the flute was still considered to be a novelty in Ferrara. This may be one of the reasons why there is little documentation for the flute in 14th century Italy._4_One authority states that "the surprising absence of flute from 15th- century northern pictorial sources suggests that there is no justification for its use in say, Franco- Flemish polyphony before about 1480."_5_

There are not too many Renaissance flutes available for study so information about them is limited. Information about them is gathered from iconography, inventories, the instruments themselves, descriptions of their use, and musical treatises. With this in mind, not very much is known about the exact dimensions of the Renaissance flute before 1500. Based on paintings of the time, it must have looked very much like the 16th- century flute. This included a one-piece cylindrical wooden instrument, made of boxwood, cross-blown and with a bore of approximately 19mm in diameter. This flute was usually stopped by a cork on one end, and contained six finger holes that were placed according to the anatomy of the hand, rather than by acoustical principles. None of these western flutes contained a thumb- hole before the 1830’s. The mouth-hole was circular, elliptical, or rectangular with rounded corners. The mouth-hole was also undercut so that the opening on the outside surface of the tube was smaller than the one on the inside._6_

[addtional photos]

Iconography of the Renaissance flute is rarely found in pictures of the 15th- century, but they are more frequently depicted in the 16th- century. These pictures show that the flute had two general purposes as a: 1). military instrument, 2) chamber instrument. There is not much knowledge available as to how the two types differed from each other. Some hypothesize that the outside instruments had wider bores and odd tuning. But others suggest that these outside instruments probably had a narrower bore so that it would be easy to play in the higher register and would produce a more piercing sound.

Thoinot Arbeau, author of Orchesographie printed in 1589, remarked that the fife’s bore had the diameter of a pistol’s bullet giving it a very shrill sound. In his treatise he included two model pieces for the fife. These pieces were intended for outdoor use, and only specifically for the 16th- century military flute. Later authors such as Praetorius and Marsenne indicated that the military flute, and the flutes used for chamber music used different fingerings. Praetorius also noted that the range of the military flute was smaller than that of the chamber flute. Since documentation for the chamber flute is more prevalent; the rest of this paper will focus on this type of flute._7_

By the mid 16th- century the flute had developed into a shrill military fife in Germany, while in France it remained used as chamber instrument. These French chamber groups played in groups of four, and tended to play the instrument more musically._8_ In Germany, the fife combined with a drum would be the leading German military instrument from the end of the Crusades to the 20th- century._9_

The 16th- century chamber flute had a playing range of d’ to a’’’ with the third octave being difficult to play in tune. The notes of the second octave were overblown using the same fingerings as the first, except for d’’, which used a vented first finger hole. The natural scale of the flute was D Major, with several notes requiring difficult cross-fingerings. The F was better in tune in the second octave than in the first._10_Unfortunately the transverse flute could not be tuned to any other instrument because it was made in one piece. This problem was solved by building flutes in several different pitches. This is probably the reason why a large number of flutes in different sizes are listed in court inventories of the Renaissance. In the 1576 Stuttgart inventory there were 36 flutes listed._11_

Most of the technical information that can be gathered about the Renaissance flute come from three primary sources. These are treatises by Virdung, Agricola, and Praetorius. In 1511, Virdung was the first theorist to examine the flute. His Musica getutscht und ausgezoge contains a picture of a "Zwerchpfeiff". Later, this type of flute was labeled strictly as a military instrument in Germany.

After Virdung’s discussion of the flute, a more significant one was made by Martin Agricola. He discussed the flute in detail in his 1528 Musica instrumentalis deutsch. The treatise was written in verse form and was based on Virdung’s. The difference was that this source was intended to be educational instead of scientific. Agricola was the first to mention the flute family, which came in three sizes. He however, pictured a family of four, including two flutes in D in his 1545 edition. Agricola suggested that the flute family should be purchased in sets so that matched pitch could be easily attained. He also mentioned that the flute should be played with vibrato. This was the earliest record concerning this type of ornamentation.

The flute in D is the direct ancestor of the modern-day flute. It was used both as the alto and tenor part in the flute family. The other two flutes in the family were pitched a fifth above and below the flute in D. This resulted in an interval relationship of a ninth. Although this was an unusual interval, it did not cause problems because the top part often included leading tones or sharps at cadences. The bass part on the other hand, contained most of the flats in the part._12_

The third major source of information about the Renaissance flute is found in Volumes II and III of Syntagma Musicum, written by Micheal Praetorius and published in 1618. The work was phrased in the vernacular and it was intended mainly for musicians, and instrument makers. Volume II discussed musical instruments and included a table for wind and string ranges. Eventually, a series of scale drawings that included the flute were issued in 1620.

Praetorius also described a flute consort in his treatise. The consort included two trebles in A (each twenty inches long), four alto-tenor flutes in D (thirty inches long), and two bass flutes in G (forty-five inches long)._13_ These measurements cause an inconsistency, if these are indeed the correct measurements the bass flute measurements are closer to the pitch of a flute in F rather than G. Praetorius also seemed to suggest a flute family in F-C-G instead of G-D-A when he suggested that flute music be set in dorian, hypodorian, and hypoaeolian modes, and should be transposed down a step for a flute consort. In doing so, this would place the modes in an excellent range for a flute family in F-C-G. If the same suggestion would be followed using a G-D-A flute family, this would result in a B flat in the A flute part which is a near impossibility. It would also result in an E flat in the tenor part in D. Exactly why these inconsistencies are present are a mystery, but it was a widely accepted fact in those days the flute was a transposing instrument._14_

It was in the years 1636-37 that Father Marin Marsenne gave the first drawings precise enough to determine the actual dimension and size of the renaissance flute in his Harmonie Universelle. This treatise also contained the earliest known fingering chart for the flute. The treatise was written in French and, was obviously the work of a mathematician and scientist since it contained "propositions" and "corollaires" instead of chapters. During the Renaissance era, the instrumentation of pieces were rarely fixed. Decisions concerning how a piece was to be performed were made on the availability of instruments, and according to people’s tastes. The flute was at the time utilized in very diverse ways. Some of the works written for flute included: German songs published by Georg Foster, various pieces for mixed ensembles by different German and Italian composers, solo ricercate by Virgiliano, and works written for the English consorts. _15_

The earliest surviving music marked specifically for the chamber flute is found in Attaingnant’s "Vingt et sept chansons musicales a quatre" published in 1533. In this collection, each chanson was designated as either a recorder, flute consort piece, or a piece that could be played by both consorts. The pieces designated for the recorders and flutes usually had no flats and used notes that would also go well with Praetorius’ G-D-A flute consort. There are some chansons that contain G sharps and B flats. These pieces would not be used with a G-D-A consort, but could be certainly used with an F-C-G consort. _16_ Since the two inner parts shared the same range, it is assumed that the flute consort consisted of a standard alto, two tenors, and a bass.

These particular chansons display a high tessitura for the flute. The range of the top part goes from f’ to d’’ with some notes going occasionally to a high f’’. The tenor’s range is between a g to an f . The bass part rarely goes down below a b flat. The bottom notes of each instrument are rarely used. For the most part, the musical line is carefully centered around each instrument’s most resonant range._17_ The flute was also utilized in mixed consorts, often playing an inner part up an octave.

The top part was usually played by a violin or mute- cornett. Praetorius made many suggestions as to how a flute should be used in a mixed consort. He suggested using the flute in large, multi- chorus, sacred works. A special type of this mixed consort occurred in England. Here the flute played with a violin, lute, cittern, pandora, and bass gamba. In this consort the flute played the alto part up an octave. In common practice music this is would not be the norm since the flute would actually be playing higher than the melody line. This marks a unique characteristic of the music of the time, and it brought out other aspects of the composition._18_

As far as the style exercised when playing the Renaissance flute, not much is known. For greater details of style, more general vocal and instrumental treatises have to be analyzed. In the Renaissance era, the voice was considered to be the ideal instrument, therefore a singing style should be practiced. Unfortunately, it is not known exactly what the authentic Renaissance singing style sounded like. The information of style must then be selected from theoretical sources and from the music itself. From these sources it is gathered that the two aspects of style most important to the flautists of the time were articulation and the art of diminution ._19_ Diminution was the art of ornamenting and embellishing music. Improvised ornamentation was an integral part of Renaissance performance practice. This was something that needed to be cultivated when playing the music and flute of the period._20_

In addition to ornamenting and improvising music, flautists did other peculiar things. During the Renaissance era, it was customary for instrumentalists to perform in animal costumes in musical celebrations. In 1468 at the wedding banquet of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, there was a record of four wolves playing a chanson on four flutes. The performance of this chanson creates a revelation because it occurred more than fifty years before Attaingnant’s printing of his chansons. This helps support the idea that even though treatises did not mention it, 15th- century motets were being performed instrumentally._21_

More information about the Renaissance flute can be gathered from surviving collections of the instrument. The flute was considered to be beautiful instrument in its time and was often viewed as a collector’s item. One avid collector of the instrument was the Academia Filarmonica of Verona. In 1569, the Academia listed a case of five flutes, another complete set of five flutes, and two other incomplete sets. As time passed, the interest in this instrument grew. By 1628, the inventory included 51 flutes, the most numerous of all the instruments. The Academia still exists today and maintains the largest surviving set of renaissance flutes despite the fact that not many of these instruments survived the ravages of time. These instruments include: 5 Italian tenors in C, and four bass flutes in F (A=450). The collection also includes two flutes in F and C by Claude Rafi of Lyons, one of the best known early makers of the flute. Both of these instruments are tuned to A=410 since the French pitch at the time was generally almost a tone below Italy’s._22_

At this point in time there was no international standard pitch level. The pitch varied from place to place, and church to church. In his Syntagma musicum, Praetorius wrote that in several Catholic areas there were two pitch levels present. The Kammerton was used for table music and other convivial occasions, and the Chorton that was a whole tone lower, was used for church music. Flutes usually preferred to play in the lower of the two pitches (A=410)._23_

Filadelfio Puglisi, a scholar interested in surviving Renaissance flute collections has assembled a list of forty-three instruments found in museums of today._24_ The most important collection discussed earlier, is the Academia’s located in Verona. Other locations include Antwerp, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Graz, Bologna, Milan, Meran, Linz, New York, Rome, St.Petersburg, and Basle. Most of the flutes available are tenors and basses. Few of the chamber instruments that were smaller in size still exist. This may indicate that the smaller flutes were used less in Italy, or that they gradually fell out of use, or maybe that the survival rate of the smaller instruments is lower than that of the larger instruments._25_

Through Puglisi’s examination of the existing instruments, several characteristics shared by the majority of the flutes were observed. For example, most of these surviving flutes have mouth-hole that is ovoid with the long axis across the flute and rotated slightly clockwise. Secondly, the walls of the have a more or less cylindrical bore that tapers on the outside from the mouth-hole, the thickest point, to each end. Thirdly, the holes of all these flutes are grouped into two sets of three with the spacing between the first three being more or less exactly like the spacing between the bottom three. However, according to Agricola the player could choose whether to play with the left or right hand closer to the embouchure hole. A fourth characteristic shared is that the tenors distance from the upper end of the flute to the mouth-hole is more or less equal to that between the last finger-hole and the lower end of the flute. A fifth characteristic is that the ratio of the speaking length of a tenor instrument to the diameter of its bore lies between 30 and 33. The ratio for the bass flute is somewhat lower. The sixth and last characteristic shared is that due to thin walls, flutes of the renaissance are very lightweight. The tenors weigh from 90 to 170 grams depending on the type of wood used to construct them._26_

By the end of the Renaissance era the transverse flute had become a firmly established instrument in Europe. It was particularly used as a consort instrument and not as a solo instrument. It was in the musical era that was to come, the Baroque, that the flute developed as a popular solo instrument as well.

[listening example]

Georgio Mainerio (1535-1582) La Parma, Source: Il Primo libro de balli a quatro voci, Venice 1578