Tutti Fluti

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Transverse or Cross Flutes

These are so-called because they are held transversely across the player’s face, and are played by blowing into a hole in the side of the tube, the embouchure, near the stopped upper end, ‘the head’, or near a stopper inserted further down the tube to aid the balance of the instrument.

They seem to have originated probably in India, where they are a common attribute of Krishna, an Indian deity as an avatar of Vishnu. Another possible origin is in China, though it seems more probable that they travelled there from India. Thence they went on into Japan where they became important instruments in the court orchestras from the sixth century CE onwards, or even before.

What appears to have been their earliest appearance on the peripheries of Europe is in Petra in Jordan and in contemporary Hellenistic and eastern Roman sites such as Halicarnassus, all around 100 BCE to 100 CE, both of which I published in Early Music. Thereafter there seems to be no further trace until the eleventh century or so in Byzantium. Intervening evidence may yet be found, but at present there seems to be none, so that we can only assume that there was a second revival of interest from the east. Even after the appearance of these transverse flute in the Byzantine manuscripts, there still seems to be no European evidence other than one bronze vessel cast in the form of a centaur from Hungary, blowing a very short transverse flute about the size of a B-flat treble band flute, until we reach the Cántigas de Santa Maria in late thirteenth-century Spain, with one example illustrated there.

It seems likely that the transverse flute was still little used or appreciated, for it appears very seldom in mediaeval iconography. One appearance is in the Bodleian Library’s great copy of the Romance of Alexander of around 1340, which was illuminated in Flanders and which I described in an Early Music article. Another is on the Crozier of William of Wykeham which must date close to 1366, at which date he was appointed to the see of Winchester, and which again I published in Early Music. Both of these appear to have been one-offs, both the size of our modern concert flutes, as were the Byzantine and earlier examples, with no other parallels found so far in the iconography.

Slightly earlier are the portraits of the German Minnesingers in the great Mannesse Handschrift in Heidelberg of around 1330, where several transverse flutes appear, but these are all short instruments, between B-flat and F band flutes in length. Similar flutes appear in the carvings in Cologne Cathedral, but I have not seen relevant literature on these carvings, for while some of the Cathedral is mediaeval in date, most is from the nineteenth century, and to which period the relevant carvings belong I do not know – they seem so similar in style to those in the Mannesse manuscript that I am a little suspicious.

When the transverse flute does more commonly appear in Europe is with the Swiss and German mercenary soldiers of the late 1400s onwards, when we begin to see soldiers carrying flute cases on their belts, with compartments for flutes of different lengths. We see them, too, played both left- and right-handed in The Triumph of Maximilian, first published in 1526. This is also when the pipe and tabor for marching units began to give way to the fife and drum (and perhaps when military units began to march in step). Thoinot Arbeau describes this in great detail in his book Orchésographie of 1589. It is clear, too, that this is when the transverse flute began to come into European civilian life again, for we have the famous series of paintings of the ‘Ladies of the Half-length’, which date from around 1530, in which respectable-looking young ladies appear willing to play an instrument that otherwise belongs to the rough soldiery.

Even so, the transverse flute seems not to have become really respectable – in the Baroque period the ‘flute’ always meant the recorder – even for Bach and Handel, the transverse instrument was always specified as traversa, flauto traverso, fluste d’allemagne, traversiere, and so on. Even as late as the early nineteenth century we meet the English term of German flute to distinguish it from the recorder.

What made it respectable was its use at the French court and above all it becoming the favourite instrument of Germany’s king, Frederick the Great – if he could play it, then so could anyone else even if they didn’t have the benefits that he did of Joachim Quantz as his tutor and Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach as his court composer, and Sebastian Bach writing his Musical Offering for him, which includes a Trio Sonata for flute.

The earlier European transverse flutes were simply wooden tubes with a cylindrical bore and one hole for the embouchure and six slightly smaller holes arranged in two groups of three as fingerholes. We have many examples of these, especially in the Accademia Filharmonica in Verona. Their major improvement came in the court of Louis XIV in Versailles at the hands of the Hotteterre and Philidor families, who built the flute with a lowest pitch of D, a wholetone above middle C, and divided the instrument into three main pieces, a cylindrical head joint with the embouchure, a small link piece often of ivory, a body with the six fingerholes slightly tapering in bore, and a foot joint carrying a single key closing another hole for the lowest E-flat. From then on the history of the traverso (as it is called ungrammatically today, for the noun is feminine ending in -a and only acquires its masculine -o when used adjectivally with the masculine noun flauto) is so well known and described in so many books that it is unnecessary to go any further here.

Returning to where we began, the classical Indian flute is made of bamboo, much thicker than the small instruments that appear in Oxfam and similar shops, and about the same length as our concert flute. It has the six fingerholes that were standard in almost all transverse flutes until the Hotteterre modifications.

The Chinese transverse flute is similar, though rather lighter, again much the length of our concert flute or a little less (as distinct from the small ones available in the larger Chinese groceries) but it has more holes. Counting from the head we have the embouchure, then two or three inches lower a hole which is covered by a thin membrane made from the inner skin of a bamboo, then a few inches lower again the six fingerholes, and close to the foot two holes at the back of the tube through which a tassel is tied so that the flute can be hung up when not in use. Sometimes there may be one or two tuning vents between these tassel-holes and the lowest fingerhole. The membrane vibrates when the flute is played and adds a sweetening buzz to the sound. But what is important is that there are the conventional six fingerholes and not, as one sometimes reads in a museum catalogue, ten or twelve fingerholes – the Chinese have no more fingers than we do.

The Japanese transverse flutes of the Gakaku orchestra and the Noh plays are shorter and some of them thicker, with six oval fingerholes with either a ridge of the bamboo between each hole or a ring of thin strips of bamboo to help the fingers fall into place.

Transverse flutes appear in a few other places also, in New Guinea for example, with the long sacred flutes described among the Harmonic Flutes in a separate paper in this series. But there are shorter flutes in Papua New Guinea about a metre long with a single fingerhole, and even shorter ones, a foot or so long of bamboo, and very much wider, up to three inches in internal diameter, without fingerholes but closed more or less with the palm of the hand over the open end.

Another is in the Honduras of the bulge of South America which have just one wide hand-hole in the side, which again is stopped to a greater or lesser extent to produce different pitches.

Other areas, for example among the Toradja people in Celebes (now Sulawesi), are where we find transverse flutes today, beautifully decorated in the traditional styles, but these were introduced by German missionaries in the late nineteenth century.

Of all the many styles and flavours of flutes in the world, the transverse were among the rarest of all worldwide until the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century adoption of our European band and orchestral instruments.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018