The Flute

    -- by Ardal Powell, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002. 347 pages

Most earlier studies of the “pedigree” of the modern transverse flute trace it back to about 1700; in contrast, this book presents a convincing and detailed history that goes back to the 12th century.

Likewise, many earlier studies focused on the instrument itself, its fingering, acoustics, and mechanisms. This volume takes more of an ethnomusicological approach since it deals with sociomusical questions such as: What kinds/classes of people played each earlier flute type? Who listened? What was the repertory? How was the music transmitted? How did function, status and aesthetics differ with each instrument type? More common concerns such as the historical development of the instrument’s tuning systems and sound-producing mechanisms are also examined, but within a broader context.

About sixty illustrations, photos and transcriptions are scattered throughout the book, including color reproductions of paintings used for iconography study. Though probably not familiar with Olsen’s model1 for research and analysis of ancient music cultures, Ardel makes some use of the model’s four elements: music archaeology (pp. 12-13), iconology (much of Chapters 1 and 2), history (the whole book), and ethnographic analogy (especially playing techniques of the transverse flute in contemporary India, which is appropriate since India is thought to be the source of the transverse flute).

Concerning history, the author concludes that the transverse flute probably originated in India and came to Byzantium around the 10th century. Then around two hundred years later during the medieval period, it was introduced into Europe.

One fact that surprised me was the early use of the flute as an “instrument of war.” In the 15th century, Swiss soldier squadrons were winning victories left and right, in part because of the effective signaling system of the fife and drum corps. This system spread throughout much of Europe, introducing the transverse flute even further afield.

The instrument gradually became popular in royal courts as well. For example, Henry VIII of England possessed 77 transverse flutes, including some of lacquered ivory and of glass, while a court in Germany in 1589 had no fewer than 220 transverse flutes (and only 39 viols). Sets of flutes tuned to play in different keys became popular especially in France, and four-part flute ensembles appeared in Italy in the early 16th century. Around the same time, the flute also came into favor as a chamber music instrument among the aristocracy, bourgeois and “noble amateur” musicians of both sexes in parts of Europe.

Of the book’s fourteen chapters, ten deal with the flute’s “classical age” between the 17th and the 20th centuries, and this material receives a comprehensive treatment. I found Chapter 12 to be fascinating, as it records the large impact of recording technology on styles and aesthetics of flautists in various countries. “Within a few decades of the first high-fidelity recordings, previously distinct national fashions of playing had dramatically altered and begun to merge together into a new, recognizably modern shape.” See pages 227-28 for an interesting chart that contrasts musical elements such as rhythm, vibrato, phrasing, and intonation in terms of orchestral flute aesthetics before and after World War I.

The use of the flute in the “early music revival,” which began in the latter half of the 19th century, receives an entire chapter. To the astonishment of us today, the music of J.S. Bach was regarded at that time as “incomprehensible” by many people in Europe and America and “suitable only for snobs.” Since his works are now regarded as “divinely-inspired masterpieces” by most, this is a clear example of how musical aesthetics, public taste, and regard for a composer shift over time within a society.

Though not a flautist, for a long time I have paid serious attention to contemporary flute music, the subject of the book’s final chapter. I was impressed that there are several good pages on avant-garde flute music by artists such as Robert Dick (my favorite). There are a few pages on flautists in jazz. Most of it is on the mark, though the six words about Paul Horn have been outdated for more than a decade. Again, I am impressed that Rhonda Larson, another personal favorite but unknown to most people, receives a glowing 37-word description. On the downside, I am disappointed that the book gives only one sentence to flautists in rock music, though the author did pick the most important one, Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull.

“Folk flute favorites” such as Matt Molloy (with The Chieftains from Ireland), Jean-Michael Veillon (who plays a new Irish-Breton style), and Chris Norman (who plays tunes from Nova Scotia and Scotland)—all of whom play wooden flutes—receive notable mention, as do various makers of such flutes.

The volume closes with an excellent 51-page set of bibliographic essays (which point to many other good study resources) and chapter endnotes, followed by an index.

The only thing I really miss in the book is an overview of the flute in other cultures. This could have been immensely helpful to the average flautist who may have had little exposure to non-western flute musics. The best example of such an overview is in the “Flute” article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001 edition, volume 9). The article begins with a great 5-page “international overview” section by Jeremy Montagu. Ardel’s book would have benefited from the inclusion of such material, even though it falls outside the precise parameters of the book’s focus.

Among other goals, this book seeks to reconstruct the lengthy history of the modern flute more accurately than has been done before. According to the author, there are popular books on the market (as recently as 1996) which contain “an alarming number of new and inherited errors of fact and analysis.” We are grateful to Ardel, a professional flute maker and accomplished performer as well as a prolific author (one of several who wrote the lengthy New Grove “Flute” article), for setting the record straight in this very readable volume, billed as “the ultimate guide to the heritage of the flute.”

1Olsen, Dale. 2002. Music of El Dorado. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. Reviewed on p. 17 of this issue.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

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