The Concert Flute

By Siobhán Ní Chonaráin

Like most instruments on which Irish music is played the concert flute originated elsewhere.We are referring here to the transverse flute i.e. the flute which is “side-blown”. Obviously the history of “fipple flutes”, the forerunner of the whistle, recorder and flageolet group of instruments, goes back further in history giving the more simple structure of the fipple principle. (In a fipple based instrument the sound is produced by the player’s breath being directed along a wind-way to strike an edge known as a lip whereas in the flute the air is directed against the opposite edge of the hole, which is called the cutting edge).

Early Types of Flute

Renaissance flute
Known in Europe before the 17th Century and it is the simplest form of side-blown flutes. It is a parallel bored wooden tube with six finger holes, made in one piece. There were various lengths to cover different pitches, some semi-tones were available by cross fingering and the range of notes was just less than two octaves.
The Baroque flute
The end of the 17th Century in France saw major revolutions in the design of the flute. The instrument was now made in three (or flour) pieces so pitch could be changed, also the tapered bore was developed leading to the improvement in tone, tuning and response. The key of D major was chosen for the new flute. The results were that the volume and range of the flute was increased, tone and tuning improved and the flute became fully chromatic with the use of one key and cross-fingerings (Jacques Martin Hottetterre). This new one-keyed or baroque flute took over from the Renaissance flute around 1680 and remained essentially unchanged for the next 100 years.
The Classical flute
The development of the 8-keyed flute from the one-keyed version took place in a very short space of time, the keys introducing more accurate chromatic notes. Such flutes also had a tuning slide. In 1847 Theobald Boehm produced his “ultimate” instrument completely changing the bore and having made the holes to an acoustically correct size, designed a sophisticated mechanism by which all the holes could be controlled by the fingers. This flute became the standard instrument for classical musicians and very quickly keyed pre-Boehm system flutes, having been discarded by orchestra members etc. became available to those playing folk music. These are the older flutes, which one most commonly meets today and on which many new flutes are based, Prattan, Rudall and Rose - Nicholson, Wylde, Prowse and other unmarked English or German flutes.

The Flute Playing Tradition in Ireland

It is important that in considering the flute playing tradition in Ireland that one gives serious attention to the existence of fife playing tradition as fife and drum bands were very popular in certain areas of the country and many of these areas coincided with areas which we now associate with a very rich tradition of traditional music.The existence of these bands meant that instruments were available and many of the “great” flute players of old started on their musical “paths” with the local fife and drum band.

It is not possible to give a description of all the influential flute players but the importance of Tom Morrison and John McKenna as the “dominant” flute players of the `78 recording era in America renders their inclusion in this article to be appropriate. When one thinks of regions that have a tradition of flute playing the following areas come to mind: South Sligo/North Leitrim, East Galway, South Fermanagh, East and West Clare, South Leitrim and West Limerick.