A brief history of the transverse flute – its journey and evolution from 7th century Asia to Renaissance Europe.
A couple months ago, I watched a video from Early Music Seattle from their ‘Deep Roots‘ lecture series. The organization’s director brought his Renaissance lute for a show & tell, alongside a Turkish oud player and musicologist, and they discussed the history and evolution of their respective instruments. Turns out, despite their different musical styles, these instruments are not only related but surprisingly similar. Their discussion was fascinating – but the director also admitted that he hadn’t learned any of this in school, and said that discovering it later in life gave him a deeper understanding of his instrument.
As I listened, I realized I’d never learned about the origins of the flute in music lessons either. Most of what I know about ancient flutes came from studying anthropology, and I know more about prehistoric bone flutes than the evolution of my own instrument. It’s hard to trace the exact history of the transverse flute from a time period before written records became common, but here’s a brief rundown of what I was able to dig up about the modern history of the transverse flute.
India and China have some of the oldest archaeological records of flutes, and while both countries have transverse flutes made from bamboo (the bansuri and dizi, respectively), each has a unique construction and performance traditions. In India, the flute is associated with the god Krishna and is also used in Buddhist meditations.
Buddhist monasteries served as waypoints and guest houses along the Silk Road, which became more accessible in the 7th century thanks to stability with the Mongols. Flutes were relatively small, portable instruments, and migrated westward with missionaries and traveling folk musicians. After traversing the plateau, travelers eventually reached Baghdad in the Arabic Empire. This was the dominant trade and intellectual center of that time. It was a huge center for scientific progress, knowledge, and technology during Europe’s Middle Ages, attracting travelers and scholars from all over the continent.
Passing Through the Middle East
The type of flute most commonly used in Arabic music is an end-blown ney (which is also a relative of the Egyptian flute, another ancient civilization with archaeological evidence of flute-playing). However, in Pamiri (the corner of present-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China), there’s a side-blown flute made of wood or bone that’s believed to be related to Asian transverse flutes. That suggests Silk Road travelers interacted with people from this area, and shared instruments if not musical ideas. The ney was typically used as a melody instrument in Arabic folk music, most commonly played in small ensembles or accompanying the human voice. This sounds similar to settings for wind instruments from early western European secular music, despite the differences of tonality and structure.
Continuing along the westward trade routes, we enter the Byzantine Empire. The earliest depiction of flute playing in Byzantine art is found in the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul. However, the central trading hub was Constantinople, a city positioned as a gateway connecting Europe and Asia. Stability in the Mediterranean region around the 10th century allowed trade to flourish, and Italian merchants in Constantinople facilitated trade with western Europe. It seems logical that flutes would sail across the sea with travelers and merchants then spread outward into Europe. Unfortunately, this was before the printing press, and only a small snapshot of records from bards and troubadours was preserved centuries later. We see more evidence of the transverse flute begin to appear in the 12th and 13th centuries in manuscripts like the ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ (Iberian Peninsula), the ‘Hortus deliciarum’ (Germany), and writings of the minstrel Adenet le Roi (France).
Flutes became more widespread across Europe during the Renaissance. Transverse flutes were commonly called fifes or “German flutes” to differentiate from recorders, which at the time were much more common and also called “flutes.” These instruments were carved from a single piece of wood with a cylindrical bore, thick walls, and a set of six finger holes.
Later in this era, flute-makers began to apply some innovations we’d recognize today, like thinner walls and a conical bore for better stability and projection. Fifes were commonly constructed in sets (because there was not yet standard tuning) to be played as a consort ensemble with a descant, alto, tenor, and bass. When accompanying a singer, they provided the tenor voice. Fifes primarily functioned as an ensemble instrument, like in the setting of the air de cours below. Genres of folk music, court music, and theatre were just starting to evolve into the styles that we now recognize as Baroque music.
I won’t go into the Baroque era much, since this brings us back into familiar territory. But there are a few things I’d like to note: Opera was having a big boom in popularity, which led to a rise in music featuring virtuosic solos. New technological advances allowed the transverse flute to mimic the human voice with more accuracy and flexibility. Flute-making innovations also allowed flutists to compete with violinists, and flute solos commonly borrowed from violin music.
Further innovations allowed for better projection and a bigger range. As a result, the transverse flute began to overtake the recorder in popularity and has become the predominant member of the flute family in western European art music ever since.
Last year, I took a class in Performance Studies to learn more about human socio-cultural interactions through the lens of performing arts. The session on globalization left me wondering: if intercultural performances are the norm, how does this relate to Western classical music? Our music borrows from many diverse influences, but traditional academic curriculum rarely acknowledges this.
When I started researching transverse flutes, many Western sources seemed to suggest the instrument mysteriously appeared around the 10th century. The exception was one brief mention about flutes from the Byzantine Empire, and I only connected the dots thanks to a class about the Silk Road I took while studying anthropology. However, many resources about the history of Asian flutes do discuss the instruments traveling west along the Silk Road. So why don’t we??
Flutes are one of the world’s oldest instruments, and found in diverse cultures all across the globe. But out of 60,000 years of flute history, our several hundred years of strong, metallic virtuosity are just a recent blip. In order for Western classical music to survive, we need to make our music more accessible to more diverse audiences and musicians. But in order to do that, we must first embrace our own diversity and give proper acknowledgement where credit is due. We wouldn’t even have flute music as we know it without intercontinental trade, the intercultural sharing of ideas, and encouraging the synthesis and development of new innovations. And as a flutist, every time I pick up my instrument is a very humbling reminder of those connections.
Check out this video for the episode of ‘Deep Roots, New Branches’ that inspired this post 🙂
I can’t find my old book about the Silk Road, but did find some interesting info in the book ‘Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration’, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. If you’re interested in travelers and explorers from ancient to modern times, from all around the world (not just the West!!), check this out!