The history of the flute

by Anja Weinberger

The development of the musical repertoire using the flute as an example

What is it actually like with our literature? Every time it had its instruments, every instrument had its possibilities. On the other hand, music is not always created for a specific instrument, but is sometimes simply born in the composers’ heads. Or is it? On the basis of my instrument, the flute, I make my way through the centuries. And I believe that history is not so different from the history of other instruments.

“As one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, the flute has throughout its long history always combined the power of the archetypal with the magic of its inherent versatility.” One can hardly express this better than Mirjam Nastasi.

According to Greek mythology, the goddess Athena discovered the flute. And since then, the thousand-year-old instrument with its mythical and magical significance has developed in ancient cultures to the flute of today. In our time it now fills its protagonistic role in music.

As a divine attribute in Pan and Krishna, as a gift from the muse Eutherpe, as a legendary instrument of seduction, as an aristocratic status symbol in Frederick the Great and as an amateur instrument of the emerging bourgeoisie – the flute has always produced its sound directly through breath and diaphragm. Unlike all other wind instruments, it sounds independently of a reed such as the oboe, a funnel such as the trumpet or a nuclear fissure such as the recorder. The flute’s sound is created directly from the air stream through the breath and the diaphragm, and this is where this seemingly unique connection between the human soul and sound comes from. Similar views appear in numerous historical sources only in connection with the human voice.



At least since there have been upright people, there has been music. The oldest flute finds are over 40,000 years old. However, we are mainly interested in the music that began with the writing of notes approximately from the 9th century onwards, developed into a real polyphony in the 12th and 13th century and, with the minnesong and the music of the trecento, led to Renaissance music. This is exactly where our excursion begins. A good introduction, because it is precisely at this time that the first great wave of instrument development in Europe can be noted. In addition to the further development of the medieval instrumentarium, many new instruments suddenly appeared.

From now on shawms, dulcians, trombones, natural trumpets, the cornett and also a transverse flute sound alongside the viola da gamba, the lute, the psalterium and some percussion instruments. Ottaviano Petrucci invented the printing of notation around 1500, collections of dance pieces were created and the first writings on music theory and instrumentology were written. Many of the Renaissance instruments have disappeared over the course of time, but some of them can certainly be regarded as direct predecessors of our instruments of today.


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Finally, the Renaissance is replaced by the Baroque era. Around 1600, this almost monumental triumphal procession began in Italy. One or two things already look familiar to us now. Words like “continuo” or “monody” are in the room. Recitatives and arias join together to form the first operas, oratorios and cantatas. Composers whose names we still know today step into the limelight: Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643), for example, in Italy, but also Heinrich Schütz, born in the then Principality of Reuß, in present-day Germany, and somewhat later Jean-Baptiste Lully, Dietrich Buxtehude and Henry Purcell. Soon Bach (1685 – 1750), Handel and Telemann saw the light of day. And finally, under the leadership of Georg Philipp Telemann, a cross-border unification of the different regional styles will culminate in the Late Baroque.


What was on the repertoire and programs at that time?

One can only speak of a truly independent flute repertoire from about 1700 onwards. France initially took over the leading role – as a counterpart to Italy, so to speak. For it was there, in Italy, that the violin began its rapid ascent at precisely this time. And so it is that the earliest written flute music comes from Hotteterre (1674 – 1763), from Loeillet, Couperin or La Barre. Most of them are suites in the instrumentation flute/general bass, played on the wooden transverse flute with a single key at most.

And now a first plug-in for those who want to know more…

What does basso continuo actually mean?

The basso continuo or basso continuo forms the foundation and harmonic framework below the melody line. It is notated in individual notes with one or more numbers placed underneath it, which indicate to the player which chord is to be played. The basso continuo can be played by an organ, a spinet, a lute, a harpsichord, a guitar or a harp, in short: by a harmony instrument. Normally the bass line is amplified by a bassoon or a cello. This creates this peculiar situation of a duo of three. Also in the trio sonatas with B.c. 4 musicians play three voices.

Shortly afterwards, the first real solo concerto for flute and strings is written. It was composed by Michel Blavet, who had previously written many sonatas in the Italian style. In Italy, a remarkable tradition of flute concertos and chamber music has developed. Vivaldi in particular, but also Pergolesi, Popora, Vinci and Sammartini wrote extremely virtuoso and beautiful-sounding flute music at a very early age.

The first great phase of flute music now begins. The many German princely houses with their court chapels made it possible for numerous top-class instrumentalists and composers to “earn” their living with music. Now the form becomes more diverse. Multi-movement suites and sonatas are in the majority, but also single-movement fantasias and caprices can be found. Hotteterre left us the first real solo works. They are called “L’art de préluder” and are short, cadenza-like and very free – quasi notated – improvisations. Much more often than today, the music was composed at that time for a particular occasion and thus also for a particular musician. Accordingly, the content of the respective work is often oriented towards the place of performance and the eloquence of the musician.


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And here in Germany? Johann Sebastian Bach has presented us flutists with 7 wonderful chamber music sonatas, a Partita for solo flute and several trio sonatas. They all form the center of the flutist’s now already quite large library. Handel and Telemann also composed a lot for the flute, the latter especially his “12 Fantasies for Flute alone”, which represent a milestone in literature. Telemann also wrote such fantasies for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord alone, which still appear frequently in concert programs today. The flute was also often used as an obbligato instrument in cantatas and oratorios. The step to an orchestral instrument is imminent.

What is an “obligatory instrument?

Usually such instruments appear together with the singing voice. An obbligato instrument takes over a second solo voice for a set time, which plays around the vocals, competes with them and supports them. “Obligatory”, i.e. “indispensable” or “independent”, also means that the voice cannot be left out under any circumstances. For in the Baroque era, one was more flexible with the accompanying instruments – depending on the situation and the musicians present.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787) was finally one of the first composers to integrate the flute into the orchestra. Some time later, it was impossible to imagine the orchestra without the flute, and the composers of the Mannheim School (1747-1777) provided it with much solo and chamber music literature. But one after the other…


We are in an interesting time. Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann (to name only two of many) lead baroque music to an overwhelming climax. And then suddenly the “sons’ generation” appears and wants to do everything differently. Some composers like Quantz, Friedrich II and Benda used the technically somewhat improved flutes to introduce a new virtuosity into their compositions. And the Bach sons and other composers such as Johann Gottfried Müthel, Anna Amalia of Prussia and Johann Stamitz clearly show that we are on the way away from the Baroque and towards the pre-classical period. The gallant style and shortly after the sensitive style are taking over.

Due to further progress in flute making and the special interest of some rulers in the flute as an instrument, a great deal of new literature was created during this period. I must urgently point out Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s (1714 – 1788) flute music. Not only did he compose many sonatas for flute and obbligato harpsichord, no, above all we are enthusiastic about his “Hamburg Sonata” for flute and B.c. and his solo sonata in A minor.

The flute, like the clarinet, the piano and the harp, is one of those instruments that became what we know today relatively late. In the history of flute making there have been several turning points which have been accompanied by improvements in technical feasibility and playability. Important names are Hotteterre (see above), Quantz and especially Theobald Böhm, who will revolutionize flute making in the early 19th century. Until then it is still quite a long way to go at the moment …

But not only Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz contributed to the flutist library at the court of Frederick the Great. Among many other composers such as Benda and Agricola, the king himself and one of his sisters also composed eagerly. From Anna Amalia of Prussia there is in our music cabinet a very beautiful and demanding sonata in the spirit of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.


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In Mannheim and Schwetzingen at the court of Karl Theodor of the Palatinate, Johann Stamitz and his colleagues also composed a large number of flute concertos, sonatas and chamber music works. During this time, the new genre of wind quintet (flute/oboe/clarinet/horn/bassoon) also emerged. Anton Reicha and Franz Danzi provided this instrumentation with music for the first time, which is still frequently and gladly played today.

Meanwhile, the flute quartet, that is, four flutes, has also been formed. Again Anton Reicha has to be mentioned, because his playful and entertaining D major quartet “Sinfonico” is known by every flutist. Until the 21st century this instrumentation has been discovered by many composers and is also so interesting because in recent times the secondary instruments piccolo, alto and bass flute can be used with pleasure and to the enthusiasm of the audience. Especially beautiful quartets were written by Friedrich Kuhlau, Florent Schmitt, Eugène Bozza, Marc Berthomieu, Jaques Castérède, Mari Miura and, most recently, Tina Ternes.

Just as popular is another instrumentation of the flute quartet: namely flute, violin, viola and cello. This is basically a variation of the string quartet, in which one of the violins is replaced by a flute – this was also popular with oboes and clarinets at the end of the 18th century and is still popular today. The most famous quartets of this kind are probably by Mozart, but also Cannabich, Danzi, Devienne, Reicha, Rossini and many others will compose for this beautiful and well-balanced instrumentation.

Meanwhile our music cabinet is really well filled.

And thus we have arrived at the classic. Although today’s most famous classical composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (1770 – 1827) all wrote chamber music, Mozart was the only one who also composed two solo concertos for flute and one for flute and harp. Of the composers Stamitz, Danzi, Hoffmeister, Pleyel, and Boccherini, who were at least as well known in their time, there are several concerts and a great wealth was provided by composing flutists such as Francois Devienne and August Eberhard Müller. Probably the best known and most beautiful Devienne concerto is Concerto No. 7 in E minor. The composing instrumentalists are still around today and the more complicated the instrument, the more often they appear. Especially in guitar and harp music, the proportion of these composers is very large. The most famous representatives of these two instruments are probably Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Rodrigo, Robert Nicolas Charles Bochsa, Francois-Adrien Boieldieu, Elias Parish-Alvars and, surprisingly for many, Niccolò Paganini, who played the guitar as well as the violin and composed a lot of guitar music.

Why do you say solo concerto and solo sonata? Yes, really confusing. Because only a solo sonata represents what one suspects at first glance: an instrument plays without any accompaniment, i.e. solo.

But a solo concerto is basically the exact opposite. This is because it involves the instrumentation of orchestra plus single instrument. The individual violinist or flutist or pianist stands or sits in front of the orchestra and makes music in dialogue with it. And because this instrument is just one, and because the large orchestra consists of many instruments, the name solo concerto or simply concerto for piano (or violin or flute) has become established for this form. Not everything that becomes established in linguistic usage is also logical.

Interesting things are also happening in the field of chamber music. The simplest version besides the solo sonata is the duo. Very often a melody instrument and a harmony instrument are combined. This is how the instrumentations flute and piano or flute and harp or flute and guitar are created.

The flautists of the time are still at a distinct disadvantage compared to strings due to the lack of technique and intonation of the flutes before the Bohemian Revolution. Nevertheless, even then some composers wrote for us flutists. Friedrich Kuhlau is to be mentioned in particular. Like no one else in the early 19th century, he created a lot of music of high quality. For flute alone as well as for flute and piano he composed fantasies full of bold harmonic progressions and free use of tempo. And although Kuhlau himself was not a flutist, he knew the instrument very well. His music can be played well and is a real perennial favorite for us flutists. In addition to the works mentioned above, he left behind a large quartet for 4 flutes, 9 trios for three flutes, countless duos for two flutes and three quintets for flute, violin, 2 violas and violoncello. This is not at all music for aficionados, but musically and especially technically very demanding works.


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Since Kuhlau is rather unknown outside the flute world – what a pity – here is a little excursion:

Friedrich Kuhlau lived from 1786 to 1832 and was born in the Hanseatic city of Uelzen in Lower Saxony, which organizes the international Kuhlau competition for young flutists every two years. As a child he lost his right eye in an accident. In 1802 the family moved to Hamburg and in 1810 the 24-year-old Friedrich fled from Napoleon’s troops to Copenhagen, where he felt so comfortable that he would spend the rest of his life there. Kuhlau was a contemporary of Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Rossini, Schiller and Goethe. His music moves between classical and romanticism. In literature he is often referred to as the “Beethoven of the flute” to emphasize the importance of his compositions for this instrument. His works for flute have been very successful and the music has been published by several publishers. He himself played mainly piano and composed a lot for this instrument. By the way, Theobald Böhm (see below) chose a Solofantasie Kuhlaus in 1832 to present his new flute. Kuhlau achieved fame in Denmark mainly with his operas, the king honored him with the title of professor and with the Singspiel Erlenhügel he composed the first Danish national music, which made him immortal in our neighboring country. This work is still one of the most successful pieces of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen with more than 1000 performances.

And the new form of Thème varié developed: popular melodies from song – and opera repertoire were “reused”, so to speak, by many composers with virtuoso brilliance and piano -, harp – or guitar accompaniment. Doppler, Fürstenau, Toulu, Drouet, Walckiers, Diabelli, Carulli, Giuliani and the great English flutist Charles Nicholson, who made Theobald Böhm think and “invent” with his great tone and astounding technique, were masters of this genre.

At this time the flute played a major role in private circles of lovers and was also quite often to be found in concert life. However, for the great composers, the “problem of the transverse flute” was still in the foreground. Because the intonation of the instruments of that time was very problematic and more than a medium volume could not be produced. In addition, and this is at least as important, the range was quite modest and unrestricted modulation through all keys was not possible due to the inequality of playing techniques of some notes.

Beethoven composed a serenade for flute, violin and viola – Gabrielski and Kummer composed concertos and chamber music (both were flutists themselves) – Louis Spohr left the unique Nonett op.31 and further chamber music for flute and harp. In addition, Carl Maria von Weber wrote the Trio in G minor op. 63 (with the particularly beautiful slow movement “Schäfers Klage”) and Felix Mendelssohn – Bartholdy wrote his Trio in D minor op.49 for flute, cello and piano. While for other instrumentalists, especially for strings, the classical period is a true literature paradise, the situation is quite different for flutists – the list is quite short.


However, one work that somehow breaks all patterns and pigeonholes must of course be mentioned here. In 1824, Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote variations for flute and piano on the song “Trockene Blumen” from his own song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin”. This work is extremely unusual for its time. It is genuine duo literature, the piano does not have to limit itself to an accompanying function, as is often the case elsewhere. A cascade of sounds and feelings breaks the classical structure and turns resolutely to the early romantic period. Unfortunately, this is an isolated case for us at this time.


But then, then came Theobald Böhm. He finally invented that which will liberate flute music. All tones can now – almost – be played equally well, the volume has changed considerably, the sound is fuller and the range from c 1 to at least g 3 can be played well. At first, French flutists were the main protagonists and accordingly, composers in France were the first to compose for the new flute, the Bohemian flute. Now our music cabinet is filling up at a pace never seen before. And most of the flute literature can hardly be mastered by laymen anymore, so much has the technical demand on the player changed.

First of all, chamber music works are created on the one hand, and on the other hand the flute is suddenly often the main actor in the orchestra. Clearly, we have long since arrived in the Romantic era. Fauré, Gaubert, Taffanel, Debussy, Chaminade – a little later Pierné, d’Indy, Roussel, Ravel, in Germany Reinecke, Blumer, Juon and Rheinsberger composed sonorous, beautiful, full-toned, even truly flautistic works. Only the genre “flute alone” has nothing new to offer (yet). This is not surprising, however, since this epoch of exuberance and progress favored ever larger instrumentations, ever new sounds. But that too will soon change.


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For whatever reason, after the beginning of the 20th century the flute became the experimental instrument par excellence in the solo literature. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) launched this form, which had been neglected for so long, again in 1913 with his highly impressionistic work “Syrinx”. In this “perfect creation of the smallest dimension” (Gustav Scheck), one of the most beautiful metamorphoses of antiquity was set to music – the nymph Syrinx transforms into a reed for fear of the shepherd god Pan, Pan assembles a flute from the reed and elicits yearning sounds from it.

Now the composers are unstoppable, everywhere music for one flute alone is created. All over France Ibert, Bozza, Jolivet, Kœchlin, Ferroud, Rivier and Varèse turn to the flute. In Germany Karg-Elert sets the expressionist antipole to “Syrinx” with his “Sonata appassionata” and Paul Hindemith composes “8 Stücke” a little later, in Switzerland Arthur Honegger writes the “Danse de la chêvre” and Willy Burkhard the Suite op.98. Everything is possible, the limits of tonality are sounded out, the expressive spectrum is expanded, the performance signs accumulate to support the player in agogic. Like a red thread, the tradition of the quasi-voice solo piece has been running through this genre since the early baroque period and is now being pushed to the limit. And a second red thread becomes visible: the flute in connection with its primal character of the bucolic shepherd’s instrument. We could fill many concert evenings with literature for solo flute without repeating ourselves.


Especially between the two world wars, composers like to fall back on the symbolic power and the mythical environment of the flute, and also on the religious-mystical connection mentioned at the very beginning. In addition, there is the then very widespread tendency towards the exotic, the foreign. De Lorenzo, Roussel, Delaney, Hahn, Ganne, Glass, Enescu, Jolivet, Nielsen, Dohnányi, Mouquet, Bartok, Gal, Fukushima and many others composed and composed.

Through Debussy, a new world has been created for us flutists, not only through “Syrinx”. With his great sonata for flute, viola and harp, he inspired a whole generation of composers to write for this hitherto unknown, so wonderful instrumentation. Probably it was the almost orchestral sound that brought this about. The quintet instrumentation flute/string trio/harp was even more enthusiastic about literature. Jean Cras, André Jolivet, Alber Roussel, Leo Smit, Charles Kœchlin, Vincent d’Indy, Florent Schmitt, de Falla, Alexandre Tansman, Arthur Honegger, Jaques Ibert, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur – they all composed for the “Quintette instrumental de Paris” founded in 1922 and their music was enthusiastically received and frequently performed. What a pity that this large number of wonderful works are so rarely performed on stage. Why is that? Unfortunately it is easy to explain. The effort is too great, perhaps the fee too high for five chamber musicians instead of just two or three.

After Debussy, very different music for flute was written – the most common instrumentation is probably the piano duo, i.e. flute and piano. In France itself, Milhaud, Gaubert, Dutilleux, Ibert, Françaix and above all Poulenc composed works of great clarity and floating lightness. Poulenc’s sonata is one of the most beautiful works ever composed for flute.


And the highly impressionistic French flute music, which always seems like the “mother tongue” of our instrument, is enriched by great duo music by composers from other countries, including Hindemith, Reger, Juon, Genzmer, Schulhoff, Martin, Nielsen, Martinů and Prokofjev. It is quite clear that the “new” instrument of Theobald Boehm has released enormous forces – among composers and musicians alike. The great flute sonatas now stand in a row with those of other instruments. A small curiosity in passing: Prokofjev’s wonderful, far-reaching flute sonata op.94 was arranged for violin and piano by the composer himself at the request of David Oistrach. In past centuries, the path has always been the opposite.


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The “great” sonatas for flute and piano after 1800, who are they by? Such a list can of course only be subjective. But my list is this one:


Friedrich Kuhlau: Sonatas in E minor and A minor (1826/27)

Carl Reinecke: Undine – Sonata op.167 (1882)

Charles Kœchlin: Sonata (1911/1913)

Philippe Gaubert: 1st sonata for flute and piano (1917)

Sigfrid Karg-Elert: Sonata B flat major op.121 (1918)

Paul Hindemith: Sonata (1936)

Bohuslav Martinů: Sonata for flute and piano (1937)

Heinrich Caspar Schmid: Sonata (1939)

Sergej Prokofjev: Sonata op.94 (1943)

Henri Dutilleux: Sonata for flute and piano (1943)

Leo Smit: Sonate voor fluit en klavier (1943)

Pierre Boulez: Sonatina op.1 (1946)

Francis Poulenc: Sonata (1957)

Lowell Liebermann: Sonata for flute and piano op.23 (1987)

Salvador Brotons: Sonata op.21 (2006)

Daniel Dorff: Sonata (Three Lakes) (2014)


Of course this form and also the instrumentation is chosen arbitrarily and thus neglects wonderful standard repertoire beyond the sonatas like Faurés Fantasy, Karg-Elerts Symphonic Canzone and Martins Ballade for the same instrumentation or even the extraordinary Sonata by Debussy for flute, viola and harp, Piazzollas Histoire du Tango for flute and guitar, Martinůs piano trios in different instrumentations or Reger’s Serenades for flute, violin and viola. The number of great literature for flute has grown so much in this century that a selection is difficult and must be subjective, even if the works mentioned are outstanding.

Here I would like to end my walk through the world of music, we have long since arrived in the modern age. Since the 1950s, music has been too confusing, too expansive, too different to be described in just a few sentences and put into a relationship with one another. Of course we will continue to compose for our instrument.

New combinations are also tried out, e.g. music for flute and accordion. Stockhausen, Bernstein, Berio, Yun, Gubaidulina, Fukushima – they all liked to write flute music. And also the young composers who are still young today compose for us.


For pupils and students it is not so easy to filter out what is right for them at the moment from this wealth of music. Perhaps this article can also help a little bit to create order in their minds. I would be very happy about that.

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