Baroque flute

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Title: The Flute Sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach; Stephan Preston, Baroque flute. Label: CRD Records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 33145. Track: II-16.

Contextual Associations

The wooden side-blown/transverse Baroque flute, an edge aerophone, was being made and used throughout Europe from the 1720s until well into the 19th century. Though manufactured around the turn of the nineteenth century in Dresden, Germany, the flute pictured here, with a tapering conical bore and built in four sections, is true to the design features of the Baroque flute. Eighteenth century composers wrote solo and chamber works for this new instrument, and in the course of the century as the orchestra developed the flute was one of the first wind instruments to be included both as a member of the ensemble and as a solo concerto instrument. Such flutes were played by both professional (often attached to royal households, but eventually also players who were independent of court patronage) and amateur musicians; by the turn of the nineteenth century there was an explosion in the marketing of instruments, music, and instructional books targeting amateur performers, and the flute pictured here could have been part of that phenomenon. Indeed, when this instrument came into possession of its current owner, it was accompanied by a flute method book, Ausfuhrlicher und grundlicher Unterrict die Flote zu spielen, authored by Johann Georg Tromlitz and published in Leipzig in 1791. While still popular with amateurs around 1800, interest in the single-key Baroque flute gradually faded amongst professional flautists in favor of multi-key models that promised better intonation and tone quality. Interest in the Baroque flute was rekindled in the mid-20th century during the early music movement, which continues to the present. Today, a number of craftsmen make very fine quality replica flutes based on instruments in private and museum collections (the second gallery photo is of one such replica instrument used in a college early music ensemble).


This Baroque flute is made of boxwood and ivory and constructed in four sections (head, upper-body, lower-body, and foot joints) connected with tenon-and-socket joints. The head joint has a hole (blowhole or embouchure hole) drilled into it and is stopped internally with an adjustable sliding plug of cork at its top end. The two body joints each have three equally-sized fingerholes drilled into them; in order to accommodate the various pitch options of the day, this flute was provided with three different upper-body joints, called corps de rechange, of slightly different lengths (in the image on this page one corps de rechange is mounted on the instrument and the other two are seen in the foreground). The foot joint has one hole (the seventh) drilled in its side that is covered and uncovered by a spring-operated square-shaped brass key with a tanned leather pad on its underside. This key is operated with the baby finger of the player’s right hand. The instrument has a tapering bore, wider at the head joint end than at the foot joint end.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, whether sitting or standing, holds the flute roughly horizontally to their right with the fingerholes facing up and the blowhole positioned in front of their lips. The first three fingers of the left hand operate the three fingerholes in the upper-body joint, the same fingers on the right hand the three fingerholes in the lower-body joint, and the single key for the foot joint fingerhole is operated with the right hand baby finger; both thumbs touch the bottom side and are used to support the instrument. By exhaling and shaping and directing an airstream with their embouchure (tensed lips) against the edge at the far side of the blowhole, the performer sets the air column of the flute into modes of vibration. By controlling the force of the airstream and changing the acoustical length of the tube with the fingerholes, the player produces different pitches. The fundamental pitch of this flute (with all fingerholes covered) is D4, and by successively opening fingerholes from the bottom to the top produces a D-sharp/E-flat (with the open foot-joint hole) and then the D Major diatonic scale. It has an effective range of about two octaves from D4 - D6, but further notes, up to G6, could be coaxed out of the instrument by expert players. Over this range the instrument is chromatic, but only with cross-fingerings that make some passages awkward to play.


In response to the changing musical preferences and practices of the late 17th century, design modifications to the Renaissance flute were introduced: a tapering conical bore, multiple (usually three) section construction (head, body, and foot joints), and a seventh fingerhole and a single key to operate it. French makers were at the forefront of these modifications and the flute design they created can be seen as an early form of the Baroque flute, the immediate precursor of the Baroque flute pictured on this page with four-sections (the middle joint of the previous stage is divided into two joints) and three or more corps de rechange. The basic ‘package’ of features illustrated by this flute was being applied to the manufacture of instruments as early as the 1720s. Though further modifications to this new design (for example, additional holes with keys and extended foot joints) continued at a remarkable pace, instruments like the one pictured here continued to be produced well into the 19th century, largely for the amateur market.

Bibliographic Citations

Brown, Howard Mayer. 2004. “Flute [cross flute, German flute, transverse flute].” NGDMI v.1: 769-788.

Powell, Ardel. 2002. The Flute. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Toff, Nancy. 1996. The Flute Book. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.121.12 aerophone--side-blown flute: the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - tapering with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled edge in wall of instrument, directly blown against

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


24.8 in., 25 in., 25.2 in. length with different center joints

Primary Materials



made in Dresden, Germany

Entry Author

Roger Vetter