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What Is a Renaissance Flute?

Rebecca Mecomber
Rebecca Mecomber

The Renaissance flute is a woodwind instrument of the flute family. Usually handcrafted from wood but in rare cases of ivory, the Renaissance flute is a relative of the metal modern flutes people use today. This flute was carved with six holes and a side-hole embrasure, similar to a fife. Most Renaissance flutes sounded a two-range octave and the high-timbered variety was usually played to accompany other instruments. Musicians created soprano, alto, tenor and bass varieties for accompanied flute consorts.

During the Renaissance, defined as the era of great cultural advances in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries, musical instrumentation and technology flourished. The Renaissance flute, crafted in various pitches for complex musical accompaniment, is an example of the rebirth of structured music and musical concertos. It was primarily considered an accompaniment instrument, lending exotic, breathy intonations to festive celebrations such as dances, weddings and courtly banquets.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

As a type of cross flute or transverse flute, the Renaissance flute was unique from other flutes at the time. Unlike the pan pipe and recorder, in which the musician held the pipe at one end, downward from its position on the player's mouth, the transverse flute was held to the right side and the player blew air into the flute held at an angle. The player tapped small holes in the pipe to create various pitches from the movement of air in the pipe. This instrument is therefore a relative of the modern flutes as one of the first woodwind transverse musical instruments.

The transverse flute was first seen in ninth century Chinese art and later in ancient Etruscan reliefs in the second and third centuries B.C. While seen in Germany during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance flute experienced a revival in the 14th century by the royal courts of Spain, France and Italy. By the early 16th century, it was a common instrument in most European musical repertoires, even listed in the court inventory of England's King Henry VIII. In 1528, German composer Martin Agricola recommended that the transverse flutes be purchased in matching sets so that flutes were in tune with each other. The earliest mention of the musical technique vibrato, in which the musician creates a regular pulsating change of pitch, was used for the Renaissance flute at this time.

Very few original Renaissance flutes exist today. Most knowledge of the instrument comes from European art and descriptions and uses of the instrument by Renaissance composers. The instrument was usually constructed of boxwood or fruitwood. A cork stopped one end of the flute. Unlike the modern flute, the Renaissance flute had no thumb hole. According to the various depictions in art, the Renaissance flute seems to have been used primarily for military purposes and as a chamber instrument for royal courts.

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