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Playing Styles

Between the flute's first golden age in the early 18th century and the rise of the recording industry in the ealy 20th, strongly characteristic styles of flute-playing were heard in several European countries. We know of these styles not only because of what flutists, conductors, critics, and other listeners wrote about flute-playing, but also because the instruments used in different countries have different tone-qualities, and because in the early recording era many performances in these different styles were captured on disc.

Early recordings (1902-1940) of flute-playing

The most distinctive and best-known national styles were French, German, and English, with other styles in Italy and the Uniteds States playing a part at various times.


As in the case of many other instruments, the Paris Conservatoire came to dominate flute-playing all over the world during the early 20th century. Its light, vibrato-laden tone and sensitive shadings copied stylistic elements from certain singers and violinists of the period. Claude-Paul Taffanel and his pupils spread it to other European countries and the U.S., so that by about 1960 almost the whole flute-playing world had adopted elements of the French style, technique, and instruments.


A strong sense of tradition leading back to J.J. Quantz made German flutists focus on highly modulated orchestral playing as their highest goal and resist foreign influence. Most of the long-established German and Austrian orchestras excluded the Boehm flute until the late 19th or early 20th centuries, mainly because it was considered too loud and insensitive. Instead, German players and makers developed the 'tradtional', conical-bore, flute. Vibrato was a controversial technique, with some players strongly in favor and some equally opposed. By the time of Germany's defeeat in World War 2, German-style flutes and flute-playing had almost completely disappeared.


English flutists of the 19th century traced their heritage to Charles Nicholson, famed for his powerful tone as well as his 'sensitive' interpretations of British folk melodies. Nicholson used a special type of flute that aided his personal techniques, and while many of his successors adopted the Boehm flute or one of its derivatives, a steady, vibrato-free tone and perfect woodwind blending remained the ideals of English flute-playing until after World War 2. Many of the most brilliant recordings of the early 20th century were made by British or Empire players, but the recording industry began to demand French-style playing by the 1930s.


Italian players, as well as those in the Austro-Hungarian and other central European countries, used Viennese-type flutes (some manufactured in Italy) with an extended lower range throughout the 19th century. Their brilliant technique was usually accompanied by a fast, light vibrato.

The United States

German musicians dominated America during the 'melting-pot' era of immigration; many flutists used Meyer-type instruments. But the Boehm flute gained early success with professional players in New York, and the Boston Symphony was formed using French woodwind players and French-style Boehm instruments, which were soon copied by U.S. makers. By the 1930s a 'virile' French-influenced style of flute-playing had emerged out of the mix.

Ardal Powell's The Flute (Yale University Press, 2002) contains more information on the growth, interplay, and disappearance of national flute-playing styles.

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