A modern copy of an 18th-century French traverso, by flute-maker Boaz Berney
The flute is one of the oldest and most widely used wind instruments. The precursors of the modern concert flute were keyless wooden transverse flutes similar to modern fifes. These were later modified to include between one and eight keys for chromatic notes.
"Six-finger" D is the most common pitch for keyless wooden transverse flutes, which continue to be used today, particularly in Irish traditional music and historically informed performances of early music, including Baroque. During the Baroque era the traditional transverse flute was redesigned and eventually developed as the modern traverso.
Medieval flutes (1000–1400)
Throughout the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, transverse flutes were very uncommon in Europe, with the recorder being more prominent. The transverse flute arrived in Europe from Asia via the Byzantine Empire, where it migrated to Germany and France. These flutes became known as "German flutes" to distinguish them from others, such as the recorder. The flute became used in court music, along with the viol, and was used in secular music, although only in France and Germany. It would not spread to the rest of Europe for nearly a century. The first literary appearance of the transverse flute was made in 1285 by Adenet le Roi in a list of instruments he played. After this, a period of 70 years ensues, where there are few references to the flute.
Renaissance to 17th century
Beginning in the 1470s, a military revival in Europe led to a revival in the flute. The Swiss army used flutes for signalling, and this helped the flute spread to all of Europe. In the late 16th century, flutes began to appear in court and theatre music (predecessors of the orchestra), and the first flute solos.
Following the 16th-century court music, flutes began appearing in chamber ensembles. These flutes were often used as the tenor voice. However, flutes varied greatly in size and range. This made transposition necessary, which led flautists to use Guidonian hexachords (used by singers and other musicians since their introduction in the 11th century) to transpose music more easily.
During the 16th and early 17th centuries in Europe, the transverse flute was available in several sizes, in effect forming a consort in much the same way recorders and other instruments were used in consorts. At this stage, the transverse flute was usually made in one section (or two for the larger sizes) and had a cylindrical bore. As a result, this flute had a rather soft sound and limited range and was used primarily in compositions for the "soft consort".
During the Baroque period, the transverse flute was redesigned. Now often called the traverso (from the Italian), it was made in three or four sections or joints with a conical bore from the head joint down. The conical bore design gave the flute a wider range and more penetrating sound without sacrificing the softer, expressive qualities. In addition to chamber music, the traverso began to be used in orchestral music.
In the Baroque era, flutes become used in the scores of opera, ballet and chamber music. With this, composers wrote music for the flute. These included Praetorius, Schütz, Rebillé and Descoteaux, Quantz, Bach, Telemann, Blavet, Vivaldi, Handel and Frederick The Great. In 1707, Jacques Martin Hotteterre wrote the first method book on playing the flute: Principes de la flûte traversière. The 1730s brought an increase in operatic and chamber music feature of flutes. The end of this era found the publication of Essay of a Method of Playing the Transverse Flute by Quantz.
The orchestras formed in the last half of the 18th century included flutes which were featured in symphonies and concertos. Throughout the rest of the century, the interest in flutes increased and peaked in the early half of the 19th century. Around this time Friedrich Dülon was one of the best-known flutists. The early 19th century saw a great variety of flute designs. Conical bores giving a penetrating sound were used in Vienna, English flutes had a range to low C and played best in flat keys, French flutes gave a softer tone, and German flutes blended best with orchestras. With the romantic era, flutes began to lose favor: Symphony orchestras rather featured brass and strings.