The Flute and Social Status

The expansion of interest in the flute during the late eighteenth century is inextricably linked with the growth of the wealthy middle class under capitalism. One of most important factors that sustained the careers of the traveling virtuosi who helped to popularize the flute during this period was the relatively new phenomenon of the public concert series. These concerts generally depended upon audiences of middle-class subscribers with sufficient money and leisure time to allow them to attend. Among the middle and upper classes, both listening to and playing the flute increasingly came to be seen as a socially acceptable way to cultivate the artistic taste needed to make one’s way in high society. Such did the instrument’s aura of social acceptability grow during the course of the century that it was the primary instrument of at least two musically gifted monarchs. The Prussian King Frederick the Great (r. 1740–86) studied the transverse flute with Johann Joachim Quantz and composed at least 120 sonatas for the instrument. The British King George III (r. 1760–1820) also took up the transverse flute.

This high social status rested on the flute’s association with masculinity no less than its association with good taste. Whereas the flute was considered a suitable instrument for a late eighteenth-century gentleman, ladies were instead expected to cultivate musical talent and taste by turning their attention to singing or to other instruments such as the harpsichord or piano. The gender associations of these instruments even played a role in courtship at the time, as exemplified by an 1830 newspaper ad that documents a trip made to Newcastle by the London flautist and flute maker Richard Carte. One stated reason for Carte’s journey was to “accompany the Piano Forte.” In other words, Carte advertised his availability to assist the young women of Newcastle in preparing to play at the keyboard with their flautist gentleman friends. 

The dual associations of the late eighteenth-century flute with refined taste and masculinity are exemplified by the title of the “Gentlemen’s Concerts” founded in Manchester in 1774. The wealthy amateur flautists who were the sole performers in these musical outings proved so numerous that members of the ensemble were obliged to alternate between playing and yielding their seats so that others could perform.