The Transverse Flute and the Recorder

The transition from recorder to transverse flute as the predominant type of flute in Europe was gradual. Players of both instruments were listed among the musicians employed at the court of the French King Louis XIV during the tenure of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87). According to John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw, however, Lully preferred recorders to transverse flutes in his orchestras throughout his career as a conductor, despite his proximity to the Parisian workshops producing the newly refined transverse flute (Spitzer and Zaslaw 2005, 72). Lully’s request for transverse “Flûtes d’Allemagne” for an instrumental ritornello in his 1681 opera-ballet Le Triomphe de l’Amour seems to be a rare exception. Even as late as 1738–39, when Johann Sebastian Bach wrote out the parts for his B-minor Orchestral Suite for flute, strings, and continuo, the composer still had to specify that he intended the composition to be played on transverse flute, not recorder. Bach was acquainted with such skilled and famous players of the transverse flute as Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (1690–1768) and Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773), but the assumption of his time was still that “flute” meant “recorder” unless modified by some adjective.

Nevertheless, one crucial feature differentiated the transverse flute from the recorder: its player could adjust its dynamic level by blowing harder or softer. This procedure on the recorder sharpened or flattened the pitch, so that it was only possible to make slight adjustments to the dynamic while continuing to play in tune. On the transverse flute, however, the player could correct for such changes in intonation by rolling the embouchure toward or away from the mouth. Ultimately, the expressive potential that this dynamic flexibility enabled made the transverse or “German” flute (as it was also called in the eighteenth century) the standard choice for both chamber and orchestral music, as Jeremy Montagu has argued.