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Irish Flutes History

The history of the wooden flute and its use in traditional music is all wrapped up with the career of flute virtuoso Charles Nicholson (1795-1837); Irish flutes are sometimes referred to as "Nicholson-type" flutes. He was first flutist of London's principal theater orchestras in his day, and from 1816-1836, he was a regular soloist for the prestigious Philharmonic Society Concerts.

Nicholson was a very tall man, with oversized limbs and fingers. He made a name for himself playing a different kind of flute, one with enlarged embouchure and toneholes and a metal-lined headpiece. Nicholson's father had modified the flute himself, but not to accommodate his son's large size; his objective was to give the instrument a tonal quality that could be both powerful and delicate, as well as a clearer sound. The sound of the new flute created an immediate sensation in London and throughout western Europe.

Nicholson began to attract significant attention for his signature bold playing style and the unusually powerful sound of his modified flute. Once Nicholson became aware that his acclaimed performances had created a public demand for similarly modified flutes, he licensed the name 'Nicholson's Improved' to London flute makers Clementi & Co., Astor, and Potter. But Nicholson's most lasting contribution to flute history is the effect that his powerful playing had on Theobald Böhm (1794-1881), the inventor of the so-called modern flute. Böhm was struck by “the volume of the tone” of Nicholson, as well as “his marvellous skill and his excellent embouchure.” Böhm was inspired 1831 and 1847 to create new metal flute models that would go on to gain rapid acceptance worldwide. The new Böhm models had enlarged holes; by adding a hole for every note in the chromatic scale, Böhm had also eliminated any need for cross-fingerings.

Prior to the advent of Theobald Böhm, wooden flutes were expensive, well beyond the financial reach of the common man. But once Böhm made metal flutes the new standard, old wooden flutes became a pawnshop fixture, and the Irish began snapping them up. Traditional musicians felt wooden flutes may be even better suited to the traditional repertoire, for several reasons. For one thing, it's generally recognized that silver flutes lack the more dense and powerful sound of wooden flutes. To play Irish music, the player doesn't really need all the chromatic notes, and if anything, the Böhm flutes could be considered to have too many holes. Drilling extra holes in the flute body can have a detrimental effect on the tone.

Present-Day Wooden Flutes

Flutes currently made for Celtic and folk music resemble the wooden flutes of the 19th century, with large holes; they tend to be limited to only a few keys, or none whatsoever. This strange hybrid that brings together the characteristics of a 19th-century classical flute and a baroque flute is what is known today as the Irish flute. The present-day Irish flute, a simple six-hole model, is capable of playing traditional Irish melodies in the most prevalent keys of D and G, without requiring challenging cross-fingerings on the part of the player.

Several decades ago, immediately prior to the Irish music revival, wooden flutes needed to mount a serious comeback to avoid extinction. When the revival hit in the 1950s and 1960s, there were simply no wooden flutes to be had at any price. A small but intrepid group of players, who for a time played Irish music on silver Böhm flutes, rushed to fill the void. That's an exception you won't see much of today, with the wooden Irish flute now overwhelmingly preferred.