The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.
Tone, Technique, and Technology: Nineteenth-Century Debates on Italian Flutes
Samantha Tripp is pursuing an MA in musicology at Tufts University. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a BA in music and a minor in romance languages. She plays flute and piccolo, and she wrote her undergraduate honors thesis on nineteenth-century Italian flute culture. Her research interests include flute history, film scores, and the music of Alan Hovhaness. She is interested in combining her loves of musicology, music theory, flute, and languages.
The nineteenth century witnessed a proliferation of new flute designs across Europe in the wake of industrialization that enabled mass instrument production. Although there is considerable research regarding nineteenth-century flutes in France, Germany, and England, the Italian tradition has been largely ignored. This scholarly neglect is despite the fact that one of the few lasting changes to Theobald Boehm’s 1847 model was the addition of the B-flat thumb key, invented by Italian flutist and composer Giulio Briccialdi. In this presentation, I argue that Italian flutists’ preferences in instruments offer evidence for how they prioritized certain musical qualities over others, and how technological advances made by Italian instrument designers informed their aesthetic and commercial decisions. Drawing from published opinions in Italian journals, such as the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano, I demonstrate that three musical concerns preoccupied Italian flutists when discussing different models: preserving as many of the older fingerings as possible to allow for continuity of technique; improving the facility of trills through the addition of new keys and levers; and, most importantly, maintaining the voice-like timbre of the old-system flutes. Even Verdi became involved in these experimentations, commissioning a flute in A for Aida. These concerns, especially that of timbre, were the center of a heated 1874 debate over whether the Briccialdi or Boehm flute was superior. The goal of many Italian inventors, including Briccialdi, De Michelis, Giorgi, and Albisi, was to create instruments that fulfilled these requirements. Such disagreements reveal in microcosm how profoundly the industrialization of instrument-making affected contemporary compositional, performative, and even basic aesthetic discourses, the impacts of which are still being felt today.