Flute, a wind instrument, which under different forms and names has been in use for more than 4,000 years. It was familiar to the Egyptians from a remote period, and among the Greeks and Romans was a favorite pastoral instrument, employed also on sacred and festive occasions, in military bands, and at funerals. Its present name is derived from the Latin fluta, an eel caught in the Sicilian waters, whose side is marked with seven spots like flute holes. The Egyptian flute was from 2 to 3 ft. long, and the performer generally sat on the ground; while that of the Greeks probably did not exceed a foot in length. At Athens it was once in great repute, but was superseded by the lyre, the use of which did not distort the face, while it allowed the accompaniment of the voice. In Thebes, Sparta, and other places, however, it continued a favorite. The Spartan flutists were a hereditary order, and the Spartan soldiers marched to battle to the sound of Dorian flutes and soft recorders." The Egyptians appear, from their ancient pictures and sculptures, to have blown the instrument through a lateral opening near one end, producing the modulations by means of holes on the sides; hence it differed little from the modern fife.
The flute of the Greeks and Romans was probably more in the nature of the pipe, and was often composed of two perforated tubes of reed or wood, played together. Until the early part of the 18th century the instrument retained the form of the pipe, and was called the English or common flute, and sometimes the flute a bee, from the resemblance of the mouthpiece to the beak of a bird. It was played in the manner of the clarinet, and had seven finger holes, but no keys. This gave place somewhat more than a century ago to the German flute, which in its most perfect form consists of a tube of hard wood or ivory about 27 in. long, separable into four joints, and having from six to twelve finger keys for semitones. It is blown through a lateral hole at one end, and has a compass of nearly three octaves, from C below the treble staff to C in altissimo. The modern flute is highly effective in an orchestra, but has fallen into some disrepute for the performance of solos, in consequence of the flimsy and tasteless character of the music too frequently written for it, and which serves to exhibit the skill of the player rather than the capacity of the instrument. -The octave flute, called also the piccolo, is a small shrill instrument, an octave higher than the common flute.
Its piercing sounds are only effective in a large orchestra or in military bands.-The flute stop, on the organ, is a range of pipes tuned in unison with the diapason, and intended to imitate the sounds of the flute.-One of the best German flutists of the 18th century was Quanz, the flutist of Frederick II. of Prussia; Francois Devienne (died in 1802) and Berbiguier (born in 1781) acquired a high reputation in France; and among the great flutists of the present century in Germany were Furstenau and his son (died respectively in 1819 and 1852), and in England Charles Nicholson, whose father had also been celebrated in the preceding century. Among celebrated flutists are the following: Theobald Bohm, flutist of the king of Bavaria, born about 1802, who invented about 1833 a new flute known as the Bohm flute, which is said to combine improvements in nearly every part of the instrument, and wrote in 1847 a treatise on recent improvements in the manufacture of flutes, which was translated into French (Paris, 1848); Jean Louis Tulou, born in Paris, 1786, and for some years professor of the conservatory there; and Louis Drouet, born in Amsterdam in 1792, who was for some time Tulou's rival in Paris, and removed in 1831 to Belgium and engaged in manufacturing musical instruments.