Created | Updated Jan 28, 2006
The term Flageolet first appeared in French literary sources in the late 12th Century, in a variety of forms: flageol, flageot, flaiol, flajo. At that time it was probably used to describe a type of pastoral reedpipe.
By the time of such writers as Michael Praetorius and Mersenne - the early 17th Century - the term had come to mean one particular kind of instrument; a Duct Flute, differing from the recorder in that it had fewer fingerholes, and was usually played with one hand.
Three Different Kinds of Flageolet
The Folk Flageolet is an instrument with up to five holes, played with one hand. Where there are five holes, two appear on the back, for the thumb and the upper surface of the little finger. This enables the player to hold and play the instrument with one hand. It was often played in combination with a tabor (a kind of frame drum) as an early kind of one-man-band.
The English Flageolet is an instrument with six or (rarely) seven holes, all sited on the front of the instrument. It is played with both hands.
The French Flageolet or Quadrille Flageolet is an instrument with originally six fingerholes: four on the front and two on the back for the players' thumbs. Played with both hands.
The name 'duct flute' is applied to members of the flute family in which the sound is produced by directing the player's breath through a channel or duct against a rigid sharp edge (lip). Other duct flutes include the recorder and the penny whistle. These flutes differ from others in which the air is blown across a mouthpiece, such as the modern orchestral flute or the pan-pipes.
The earliest surviving examples of duct flutes were found in a cave at Placard, Charente, France. The cave had been inhabited during the Magdelenian period: between 14000 and 9500 BC. Examples - from many cultures - also survive from later epochs, including a Roman decoy whistle which is now in the Swiss Museum.
The flageolet was a type of duct flute used as either a decoy, because of its bird-like tones; or as a folk instrument, accompanying singers or dancers. A commonly-known combination is the pipe and tabor: a three holed flageolet is played with one hand while the other hand provides rhythm on a tabor. The pipe and tabor were used until very recent times to accompany Morris or Sword dancers.
The Development of the Flageolet
The flageolet was well established by the beginning of the 16th Century: in 1511, Virdung1 pictured a small pipe with four holes which he called a Russpfeif and in 1528 Martin Agricola2 depicted a similar instrument, the klein Flotlein mit vier Lochern; but according to Mersenne3 true flageolets were invented in around 1581 by Sieur de Turigny of Paris. Mersenne's flageolet was an instrument, played using three fingers on each hand.
Exactly what Sieur de Turigny did to the flageolet is not known; what seems probable is that he took the existing six-hole folk pipe and improved it. He gave his instruments a conical bore (the hole down the middle) tapering slightly towards the lower end. The finger holes were arranged with four at the front - two for each hand - and two holes at the back for the thumbs. It was in this form that the flageolet was known during the 17th Century.
Further major changes to the shape of the flageolet appeared in around 1750. It was at this time that the beak of the instrument was replaced by a slender ivory mouthpiece connected to a pear-shaped chamber. Inside this chamber was a small sponge; it was intended to absorb the condensation caused by the player's breath and prevent moisture blocking the narrow windway. However, on very cold days the sponge became saturated very quickly and compounded the problem.
In the 19th Century there came another development: in 1803 William Bainbridge of London began to make 'English flageolets', which differed from French flageolets in the arrangement of the fingerholes. Bainbridge's flageolets had six fingerholes down the front and one thumbhole at the back. They usually had a sponge chamber, and were pitched in 'D' as were the French flageolets. Occasionally they had an extra C# hole.
Bainbridge also made double pipes, with the two melody pipes pitched in thirds, and sometimes added a drone as well to make triple pipes.
The French flageolet was undergoing changes at the same time: makers added keys to make the instrument more versatile, sometimes adding as many as six keys.
The 'new' flageolet proved very popular with amateur musicians during the 17th Century. Samuel Pepys, British diarist of that century, was a very keen player, mentioning it frequently in his diaries; he talks about playing it himself, and also noted down concerts in which it was played.
Another common use for the flageolet in the 17th and 18th Centuries was to teach canaries and other captive songbirds to sing. The Bird Fanciers Delight4 is a book of flageolet tunes written for that express purpose. The bird-like tones which ensured the instrument's survival as a decoy instrument from the earliest times had obviously not been lost by the structural changes brought about by Sieur de Turigny.
In early 19th Century France, music was a common pastime among the upper classes. The flageolet was popular not only as an instrument played by amateurs but was also connected to a new dance that had recently become popular: the Quadrille. The flageolet was used to accompany this dance not only because its high-pitched tones carried easily, but also because it was easily portable and dancing masters could carry it when going to give lessons. Because of this, the French flageolet also became known as the Quadrille flageolet.
Many composers scored their works for flageolet. Tradition has it that the solo instrument in parts of Handel's Acis and Galatea should be a flageolet5 rather than the sopranino recorder more commonly used today.
Mozart also wrote for the instrument in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (1742), and even if the piece was not scored for one, the Birdcatcher's flute in Die Zauberflote would have been a flageolet.
The flageolet is today an almost forgotten instrument. Associated as it is with a now obsolete form of dance, even the recent 'Early Music' revival didn't restore its popularity.
Many instruments can still be seen in museums, but as far as music-making is concerned, its cousin the recorder has eclipsed this once familiar flute.
- The Flute(1988) Raymond Meylan
BJ Batsford Ltd, London.
- The Recorder and its Music(1962) Edgar Hunt
Herbert Jenkins, London.
- Woodwind Instruments and their History(1962) A Baines
Faber and Faber Ltd, London.
- The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments(1984) Ed. Stanley Sadie
Macmillan Press Ltd, London.
- Flutes, Flautists and Makers (1982) Andrew Fairley
Pan Educational Music, London.