Renaissance Flutes

Tenor Renaissance flutes

Maker: Giovanni Tardino (Rome, Italy)

My flutes:  One boxwood, A=440; one maple, A=440

These tenor Renaissance flutes are Giovanni Tardino’s masterful copies of originals from the Accademia Filarmonica di Verona.  They are consort instruments, and I’ve played them in a variety of flute-consort and mixed-consort ensembles.  I’ve also used them for solo repertoire, and pieces with lute accompaniment.  I’ve always thought that Renaissance flutes have a gorgeous, poignant, somewhat breathy and wooden, earthy sound.  Their color range is huge – sometimes they sound like voices, sometimes like cornetti, sometimes like flutes.

The Renaissance flute consort is most typically a 4-part consort, but there are pieces for 2, 3, and 5 or more instruments as well –  almost any polyphonic chanson will do, as long as the range fits that of a flute consort. There is also a pretty good amount of music that perhaps wasn’t intended for any particular instrument or combination which works beautifully on these flutes as well.  In a 4-part consort, you most often have a bass flute taking the bottom voice, while the top three voices are given either to three tenor instruments or to two tenors and a discant flute. The range of the tenor flute is quite large and can accommodate most of the cantus parts written, and has the added benefit of not being too bright, as the discant flute can be. (The discant flute, however, can offer different colors to the cantus line, and it was mentioned in 16th-century German sources.)

Though the tenor flute is obviously most easy to hear (and indeed really shines) in the the higher registers, it has a hauntingly beautiful lower register as well.  If the flute is played in a consort setting, the lower altus- and tenor- voice players need to employ a very direct sound to cut through.  The solo Renaissance flute can show off its range and colors best in diminutions by composers such as Ortiz, Rognoni, and Van Eyck.

I started playing the Renaissance flute during my third year of conservatory, partly because a lute-player friend had begged me to learn so we could play together.  I played mostly in a 3-part flute consort at the beginning, but have since played in all sorts of ensembles.  Renaissance music, particularly when played on these flutes, continues to catch me by surprise in its beauty and creativity.

For some reason, my boxwood flute is very flexible – and not only in sound! The instrument is somehow very sensitive to humidity, and each day it is a slightly different shape.  Sometimes it is perfectly straight, and sometimes it bends a little, like it did for its photo.  My colleagues call it “the banana flute”.  I bought the maple flute because I found that I tend to play the boxwood flute at A=438, and I really needed one in 440 for ensemble work.  Two flutes are better than one!