Review: Elizabeth C Ford, “The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century”

Featured image: detail from Anon., portrait of General John Reid, himself a flute player and composer

Elizabeth C. Ford’s recent book, The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2020), surveys the evidence for early modern playing, composition and instrument making, and concludes that the so-called “German” flute had a presence in Scottish life which has been unjustly overlooked.  The flute was, she argues, not confined to high-status gentlemen players, although these definitely feature in the historical narrative.  Women, lower class men, and professional musicians also played this popular instrument in domestic social gatherings as well as in formal concerts.  Indigenous repertoire for fiddle and bagpipes could be re-arranged to accommodate the range and convenient fingering of the open-holed flute of the period, and the compact instrument could be separated into even smaller sections to make it convenient to carry from place to place.  Some ambiguity exists because ‘flute’ was a term that could cover recorders and even whistles as well as transverse flutes proper, but Ford’s own knowledge of the instrument as a player allows her to suggest where compositions seem to fit well under the fingers and fit the likely market profile of the transverse flute player.

Ford’s book provides a clear guide on the sites of evidence:

  • contemporary letters and accounts
  • expense records of purchases
  • newspaper and periodical adverts for services and products
  • extant manuscript and printed material in Aberdeen Public Library, the NLS, National Records of Scotland, University of Edinburgh, Mitchell Library Glasgow and University of Glasgow, British Library, and the Montagu Music Collection associated with the Buccleuch family, with anecdotal information that more material lies in e.g. the Wighton Collection, Dundee
  • visual evidence from portraits and printed books, including title page illustrations

Methodically working through a substantial list of personages, Ford lists these under chapter headings of “amateurs” (male and female), “professionals” (teachers and performers), “composers” (which includes helpful discussion of repertoire both played in Scotland and printed works composed in Scotland), “repertoire in manuscript sources” (with its owners and compilers) and “instruments”.  Taken together, it is clear there were players, pedagogues, composers, and even to some limited extent, makers, at work in Scotland particularly in the 18th century.  The earlier evidence is rather slight, and Ford admits that classical associations between the flute and pastoral narratives did not necessarily translate into actual musicking activity.

However, by the 18th century, the evidence is overwhelmingly strong that the German flute had a strong presence particularly in Lowlands musical life, reflecting its popularity throughout Britain and indeed western Europe at the time.  Anyone assuming that James Oswald’s copious anthologies of Scottish melodies were aimed at violin players will read that the Caledonian Pocket Companion, in its early volumes, was also and explicitly aimed at gentlemen flautists.  Much of the Scottish chamber music of the period was written for ‘German flute OR violin’, suggesting that the former was at least as probable as the latter.  So why did the fiddle’s reputation survive as ‘Scottish’ while the flute needed to be ‘recovered’ in the 20th century via Irish folk music?  Ford suggests that the political associations of the flute in the post-Jacobite, Romantic period contributed to its falling out of fashion and out of the ‘Scottish’ national narrative: “It is possible that the so-called German flute became, in Scotland, tainted by association with the disliked Hanoverians because of its name, and unconsciously slowly lost popularity especially among the parts of society that were more pro-Jacobite.” (p177)

For those interested in blurring the folk/classical boundary, Ford speculates that the same processes used to make pipes might also turn to flutes, and that some repertoire looks to have been transferred from the pibroch to the flute.  The evidence from the music itself is more conclusive.  Discussing Pietro Urbani, for example, Ford notes that the ornaments in his compositions are not conventionally European, but suggest contemporary pibroch appoggiatura articulation of adjacent notes of the same pitch (p.126).  Daniel Dow’s Collection of Ancient Scots Music for the Violin, Harpsichord or German flute, never before printed consisting of Ports, Salutations, Marches or Pibrachs (sic) (Edinburgh: 1776) is one of several printed collections showing evidence of piping repertoire transferring to the flute.

Clearly written, and a useful extension to our understanding of the Scottish instrumental base.

Further Reading and Resources

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