Woody Folk Notes

About the transverse flute tradition in Swedish traditional music during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

by Henrik Norbeck

This is a summary in English of the original essay, which was written for the course "Folkmusik i Norden" at Högskolan Falun/Borlänge in June 1995.



A lot has been written about Swedish traditional music, and there are several books about various instruments, e.g. bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy and nyckelharpa. However, nothing has been written about flutes in Swedish music, other than short comments in various books.

This essay tries to answer the following questions:

The main sources for this essay are:

History of the Flute

Simple system flutes have a conical bore, and six of the holes are covered by the fingers. This is what they look like:

Simple system flutes were played until Theobald Boehm invented his straight bore totally keyed system in 1847, and many classical musicians stuck to the simple system flute until the beginning of the 20th century, because of its different sound.

The first Boehm flute came to Stockholm in 1863 with the visiting flautist Sauvlet. After 1866 manufacturing of Boehm flutes started in Sweden. In 1867 the Boehm flute was introduced at the Music conservatory in Stockholm, and in 1873 it was introduced in the Royal Opera-House Orchestra.

Names of Instruments

In some cases, the sources specifically mention that it is a transverse flute, or that it was played sideways. When the source only mentions a flute (flöjt), it could mean a flute, a whistle, or even a clarinet, depending on the knowledge of the source about wind instruments.

In all the sources I have found except one, when flutes are mentioned, and it is clear what kind of instrument is meant, it means a transverse flute.

Fipple flutes have usually not been called called "flöjt", but "pipa". The word "pipa" is used in Swedish since the middle ages, and seems to have been used for wind instruments with a sharper tone, such as whistles, bagpipes or fifes. The word "flöjt" has come in later, and has only been used for transverse flutes.

The current Swedish word for recorder is "blockflöjt", but recorders were not used in classical music from around 1800 until 1926, so there should be no risk for confusion with them during the period I've looked at.

So I have divided the sources I have found into sure (säkert) and not so sure (osäkert or inte säkert).

Distribution of Evidence of Flute Playing

In the essay, I have made a list of all the evidence I have found of flute playing. It is sorted by county (landskap). Here is a map of the southern part of Sweden, with all the evidence that I have found marked by geographical location.

Filled circle = Sure evidence
Empty circle = Unsure evidence

I have also made a list of all flute players that I have found, sorted by parish (sn, short for socken) and county.

Military Music

The clarinet in Swedish traditional music has had a very strong connection to military music, and many clarinet players have also been members of the regimental band. The connection is not as clear for the flute. Some flute players seem to have had military connections, but most seem not to have any.

Fifes were in use in the Swedish military from at least the 1530s onwards for signalling purposes. From 1617 there were eight fife players per regiment. In 1722 the fife players were abolished, but in 1775 they were reintroduced with four players per regiment.

For proper music (not only signals) each regiment had a band which at first used shawms, which were replaced by oboes, and later by clarinets. Around 1800 flutes seem to have been introduced, but only two per regiment, so there were not as many flutes as clarinets (of which there were four or more per regiment).

There may be a stronger connection to amateur flute players at country mansions, but I have not investigated this.

Types of Flutes Used

The flutes used have been of the simple-system type, not the modern Boehm flute. Flutes were imported from Germany and England, but there were also builders in some Swedish cities.

Judging by the flute tunes in the Skåne parts of Svenska Låtar, at least some flute players have had flutes with keys for all semitones, since the tunes are in keys such as E flat major or A major.

I have also found evidence from three places of simple flutes being made in a more rustic tradition.


I have only studied the repertoire of Johan Jakob Bruun from Skåne. There are 22 tunes from his playing in Svenska Låtar. He must have been a good flute player, since some of the tunes are not easy to play on a simple system flute. He also plays many tunes in the keys of F major, B flat major and E flat major, which are not easy keys to play in.

Bruun's repertoire seems typical of his time in Skåne, which is not surprising, since he would be playing together with players of other instruments. As far as I can see then, there was no special flute repertoire.

It is interesting to see that one of the tunes notated from Bruun's playing actually goes down below the range of the flute, which means that he must have cheated, and played at least some notes an octave higher. This is common practise in Ireland for flute players playing fiddle tunes.

Playing Style

Not much can be said about the playing style from the few notated tunes I have seen. There are a few slurs and grace notes in some of the tunes, but in some of them there are nearly none at all. The transcriber of the tunes has probably only transcribed the bare tune without much attention to ornamentation. The only thing one can say is that there should probably be more slurs and grace notes put in.

As for articulation, tone and rhythm, there are other ways of doing it than the way flute playing is taught in classical training today. It is probable that non-classic ways are better suited to playing dance music, for instance use of glottal stops.

Playing of fiddle and flute together, or fiddle, flute and clarinet together is mentioned in many cases.

© 1997 Henrik Norbeck / henrik@norbeck.nu