In early cultures the flute played an important role in the realm of magic and was very closely linked to the hereafter and the spirit world with its gods. The instrument is often shown as being played by gods or symbolizes a god’s voice: the Ancient Egyptians, for example, believed the voice of Isis, the gods’ mother, was audible in the long, drawn-out notes of the flute. Beside this it was the gods themselves who gave the flute to mankind as a gift; the Hindu deity Krishna – having taken on the form of a shepherd boy – brought the transverse flute to his people.
Probably the best known myth connected to the flute is the story of Pan in Greek mythology, who, under tragic circumstances, invented the instrument that bears his name – the Pan pipes.
The enchanting nymph Syrinx was fleeing the pursuit of the cloven-footed Pan, the god of shepherds and herds, and was saved by kindly gods who transformed her into reeds. Pan, pining for his lost love, tied several reeds together and blew through the stems like a breath of wind so that he might once more hear Syrinx’s sweet voice in their song. Later on he gave his hand-made instrument to the shepherds, and that is how it became known to mankind.
Artists of every epoch have drawn inspiration from the fascinating wealth of myths and legends woven around the flute, using it to finds means of musical expression. Claude Debussy, for instance, was inspired by the myth of the transformation of Syrinx in two works (Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Syrinx, 1913). The ethereal, pure and poetic sound of the flute is inextricably linked with mythical or spiritual figures and with death.
A further aspect of the flute’s symbolism is its portrayal of nature and rural life. This symbolism arose due to the instrument’s sound characteristics and is of onomatopoeic nature. Examples of this are the birdsong in Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir or Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
Until Renaissance times the flute was also very closely associated with warfare and battles, since it and drums were the instruments played by foot soldiers. By the Baroque age, however, the instrument’s ability to express gentle feelings had been recognized. This aspect of the flute gained enormous importance in the Romantic period when it became the instrument par excellence for lending expression to sentimental feelings.