The flute is one of the simplest and also one of the oldest musical instruments in the world.
It’s as old as human civilization itself. Its provenance can be traced all the way back to the Stone Age. Some flutes have been found that date way back to 43,000 years ago.
The earliest humans played the flute. They belong to a category of musical instruments known as woodwind.
Traditionally, the flute has mostly been played by men although there have been a good number of flute players who were women such as Bobby Humphrey and Jeanne Baxtresser.
It might look small and simple but it takes a lot of effort and years of hard work to master the flute.
Over the past millennia, we have probably had some really fine flutists. Their names and much of their work is lost in the sands of time.
The modern era has seen its fair share of really accomplished flute players. Here is a list of some of the most famous flute players in modern times.
#1 Sir James Galway
James Galway was born in 1939 and is one of the most accomplished flute players in the world.
He established his career as a solo virtuoso flute player. He came from a musical family.
His father was a flute player while his mother was a pianist. Many of his family members and friends were also flute players so he grew up with the tradition of the flute.
He studied at the Royal College of Music and Paris Conservatoire and has played at several operas and orchestras for the past 60 years.
His work straddles both classical and contemporary music. James is a living flute legend and has sold over 30 million albums.
#2 Nestor Torres
Born in Puerto Rico, Nestor Torres’ work dominated the charts in the 80s.
His Morning Ride CD was at the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts in 1989 for which he won critical acclaim.
After a near-fatal boat accident, Torres staged an unlikely comeback in 1991 with Dance of the Phoenix. He still conducts worldwide tours.
His musical style is a mix of Brazilian, jazz, and Afro-Cuban.
#3 Marcel Moyse
Born in 1889, the French flutist Marcel Moyse was one of the greatest flute players of all time.
He studied at the Paris Conservatoire and started playing the principal flute at the Paris orchestras.
He did the ‘French style’ of flute playing with a clear, flexible and penetrating tone and a fast vibrato.
He taught some of the flute greats including James Galway and Carol Wincenc. His work has had a profound influence on flute and woodwind playing for much of the 20th century.
After a European stint, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1949 where he founded the Marlboro Music Festival, taught and authored several books on flute playing. He passed away in 1984.
#4 Jeanne Baxtresser
Born in 1947, Jeanne Baxtresser is a contemporary flutist, author, and lecturer who is also the principal flutist at the New York Philharmonic.
She graduated from Juilliard and has performed around the world.
She is a full-time lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University and many of her students have gotten placements with some of the top orchestras in the world.
Jeanne is regarded as one of the greatest classical flute players of all time.
#5 Bobbi Humphrey
Born in 1950, Bobbi Humphrey has been christened the “first lady of the flute”.
She is a jazz flutist whose work straddles fusion, jazz-funk, and soul-jazz. Bobbi has recorded 12 albums and in 1971, she became the first female instrumentalist signed to Blue Note Records.
Some of her greatest records are the Harlem River Drive and Satin Doll. Bobbi’s style is a mix of soul and jazz-funk.
#6 Emmanuel Pahud
The Franco-Swiss flutist Emmanuel Pahud is one of the best-known contemporary flutists.
Born in 1970 to a non-musical family, he trained at the Conservatoire de Paris and was mentored by some of the greats such as Carlos Bruneel and Aurele Nicolet. He gained international renown following his joining of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1992.
Emmanuel has a versatile music style and works in a number of repertoires including baroque, classical, jazz, chamber music and orchestra.
#7 Herbie Mann
The American jazz flutist Herbie Mann was a musical colossus.
He worked with a number of instruments early in his career including a clarinet and a tenor saxophone.
He was among the first jazz musicians to master the flute. In 1975, he topped the Billboard No 1 for three weeks with his Hijack dance hit.
His music was groovy and he was one of the earliest musicians to fuse jazz and world music.
Herbie toured the world and collaborated with a number of mainstream soul and jazz artists of the 70s including Cissy Houston, Miroslav Vitous, and Larry Coryell.
#8 Georges Barrère
The French flutist Georges Barrère trained at the Paris Conservatoire and went on to play around Europe.
He deeply influenced how modern musicians perceived the instrument.
After moving to the US, he joined the New York Philharmonic where he played for the rest of his life.
He had a major impact on how the flute was played and some great works including Density 21.5 and Poem of Charles Tomlinson were written for him.
#9 Trevor Wye
Trevor Wye learned the flute under the tutorship of the legendary Marcel Moyse and Geoffrey Gilbert. He was active in the London scene for years as a freelance chamber and orchestral music player.
Trevor has also made a number of solo recordings with the flute d‘amour that he brought back to life and fashioned for the modern times.
Wye is also a flute instructor and has authored several books on the technical aspects of flute playing. Unlike other flutists on this list, he did not attend any conservatoire, music school or university.
He began playing at the age of 15 before later studying under Moyse and Gilbert who had a major influence on his playing style. He has published more than 170 works including CDs, books and DVDs.
#10 Matt Molloy
Born in Ireland in 1947, Matt began playing the flute at the age of 8. He hails from a region of Ireland that was renowned for its famous flutists.
Molloy’s style adapts many piping techniques to the flute. He has had a tremendous influence on many contemporary Irish flutists.
He joined The Bothy Band in the 1970s along with its successor, Planxty. In 1979, he joined The Chieftains where he took the place of Michael Tubridy.
Molloy has been involved in various musical acts and collaborations throughout his musical career including with Tommy Peoples, Irish Chamber Orchestra, Donal Lunny, Paul Brady and Micheal O’ Suilleabhain among others.
Molloy has produced several solo albums over the past five decades including Matt Molloy with Donal Lunny in 1976, Contentment is Wealth in 1985, Music at Matt Molloy’s in 1993 and Pathway to the Well in 2007 among many others. In 2019, he popped back with the new album Back to the Island.
These are some of the top flutists to have emerged in the 20th century and the list is by no means exhaustive.
Their influence on the flute scene has been immense. Some even developed their own distinctive flute playing style.
Others are contemporary flutists who are still active in the musical scene, churning out new albums while mentoring and training a new generation of flutists.