Letter to Broadwood from Theobald Boehm, 17 March 1866

A very interesting letter from the inventor of the Boehm flute to his friend and customer in London, Walter Broadwood.  Broadwood was later to publish Boehm's 1847 Essay in English.

We have included some explanations [in square brackets]; otherwise the text is original.  We wish to thank Ludwig Böhm, Theobald Boehm's descendant, for kindly providing a copy of the letter and for permission to publish it.

Capital letters on personal nouns and pronouns are as used by Boehm.

Walter Broadwood, Esq.re
3 Queens Gate Gardens,
South Kensington, London                                                              Munich, March 17th, 1866


Dear Mr. Broadwood!

I am very glad to learn, You are still satisfied with Your flute.   As to the lever for Bb I had my reasons for altering it. - If the key for C2 and [the Bb] lever move on the same axle, the Charnière, little tube must be divided in two parts (a) and (b) and it becomes too small to resist the pressure upwards, which is by most players given with the thumb.

Therefore the C2 key gets very often shaky - loose - and the key is no more sure to stop the C2 hole sure and perfect.  The key is too long in proportion to the small tube.  As I make it the key is sure to stop, and as I want in one way as in the other [German for “one way or another”!] a separate piece as a lever, it is more solid to give to both, to the key and the lever a longer piece of Charnière.  I prefer what is more solid and sure.

[The tubes referred to are clearly the bearing tubes for the keys in question.  It is true that if these are made too short wear is accelerated and the key can get off line and fail to seat reliably.  Boehm has evidently altered his arrangement to get around this by making the bearing tubes longer and using a longer axle to suit]

As to the shakes [C1 - Bb1, C2 - Bb2],

[Hazy sketch of musical notation for these two shakes omitted]

They are just as easy, as You are not obliged to shake the lever with the C2 key.  Take the Bb with the first finger of the right hand, and You have to shake only the C2 key, just as You do with Bb.  You might say, that the C2 gets influenced by holding the Bb key stopped, but you may be sure, that nobody has yet heard, that the C2 is an Idea [an iota?] lower during the shake. -  [He’s saying that in the context of a shake, keeping the Bb key closed doesn’t affect things in any audible sense]

[The next bit is very interesting - here we find Boehm’s views on English High Pitch!!  He disapproves, and apparently Broadwood agrees with him!]

What You write about the pitch is a more serious matter.  You are right, it is a nonsense to force the pitch up so much, and it proves only that English ears in general are not very sensible for quality of tone.   A wind instrument with tone-holes can only be correctly tuned in one sort of pitch. If You make the column of air longer or shorter, all the distances of the holes must change in proportion.  If you draw out a good flute more than |  | [about 3-4 mm] or if You cut shorter the head piece of [by] so much, You may still play correct, but if you go on farther, the tuning gets worse with every Millimeter, because the influence is just twice as much on the second c2 - (in a flute) than on the low C1. [Boehm is exactly right - the c under the thumb key is about half-way up the flute from the open foot, which gives low C]   Therefore if you draw out until the a1 gets right p. ex. [by comparison?] with the low Paris-Normal-pitch  [the Diapason Normale of A=435], which is 8 Millimeter, the upper notes from the a1 become just so much lower to the a1, as the lower notes become sharper.

[a perhaps convoluted way of saying that drawing out a flute built for English High Pitch to give an a1 at Continental Pitch will throw the tuning out by making the upper notes relatively flatter and the lower notes relatively sharper by comparison with an a1 tuned to the lower pitch] 

If the difference by a1 is 8 mm it is by c2 only 7 mm and by e2  14 mm and all the holes between must be altered in their distances from the cork in the head in a geometrical proportion.  [i.e. you would need a different slide extension to tune each note to the lower pitch]  Therefore a much shorter head will never do.  You may shorten it for [by] about 4-5 mm but no more.  Even by making another middle piece to the flute, You can get only the tuning perfect down till e1, but the lower notes will be no more perfect,  but the eb1 more flat than the eb, the d1 still a little more and e1 sharp and eb1 more the previous coming notes. - [It looks as if Broadwood was asking about getting his new Boehm flute up to English High Pitch and asked if this could be done simply by making a new head joint or a new body section for the flute.  The second approach would still leave the foot out of whack].  It is not so much, that a good player could not correct these notes by his Embouchure, but I should not like to play a solo with such a flute. - You have marked the difference of length from the cork to the a1 like A.........B [indicating a distance of about 11 mm] by which you probably mean that the head ought to be so much shorter.  Please do try it in this way: Draw your flute out until your Bb is perfect [ly] equal in tune with the a1 of the orchestra pitch.  Then cut a slip of strong paper, |///| that it fits exactly in the space between the head and the middle piece.  If You after that will send me the that paper or give the exact measurement in Millimeters, then I know at once how much the differences must be for all the holes.   P. Ex. [?? For example? Per Exemplar?] On Your flute the centre of the A1 hole is 337.08 Millimeter distant from the Cork in the head, and the Bb is 315.36, the C2 275.50 and the end of the flute - 605.00 mm.

[Boehm seems to be asking Broadwood for the information he would need to use his Schema to calculate the new hole positions for High Pitch.  Indeed, his description of how the schema works includes that same trick of tuning A down to Bb (as the head is too long to take it up to High Pitch A).  

It would be easy for us who routinely use tuning meters to forget that neither Boehm nor Broadwood would have ready access to such things.  A mechanical measurement of the extension needed to produce the pitch required is something Broadwood could achieve and Boehm could work from.

Boehm starts this next paragraph estimating what would need to be cut off the head of Broadwood's current flute to get the A up to High Pitch, and demonstrating mathematically the sad consequences to tuning that would bring.]

Now to come near to Your measurement, let me say, you would be obliged to draw out 6 mm for making your Bb1 equal to the a1 of the high pitch.  Then the centre of the a1 hole must be Bb1 (315.36) + 6 = 321.36 mm - which is less, or shorter than on Your flute for [by] 337.08 - 321.36 = 16.72 mm and consequently the c2 must be shorter 13.60 and the c1 30.00 mm. You see, that by cutting the head 16.7 mm the c2 would be too low down for [by] 3.12 and the end too high up for [by] 13.60 mm, consequently the first much too flat and the last much too sharp to the a1. - The difference is so very great, that I think one of my flutes tuned after the P. [Paris] normal Diapason would do quite well for half a note, but then the transposing  would not do for You, though I was obliged to play  from 1821 - 1824 in our Italian Opera all half a tone lower, as the difference with the German Opera was so much. 

[Now that’s one way of dealing with High Pitch - use a flute built for Continental pitch and transpose everything up a half tone!  Or vice versa, as in Boehm’s own earlier case……those Germans must have sung pretty low!  Boehm says here that one of his flutes at Continental Pitch would play pretty well at English High Pitch if everything was transposed up half a tone, but concedes that Broadwood might not enjoy doing this.]

If Mr. Carte had read or had not forgotten what I had written in my brochure on flute making and improvements 1847 – of which he refused in a shameful way to return me my English translation as you will remember yourself he might know that I had said: - As the holes must substitute the cuttings of the tube, they ought to be as large as possible.  You may be sure that I have tried everything years before and much more, as Carte and such will think upon!

[Boehm touches on two very interesting issues in this last paragraph.  Firstly, he is clearly critical of a failure by Carte (now head of Rudall & Carte) to publish or return the English translation of Boehm's essay that Boehm had provided Rudall 19 years earlier.   We go further into that issue in The Saga of Boehm’s (Böhm's) 1847 “Essay”.

Secondly he seems to be critical of Carte for forgetting that he, Boehm, had already pointed out the desirability of holes being as large as possible (in the very Essay), in order to emulate best the cutting off of the tube at that point.  Since this is aimed at Carte, we assume it's in reference to Rudall & Carte's Rockstro model, which came out about 2 years prior to this letter.   The expression "as Carte and such [implied: like Carte]" suggests Boehm does not hold Carte in significant esteem as a flute designer.]

With my best wishes,

Yours very sincerely,


Theobald Boehm

N.B - I have already made piccolos of cocuswood with silver keys like the flutes for the Orchestras in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe &c. which are very good.  The price is £6. - but it would be £7. - as I am obliged to make a model if in so high a pitch.

[obviously, Broadwood had asked him about getting a cocuswood piccolo made at high Pitch.  There would be extra work involved in devising such a model, hence the price increase]  

You ought to get from Schott: Über den Flötenbau und die neuesten Verbesserungen desselben, von Th. Boehm.  Mainz, B Schotts Söhne, 1847 because you seem not to remember it.

[Here he is reminding Broadwood that his “Essayis available in German, a fact which Broadwood appears to have forgotten.  Once again, we see Boehm’s reliance upon that work to explain his design approach as well as his frustration that his work is not available in English!!]


Our thanks once more to Theobald Boehm's descendant, Ludwig Böhm, for kindly providing a copy of the letter and the permission to publish it.

Comments by Adrian Duncan and Terry McGee.



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  Created 23 June 2007