Rudall Carte 916 - An "Old System" Flute
After Boehm brought out his 1847 cylindrical flute, chaos reigned. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon and brought out a new flute. As John Clinton quipped at the time: "... there are more new flutes than flute-players".
Many players rejected Boehm's new flute because of its unorthodox fingering and complex mechanism. Consequently, some of the new designs were aimed at combining the presumed benefits of Boehm's new cylindrical bore and the fingering of the previous 8-key flute. One such is the flute you'll see below.
Rudall Carte No 916 is what the company referred to as an "old system" flute. Ignoring for the moment the upper and lower key stacks, you can see that many of the stalwarts of the 8-key system remain - the short and long F keys, G#, upper c, Eb, C and C#. A view of the back would show the usual Bb key. Note indeed the mixture of key styles - most of the old-style keys are block mounted.
But you can also see the hallmarks of the cylindrical period - the diameter of the foot is the same as the top of the body, the thin head conceals a tapering head bore. The head too has no obvious tuning slide, rather the tuning slide is short, concealed and integral with the top tenon.
How does it work?
Turning then to the unfamiliar parts - how do they work? What do they achieve that couldn't be achieved on the older 8-key design?
We can quickly deal with the lower stack - the three keys visible on the right hand section of the body. We can readily see that they are simply the three holes of the old 8-key, made much bigger, moved to their acoustically desirable positions and provided with more conveniently located touches. All good stuff, but nothing remarkable.
So really the interesting stuff is in the left hand. The first thing to note is the general similarity to Clinton's 1851 flute. Compare the treatment of the top hole in particular and you'll see what I mean. But there are differences, so let's examine them.
The upper stack
Firstly, if we number from left to right, there are holes under plates 1, 2, 3 and 5. Plates 1, 3 and 4 are where we finger. Plate 1 is in fact two devices, a lower perforated plate and an upper ring key. The lower perforated plate can be closed by closing plate 1 directly or, via the axle, by closing plate 3. Plate 2 can be closed through clutch arrangements by closing either plate 1 or plate 4.
Starting with no holes covered, we can see that c#will be a very well vented note. The combination of an extra large hole 1 and additional venting via hole 2 no doubt providing a well tuned c# without need for opening the long upper c key as is required on an 8-key. This fingering for c# will probably work well in both octaves.
Closing plate 3 (with LH2) closes the lower perforated plate on hole 1, leaves open hole 2 and closes hole 3. The combination of the small hole now at hole 1 and the bigger hole near the c key hole's position will give a well vented and therefore clean and stable c natural, again probably good in both octaves.
Closing plate 1 instead of plate 2 closes the perforated plate and the ring key, and also closes hole 2. This gives B, exactly in the 8-key manner. The large B hole will give a sturdy note.
Closing plates 1 and 3 gives A, rendered more hearty than usual by the relocation of the A hole (hole 4 under plate 5) to its acoustically desirable position and size. Similarly closing plates 1,3 and 4 gives G.
The last combination involves closing plates 3,4 and the three touches for the right hand - the fingering for d in the second octave. This closes everything, but leaves the perforation in the lower plate of hole 1 open. In this way, the large hole 1 needed for a well vented c# is reduced in size to the small hole needed to act as a register key for d.
Comparison to Clinton's 1851 design
As stated earlier, there are great similarities between the keying system of this flute and that of Clinton's 1851 design. The bores are quite different - this uses Boehm's 1847 cylindrical bore, while Clinton used a large conical bore, so we can expect a more open tone from this and a darker tone from the Clinton.
There are some obvious but superficial differences - the Clinton employs a ring key at LH2 and an open hole at RH3, while these are covered plates on the Rudall Carte. The real keying difference though seems to come down to the location of one vent. Clinton put his extra vent hole between LH2 and 3 - about Bb. Carte put his between LH1 and 2 - about c. We can expect this to give a better B on the Clinton and a better c and c# on the Carte. The effect on the third octave is harder to predict and would be interesting to assess.
The great similarities between the Carte Old System flute and the 1851 Clinton suggests one is a variant of the other. This particular one comes many years after Clinton's death but there are sightings of earlier old system flutes too, not always with the same keying system. To complicate matters further, Clinton's designs changed rapidly and substantially during his life, so unraveling who influenced whom about what is going to take some detailed work. In the absence of further information we can only leave it there for the time being. It may well be of course that both makers found inspiration in the work of another.
This interesting facet of 19th century flute development has been skipped over by most writers. Perhaps this is not surprising. Viewed from the 20th century, all this messing around with different keying systems in the mid 19th century might have seemed quaint and sadly misdirected. After all, Boehm won hand's down, didn't he? But in the aftermath of the early music revival and in the bloom of the Irish music movement, perhaps we owe the work of the noble army of inventors another glance.
We hope for some of this in a forthcoming book by London maker and researcher Robert Bigio. I hope also to be able to bring you more as time and opportunity permit.
Special thanks to Malcolm Manning at:
for permission to use the image above and for confirming the operation of the instrument's keying system. Thanks also to Kevin Krell for bringing it to my attention and to Robert Bigio for confirming the flute under examination as a Carte's "old-system" flute.