Cornelius Ward - The Flute Explained


In the preceding section we gave a hasty view of the history of the invention of the flute; we have now to state that there are such radical defects of construction in the ordinary flute, as have to this day defied the ingenuity of the makers to correct or remedy, and to retain the same fingering. It is acknowledged on all hands, that the best flutes on the ordinary construction do not satisfy the talented professor, nor enable the professor to satisfy the composer or the informed musician.

Before we can clearly point out these defects, we must state in detail what are the true principles of the instrument. We must first consider the acoustical laws of an open tube, or the natural effects produced by putting into sonorous vibration a column of air isolated from the atmosphere excepting at the two extremities.

In the case of the first or lowest sound, called the fundamental, the whole column is in continued and uniform vibration. For the second, and all subsequent and more acute sounds, called harmonies, produced by a different mode of blowing, the column of air divides itself into certain parts. Its first division is into two parts, each of which will sound the octave to its first and lowest sound, or fundamental; that is, each part vibrates twice, to one vibration of its whole length, and no sound can be got from the tube between its fundamental tone and the octave to that fundamental. 

The column of air for its second harmonic divides itself into three parts, giving the sound of the twelfth or octave and fifth, and vibrates three to one. The third harmonic is the double octave, vibrating four to one. The fourth harmonic is the interval of a third above the last or double octave. The fifth harmonic is a fifth above the double octave. The next is its flat seventh; the next is the third octave to the fundamental sound of the entire column: and it will be remembered, that all the above sounds are produced from a tube without lateral apertures, and that between the first named and the last named sounds, no others can be produced than those specified.

Now, it is very well known, that a complete musical scale, or series of notes in regular succession, requires many more sounds and smaller intervals than are included in the above enumeration. To obtain such a scale therefore, of the usual completeness, one tube like the above will by no means suffice; and recourse must be had, either to a number of tubes or columns of air, decreasing gradually in length to the value of a semitone, or else we must have the means of shortening our one tube in a similar gradation. Now, as a matter of convenience, the latter plan is preferable, and has consequently been adopted in the case of the flute. That is to say, inasmuch as the opening of an orifice a little above the foot of the tube is equivalent to a shortening of the tube, say by a semitone, so long as the orifice remains open, and that opening another orifice a little higher up is equivalent to a still further shortening, and so on; and as it is known that all these are operations which can be performed upon the flute, it is manifest, that the flute may be considered as being made up of a number of tubes containing such columns of air, that is, of fourteen such tubes, commencing with low C natural.

Now if we wish to produce sounds of equal power and quality, and justly in tune, by a uniformly regulated action of the embouchure, the holes, each being a substitute for the termination of a separate tube, should be so placed, and should be of such size, as to produce an effect equivalent to what the separate tubes themselves would do, of which they are the representatives. A series of such tubes, each producing a sound sharper by a semitone than the preceding, if laid side by side, would represent a species of Pan-pipe, each tube decreasing, at first, by about an inch, for the lowest semitones, with a gradual and beautifully regular decrease of length from the lowest to the highest.

When we compare this regular gradation of tubes, with what ought to be its representative, namely, the apertures of the ordinary flute, we shall at once see exhibited the enormous extent of its malformation. If we instance no farther than that from the low Eb to the E, (but one semitone), there are nearly two inches and a half to cut off; and for the next semitone, only about half an inch; for the next about the same; and then for the next about one inch and a quarter, and so on. We feel sure we need not say another word to convince everyone of the excessive absurdities of its construction.

In every flute made in the usual manner, the low C# and Eb apertures are much too low; the E very much too high; the F is also too high, and the F # too low; the G nearly right; the G#, A and Bb much too high, and the topmost aperture much too low.

The necessary evil consequences produced by this improper position of the apertures are attempted to be remedied, so far as intonation is concerned, by making those apertures which are too high, small in size; and vice versa, the apertures too low in position are made large in diameter. But, as may always be predicted in the application of false remedies, the above-named process only very partially relieves one evil, while it creates another, of equal or greater magnitude. As every flute player is aware, a note determined by a small aperture, even if too high, necessarily yields a paltry, feeble tone; and a too low and large aperture gives a comparatively strong tone.

Add to which, there are no apertures provided for the independent production of the second C and C#, they being made by employing the apertures belonging to other notes, by what is termed cross-fingering. This again, being equally a jumbling and confounding of natural laws, gives birth, like the small holes, to a muffled quality and doubtful character of tone.

We would here observe, that the cause of this false position of apertures being adhered to in flutes of the usual construction, is to be found in the limited spread of the fingers, and their number being three less than the apertures required for the chromatic scale of notes. We have seen that the Swiss flute had but six apertures, and was only expected to be used in two or three keys or modes at most; flutes of different pitch, but fingered in the same manner, being employed when required for the more remote keys. The size of all these flutes was so small as to allow the apertures to be well placed; but when the Germans increased the size to the pitch of our concert-flute, they were obliged to accommodate the apertures to the spread of the fingers, thereby to a certain extent spoiling its qualities. 

At the same time, they never expected to make a chromatic instrument of it; but when, from the fascinating and unique quality of its tone, further alterations were made with the view of enlarging its executive capabilities, it was certainly enabled to do more, but was disabled from doing anything so WELL as formerly; until the instrument of our days, instead of the tolerable excellence of the Swiss flute, presents a mass of radical errors, and egregious disregard of true principles of construction. 

Twenty-five years after Quantz and Frederick the Great delighted themselves and the Court of Berlin, we find Florio using what were then called the extra keys, in the orchestra of the Italian opera in London; and he it was that placed or re-invented the keys for the low C# and C.  He so prized this invention that he placed a small curtain upon the foot of his flute, to prevent the discovery of the means by which he produced these notes; and he further taught his daughter to make the keys, that the secret might be kept in his family. Soon after Florio's time, Monzani commenced using a flute with the extra keys, but with the low C# only. We have in our possession the flute used by him for upwards of twenty years after this period, and which was the general flute within that time. Florio, Tacet, Collier, Hale, and the other manufacturers of the day, only occasionally making flutes with the C key. None of these makers seem to have been aware of the proper size and shape of the bore, or of the true position of the apertures.

About the commencement of' the present century Potter and Wragg added other keys, and improved the bore by reducing the diameter of the upper part. A few years afterwards, Monzani increased the number of keys to eleven, and made further and successful experiments in the bore; but the value of his improvements was materially diminished by a want of firmness and certainty in the stopping qualities of his keys. No further essential improvement was brought into general use until very recently, excepting that more attention was bestowed upon the last mentioned department of the mechanism.

The father of the late justly celebrated Nicholson gave greater power to some of the lower tones of the flute by increasing the size of some of the apertures to a most unreasonable extent. We shall shortly see that this process necessarily sharpens the tones of the lower octave more than those of the upper octaves, thereby throwing a still greater inequality into the scales of the instrument, and creating the necessity for a greater action and practice of the embouchure.

It was here that Nicholson greatly excelled; but the instrument was rendered less manageable for all those who did not possess great command of the embouchure ; because the means of correcting the defective intonation of the flute are not supplied by the instrument; but are expected from the performer, by a certain alteration of the action and position of the lips, and of the force and direction of the jet of breath.

We are desirous not to misrepresent or undervalue the changes made in the flute by the elder Nicholson. By increasing the size of the apertures, a considerable accession of power was undoubtedly obtained; but equa1ity of power was not obtained, and could not be obtained, by that process. The remaining alternative, that of enlarging the mouth-hole, was adopted, because it is through this medium that the humouring and corrective process can be most efficiently applied, and because in this department the Nicholsons were surpassingly pre-eminent. In fact, their alterations were all made with the view, first, of enlarging the modifying attributes of the embouchure; and secondly, of rendering the rest of the instrument increasingly susceptible of influence from that source. 

We therefore frankly concede that these were improvements, for those who could render them available; and that, of the ordinary flute, the Nicholsonian is the best form, in all cases where to the natural gifts of good lips and a musical ear, the spirit of untiring perseverance is superadded. Many flutes have been made of the Nicholson pattern, and Mr. T. Prowse, who made flutes for Nicholson, still manufactures such extensively and in the best possible manner.

It is, in fact, far from being true, that the flute is an instrument of fixed tones; and, whilst it constitutes one of the characteristic beauties of this instrument, that it ADMITS minute shades of tone, and gradations of power for purposes of expression, it is one of its greatest faults that it continually REQUIRES this humouring process, for the ordinary purposes of tone and tune. The attainment too, of the power of thus modifying and moderating the faults of the instrument, by means of the lip, change of position, &c., presents one of the most formidable difficulties the learner has to encounter. It is a difficulty seldom overcome, even by many years of practice. Performers, therefore, materially differ in their intonation; and it may safely be said, that with the ordinary flute, a trio or quartet was never yet played in tune. Hence the paucity of productions of this kind from the pens of many of the first composers; and hence, too, the frequent relinquishing of the instrument in disgust.

Previous to the addition of the keys for F, G#, and Bb, these notes were necessarily made by a cross or closed fingering of some of the six apertures. These fingerings gave tones of the worst quality of muffled sound, caused by no part of the enclosed air being in a decided state of vibration. The notes thus made were also much out of tune, and could not be rendered better in this respect without making others worse. 

For instance, if the C was too sharp, the A and D must be flattened to alter it; if the C# was too flat, the B would become too sharp as the C# became more correct. We should not have alluded to this manner of making these notes, were not some of them much in use at the present day on the ordinary flute.

We have, hitherto, only spoken of the bad effects of the ill-arranged apertures, as they influence the lower octave of notes. The remarks apply, of course, to the second octaves, which are affected by it to a greater degree, and the notes above them to a still greater extent; the cause of this we will endeavour to show.

The column of air contained in the flute may be made to vibrate in certain portions simultaneously by changing the force and direction of the jet of the breath, of which action, and its effects, we shall speak more fully in another place. As before described, the first effect of this change in the force and direction of the breath is to cause the air to vibrate two to one, and at the same time to divide the column into two parts, with a point of minimum vibration, called a node, at the division, giving a harmonic octave-to the fundamental note. 

If we could open an aperture at this nodal point, then, one portion of the air would produce the same note as the two portions did; but it, would now be produced in the manner of a fundamental note, that is, no lower sound could be produced, so long as this aperture remained open. By a still further degree of breath and lip action, we may cause the air to divide into four such parts, vibrating four to one; and if we could. open apertures at the nodal points, (the first of which would, in this case, be situated much higher up the flute), we should get the second octave as a fundamental note, and so on.

The scales of the flute are, of necessity, formed of notes which may be said to possess, as to their mode of production, three different characters, viz., fundamental, harmonic, and mixed. Those which altogether depend upon the length of tube as determined by the position and size of the apertures, viz. the notes up to the B on the ordinary keyed flute, are fundamental tones. C and C# have no decided character, as usually made, but they may be, and often are, made as fundamentals, in the same manner as the second D and D#. 

The notes from the second Eb to the third D are of necessity decidedly harmonic tones, involving double vibrations and nodal points. These notes can only be produced by the action of the lip already alluded to, and in no other way, for the simple reason that there are no apertures at the points of minimum vibration, or nodes, to decide them as fundamental tones. The notes above the third C# partake of both characters. They are produced by the action of the lip dividing the air into five, six, seven, or eight parts, vibrating five, six, seven, or eight to one, and are thus essentially harmonics; yet is their decision assisted, by the opening of an aperture at one or more of the nodes most distant from the embouchure, because there are no apertures where the higher nodes occur.

We have given the preceding explanation for the purpose of making clear the reason, why the tones of the second and third octaves of the ordinary flute disagree so much, with regard to tune, with the lower octave of fundamental tones. We have stated, that the evils arising from the bad position of the apertures are attempted to be partially corrected in the lower octave, by making them of various sizes. 

Now this process has not the same effect upon the tones above, because they are essentially produced and decided by the harmonic subdivision of the column of air allotted to their fundamentals: and as it has been shown that some of these lengths are too great by an inch, and others too little by an inch and a half, it must be evident, that the intonation of the ordinary flute, in its second and third octaves, cannot be otherwise than false; and that the instrument is con­structed without regard to system, and in defiance of the simplest laws of acoustics.

From our remarks upon the formation of the scales of the ordinary flute, it may be seen that each note requires a different practice of the embouchure to correct the intonation. But there are no means of making the feeble tones strong; and, therefore, if an equality and evenness of power be required, the strong tones must be reduced to the grade of the weaker; thus materially diminishing the use of the flute as a forte instrument.

But we appeal to all performers on the best flutes of the usual make, - can they produce A, E, C, or other notes loud, of good quality, and in tune, without so much setting about it and manoeuvring, as is utterly impracticable in actual play? We are sure they will answer in the negative; and we are further sure, that even Nicholson, with his special flute, for his special embouchure, did not, and could not, accomplish what we have asked. On the contrary, he has left on record the existence of these and similar incorrigible difficulties, as necessarily appertaining to the instrument, By stupendous practice of the embouchure, he, and other talented performers, have undoubtedly produced wonderful and delightful effects upon the flute; but the honest have, at all times, deposed to the difficulty of of arriving at any thing like a performance satisfactory to the musician.

By that quality of the flute, which we have above described, the artful quack has had the means of imposing on the public instruments which he could make appear in tune, obtaining thereby an exorbitant and iniquitous profit. On the other hand, many have imposed on themselves, by supposing that the flute on which they have witnessed such effects must be well in tune, and have given large prices to possess them. We have even known instances in which £50 have been given for instruments, much worse than ordinary in this respect.

Although the laws of the vibration of air in open tubes have been well under­stood for a considerable time, flute professors have, it would appear, paid very little attention to the subject, as connected with any improvements in the instrument; and when any alteration has been proposed, involving a change in the fingering, it has met with no encouragement from them on that account. 

On the other hand, the manufacturers, even supposing they were possessed of the requisite knowledge and skill, were deterred by the prejudices of the professors, and their own interests in the beaten track, from attempting any change in the common course of trade, or that would appear inconsistent with the pretensions they put forth, regarding the tone and intonation of their instruments.

Those who know the tenacity with which routine is adhered to as a principal of business, and who have experienced the difficulty of getting even a trifling article made out of the usual track, as well as those who are acquainted with the tricks of trade, and know how professors and manufacturers play into each other's hands, will appreciate our account of the matter, and will not wonder at the slow and reluctant introduction of important or thorough-going improvements.

But to the unprejudiced and disinterested, it will appear not a little astonishing, considering how long and how extensively the instrument has been employed, that even the best of flutes exhibit, in their structure, the most glaring departures from the obviously true proportions. The instrument is, in fact, a bungling compromise between tone, tune, and the ordinary dimensions of the human hand; the manufacturer transferring to the performer the consequences of his own deficient knowledge and skill, and demanding of him the sacrifice of toilsome practice; not in acquiring that skill which all practical arts alike demand, but in overcoming the evident and palpable defects of the instrument.

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