Cornelius Ward - The Flute Explained


BEFORE we proceed further with our subject, we will state what are the great essentials required in the formation of a perfect flute; that is, a flute which should produce every note equally firm, sonorous, liquid and clear; and in tune, not in one octave only, but throughout, with a uniformly regulated action of the embouchure, and with a facile, orderly, and systematic fingering: where an irregular, variable application of the force and direction of the breath, and an alternating motion of the fingers, is unnecessary.

  1. Every aperture should be truly placed at the termination of the length of tube naturally required for each note. If this condition be complied with, we shall have a flute in tune.
  2. All the apertures should remain open below the one which determines any of the fundamental notes. If this condition be complied with, we shall have no cross-fingering, and the intonation and tone of all the notes will be preserved pure and open; and we shall have the means of producing the whole of the different scales, by opening the apertures in regular progression, one for a semitone, and two for a tone, throughout.
  3. Means should be provided for opening anyone, any two, any three, or any number of the apertures separately, or in any combination. If this condition be complied with, we shall possess a straight-forward fingering in every key, all the shakes and turns convenient, and an endless variety of ways of taking the alto notes.
  4. And fourthly, we must have a bore of a certain diameter, and declination; other­wise the octaves will not agree, and the power and freedom will not be equally dis­tributed throughout the whole extent of the scales.

We have already sufficiently shown, that the first condition is not complied with in the ordinary flute. Nor is the second: for the F, G#, and Bb keys remain shut at the time many of the fundamental notes are being made; and the Eb key requires to be held open, in contradistinction to remaining so. These circumstances are very detrimental to the tone, and add much to the awkward or cross-fingering. The little finger of the right hand being put down when the third finger of the same hand is raised for E, cramps the action, and confines the range of the latter finger. The same remark may be made regarding the third and little fingers of the left hand, in their actions upon the G# key, and A aperture respectively.

This is a most unnatural application of these fingers, and is seldom attained. The difficulty is generally attributed to the third fingers being too weak; whereas it proceeds from a muscular limitation of their range of motion when the little fingers are firmly held down. The third finger of the right hand has also to act upon the F key under the same awkward circumstances. These things may perhaps appear tedious in the enumeration, but they, nevertheless, form serious and ever-recurring impediments in the way of effective execution.

In reference to our third essential, we shall not pursue the examination in detail.

It is perfectly well known, that there are many combinations and sequences of fingerings, which are absolutely impossible on the ordinary flute; and others, which, if not absolutely impossible, are yet so extraordinarily difficult, as to be, by common consent, abandoned, even by the greatest executionists.

This difficulty in certain transitions, in connexion with the physical impediments pointed out in our last paragraph, and in connexion with the erroneous positions of the apertures, creates the necessity for resorting to a great variety of ways of fingering notes, to facilitate, or even to allow, the execution of certain passages. It also gives rise to many subterfuges and compromises, and often suggests the inquiry, Shall I sacrifice tone, or tune, or an enormous outlay of valuable time, with a very problematical chance of success? In a word, a new mode of fingering is imperatively required for every new piece of music of any importance or originality.

So far does the ordinary flute fall short of fulfilling any of our three first-named requisites. Of the bore, we shall speak hereafter.

In subjecting the Gordon or Boehm flute to a similar examination, we shall find, that so far as the number of apertures and their position are concerned, it is right, when properly made; but that the construction or arrangement of the keys which act on the additional apertures is such as to prevent the second and third conditions being complied with; consequently, the good arrangement of the apertures, is, in a measure, rendered nugatory.

The remarks we made relative to the alternating action of the fingers upon the Eb and G# keys of the ordinary flute are equally applicable to this, with the difference that in the Boehm flute the G # requires to be held down, instead of up ; requiring a more constant application of the little finger. In fact, this alternating or cross action of the fingers, exists to a greater extent in the Boehm flute than in the ordinary one. Thus, the G aperture is closed by a key connected by means of rings with the E, F, and F # apertures, and it must be closed when either of these apertures are closed, and open when they are all open. Now the result of this is, that in passing from E to F#, the E must be closed, otherwise G will sound instead of the F # wanted.

Here we have an inconvenient fingering - an alternating action - and apertures closed which should be open. Again, the B aperture is closed by a key connected, as above, with the Bb and F# apertures; and when Bb or A# is required, the F# aperture must be closed, to keep the B close; which operation also closes the G key, and vice versa.  Hence, we have two apertures closed of necessity which should be open for these notes; thus injuring the tone, and deranging the proper order of the fingering.

Further, the middle C has a key which is closed by the thumb of the left hand; and as this aperture should be open also for C#, B, the upper F#, G, and G#, we shall find that the action of the thumb is required in every key or mode. We must add that in consequence of the G and B apertures being closed of necessity, when several of the finger-apertures are closed, they cannot be used when required to be open separately for some of the upper notes; which are, in consequence, obliged to be made as harmonics in many passages.

We think the foregoing facts amply sufficient to show that this flute is not in accordance with correct constructive principles; and we know that it does not come up to the conception of the projector. Captain Gordon, Boehm, and others, have also introduced detrimental modifications to bring in or retain as much as possible of the ordinary fingering; without, however, effecting their object.

Before dismissing this flute from notice, we wish to be distinctly understood on the subject of its fingerings, We allow, what we claim, and what must at once be conceded; viz., that all novel combinations of motion require practice before facility can be obtained. But there is a wide difference between such as are merely new, without being awkward, and such others as are at variance with the anatomical structure of the human hand. Of this latter character are many of the fingerings of the Boehm flute.

They are vicious, as well as novel and difficult; with this further disadvantage, that even if attained, they are faulty in their results. As before remarked, this instrument is self-contradictory; one part of its structure defeating the object of another; so that it remains a matter of doubt, both in Paris and among the few who have studied it in this country, whether, for the general purposes of a musical instrument, the advantages presented by its comparatively just perforation are not more than counterbalanced by the awkwardness of its manipulation, and its inefficient, inapt, and injurious mechanism.

We feel ourselves competent to speak with authority on the merits and defects of this flute, from perfect knowledge and experience. We have already stated that we originally manufactured it for Gordon; and we have been engaged in its fabrication since; and will merely, in conclusion, place on record, without comment, the fact that at the time we were so employed this instrument was deprecated in almost every possible way, by those very parties who are now most strenuously endeavouring to promote its adoption.

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