Cornelius Ward - The Flute Explained


FRUITLESS efforts have often been made, both by ourselves and others, to improve the tone of the old flute without altering the fingering. We however soon found that a slight change in the position of the apertures, which would ameliorate the lower tones, had the effect of annihilating many of the upper ones. These, and other considerations brought forcibly under review the question of the policy of continuing, any longer, the respect for established usages and vested interests, ill opposition to the demonstrable requirements of scientific investigation, and to the continued exclusion of a delightful instrument from the position it is destined to occupy, but which it has hitherto failed to attain, in the estimation of the true musician.

Ingenuity had long been exhausted in attempts at amelioration. All such efforts were, however, " cribbed, cabined, and confined," by the supposed necessary retention of the usual fingering; and, under the pressure of this incubus, the resources of mechanical invention have been unavailing, and the flute has remained, for a long series of years, without any improvement worth recording. What, after all, we asked ourselves, is this same fingering? It is anomalous, capricious, difficult; - tolerated only because of long continuance and the absence of a better system; and so long as it is continued, a stop would appear to be put for ever to the advance of improvement, and a far too narrow limit fixed for the employment of a sweet-toned and most expressive instrument. On the other hand, once get rid of this bugbear, for such it is, and a field is opened for excellence hitherto unapproached in every department of the instrument. Not only do tone, power, sweetness, intonation, the employment of the embouchure, and other requisites, reach an unanticipated perfection, but that very matter, for which all these great essentials were hitherto sacrificed, becomes itself perhaps the most striking subject of improvement, presenting order for confusion, and extreme facility for complexity and caprice.

Under the force of these considerations, our resolution was taken. Bringing to bear upon our efforts a knowledge of the dispersed records of discoveries in acoustical science - a practically acquired and familiar acquaintance with the resources of mechanical skill - and a perfect cognizance of, not to say a participation in, almost all the important changes made or attempted in the manufacture of flutes, we produced or projected a number of original varieties of the instrument; any of which were, in our, perhaps partial, judgment, superior to those hitherto employed. The separate merits of these, or of their separate parts or peculiarities, were subjected to the only efficient test, that of experience in the most skilful hands. No time, labor, or money were spared in availing ourselves of the abilities or judgment of those most capable of determining, practically, once for all, the best "form and mould" in which the new instrument should make its appearance. Our decision was made in every particular without hesitation, and without difference of opinion; and as the instrument concentrated the results of much labour and investigation, and embraced many points of original invention, we deemed it due to ourselves to make it the subject of a Patent.

Our patent was obtained, and our flute adopted by many of the first amateurs, who speedily demonstrated its superiority. A little previous to this time, no small stir and commotion had existed in the flute world, both of makers and performers, in reference to our invention, then only partially disclosed. As its qualities, however, became developed, it became very soon evident, both to makers and players, that the days of the old flute were numbered, no person of the smallest musical sensibility hesitating a moment in opinion; the performers who had attained eminence by genius or indomitable industry might indeed wear their hard-earned laurels without descending to go to school again; but it was clear that the new flute would become the instrument of the rising generation. Flutes of the costliest description were sold at a third or fourth of their cost, and were replaced by the new invention; and the demand on the old makers was suddenly interrupted. Othello's occupation was gone. This result was anticipated. Experiments had been instituted, invention put into requisition, to produce something original, and mysterious rumours were circulated, on the "mantes parturiunt" system, of some forthcoming wonder. All these attempts proved abortive. 

On the completion of our patent, embracing, as it was found to do, the results of almost all possible experiments and desiderata, all these schemes and pretensions were dissipated to the winds and the expedient at last resorted to, because nothing else was left, was to fall back upon the formerly reviled and persecuted Boehm; to discover, all at once, that it was perfection, and to confess how very unjustly and ignorantly they had before condemned it. The praise of these parties is worth as much as their former censure, and, in its turn, may have to be revoked.

Other parties, not prepared to proceed so far (vulgo, to go the whole hog), attached bits and morsels of the Gordon or other flutes to their own. Indeed, as we have mentioned the "ANIMAL," the whole affair forcibly brings to mind the proceedings described by Cowper, after Mahomet's mysterious edict against the porcine genus :

" Much controversy straight arose; 
These choose the back, the belly those. 
By some, 'twas confidently said,  
He meant not to forbid the head: 
While others, at that doctrine rail, 
And piously prefer the tail."

This hotch-potch, piece-meal affair, the appropriators do not hesitate to name their " New Patent Flute," - patent, forsooth! because it retains the old patent tuning head of Potter.

But it is time for us to return. We should not have troubled our readers with these matters, but that they form the strongest species of evidence, that of rivals in trade, as to the amount of importance attached to our invention; as well as to the certain fate of the old flute. How otherwise can be explained, the bustle, the inventions, or rumoured inventions, the pilferings or appropriations, the false announcements, and deceitful appellations, we have described? How are men brought to eat their own words, and to bepraise as immodestly a mediocre instrument as they before immoderately condemned it? The course pursued by these parties proves distinctly three points. It is a distinct avowal of their conviction of the irremediable faults, and consequent doom of the old flute; it is a recognition, so far as it goes, of the acoustical merits of a truly perforated flute; and it is an unintentional, and therefore more valuable, testimony to the merits of our invention, that its importance should be felt so strongly, as to bring into existence the conflicting elements above described.

At this stage of our subject, we cannot do otherwise than point out wherein the New Patent Flute differs from all others, and remark upon the results obtained; leaving it to the discerning to test its conformity with our theoretical principles, the correctness of which we think self-evident. We are aware, that it is not to all equally easy to comprehend fully a descriptive diagram; but we feel very confident, that sufficient is here exhibited to awaken the curiosity of those who have any interest in the improvement of the flute, and to prevent them resting satisfied without seeing, hearing, and judging of the instrument themselves. 

Our flute being now adopted by numerous metropolitan and provincial amateurs and professors, we hope no difficulty will be experienced in this respect; and we shall ourselves be at all times happy to afford the facilities requisite for forming a judgment. Moreover, we promise an early public exhibition of the capabilities of the instrument; observing, however, that the facilities in manipulation and voicing which it presents are things which cannot be publicly shown, while they may at once be demonstrated, by a very slight personal inspection. 

One word more. Celebrated professors, themselves the ostensible makers of flutes, have but too often employed their professional eminence in the selfish advancement of trade interests; and amateurs have been too much guided by their opinions, thus, by no means disinterested. It may appear a hackneyed piece of advice, on our part, to request flutists to judge for themselves, and not to depend upon any authority! but really, at the present time, while such conflicting interests and statements abound, it does appear peculiarly necessary that parties should cast aside prejudice and influence, and boldly form an independent decision, even should such decision be against ourselves, of which we have no fear. We still say, "Palmam qui meruit ferat."

In referring the reader to the annexed sketch, we would observe that frequent misunderstandings have arisen from a difference in giving names to the apertures. Thus, on the old flute, the lowest open hole on the middle joint is sometimes erroneously called the G hole, because to produce G that hole is the lowest or last that is closed. A little reflection will show, that not that hole, but the first hole on the joint below is the G aperture, because the length of column for G is determined by the last named aperture remaining open. We adopt the proper nomenclature; and for further consistency we give the fingers themselves the names of the apertures on which they act. Thus, the fore-finger, right hand, is not the F# finger, but the G finger, because it acts on the G aperture. Also, when we speak, below, of a key or aperture determining such or such a note, it is to be understood, when not otherwise expressed, that the keys or apertures above the one in question, are to be kept closed.

1. This key is raised by the first finger of the right hand acting on lever X; when open it gives D; and is employed in several shakes.

2. This key is closed by the first finger of the left hand, in the act of closing the small aperture within the annexed ring. This key open, with all the apertures below also open, gives C#.

3. Keeping No. 2 closed, this key, 3, remaining open, gives C; when closed, it gives B. It is closed by either of the fingers which act on apertures 4, 8, or 9; but by acting on the edge only of the rings at 4, 8, or 9, the apertures they surround may be retained open. Further, when aperture 4 is closed, this key, 3, can be raised by the first finger of the right hand acting on lever Y.

4. B aperture, by which we mean, not that it is to be acted upon for B; but that when open it determines the length of column for B. This aperture, No. 4, is closed by second finger, right hand.

5. Bb aperture, closed by third finger, right hand.

6. A key, closed by little finger, left hand. 

7. G# key, closed along with the A key. It is raised by the second finger, right hand, acting on lever Z, or by the left hand thumb acting on lever S.

8. G aperture, closed by first finger, right hand.

9. F # aperture, closed by second finger, right hand. 

10. F aperture, closed by third finger, right hand.

11. E aperture, closed by little finger, right hand.

12 Eb key, closed along with the E aperture. It is raised separately by left hand thumb acting on lever T.

13. C# key, closed by left hand thumb acting on lever U.

14. C key, closed by left hand thumb acting on lever V.  


In conformity to a previous remark it will be observed that the C# key, which we must so name from its use, is situated over the D aperture; and the C key over the C# aperture. The C aperture is the open end of the instrument.

By attentively observing the foregoing sketch and description, it may be seen:

  • That the apertures are duly, even symmetrically placed.  

  • That the gamuts or scales are produced by raising the fingers and keys in regular succession.

  • That one aperture is assigned to each semitone.

  • That the Eb, G#, and C keys are so combined with the E, A, and B  apertures respectively that one finger acts upon each pair of apertures by a single operation..

  • That, in consequence, these keys are opened and closed without special effort on the part of the performer.

  • That the said three keys supply the machinery demanded by the existence of the three apertures over and above the eight others, directly allotted to the eight fingers.

  • That the said three keys, when not required in their combined operation, may be separately raised by independent mechanism.

  • That all the apertures remain open below the one which determines any particular note.

  • And, finally, that anyone of the apertures may be opened separately, or in conjunction with any number of the others.

By this arrangement of the apertures and keys in relation to the fingers, it results that the scales of all the modes or keys may be performed by acting on one aperture for the semitones, and two for the tones, throughout the lower and middle octaves. The cross or alternating action of some fingers and the cramped and unnatural motion of others is entirely abolished; as is also the pernicious closing of apertures below the one determining a note; an occurrence which can never take place in the lower and middle octaves at least, without manifest injury to tonal quality, uniform certainty of embouchure, and justness of intonation.

To explain the advantages presented by the Patent Flute in regard to the third octave, we must revert to the acoustical laws of air vibrating in tubes. As before remarked, nearly all the notes of the second octave of any flute must be produced as harmonics of their fundamental; and it may here be added, that on the Patent Flute, the THIRD octave of notes may be so produced, with ease and certainty, by the lip. 

In the second octave, it will be remembered that the column of air is divided into two parts, vibrating two to one. If we make the third octave of notes, on the same principle, namely, as the second harmonic octaves of their fundamentals, we divide the air into four parts, vibrating four to one. We say that by a commensurate action of the embouchure, this may be done, on our flute; but, to produce this third octave with less exertion of the embouchure, and with more. power and certainty, the better plan is, to take advantage of, and bring into use, the greatest possible length of column, appropriate for the note, and to open apertures at the nodal points. 

Take an extreme example:-

The fourth C may be produced as the third harmonic of the fundamental C2, but in this case we have no means of assisting the embouchure in deciding the note. On the contrary, by employing the whole length of the flute, and taking the note as the seventh harmonic of C1, (thus dividing the air into eight parts), we can assist the embouchure in determining the note, by opening such apertures as are situated at, or near its nodal points. 

It is on this principle that the alto notes of the flute are formed. In fixing the regular or standard chromatic scale of the patent flute, the harmonic divisions of such of the lowest fundamentals have been selected, as will give the most convenient fingerings of the alto notes, in relation to each other; but to facilitate the execution of shakes, turns, &c., ample resources are presented by other available harmonic divisions of other fundamentals.

By taking the harmonic divisions of the lowest fundamentals that we can select, and by opening so many of the apertures as are situated at their nodes, and thus determining them, as far as possible, as fingered notes, we not only aid the embouchure in an operation at all times rather delicate, but we obtain a much greater volume of tone, and of better quality, than if we take them purely as harmonics.

Now, the Patent Flute presents convenient means of accomplishing this to the utmost attainable extent. The ordinary flute also possesses some facilities in regard to the opening of separate apertures, although they are so irregularly placed as to destroy a great part of the advantage of such facility. Still, in this respect it is much superior to the Boehm flute; because, in the latter, two of the most essential apertures, G and B, which are situated in the place of the most frequently occurring nodes, cannot be independently opened; but require as before described several others to be opened at the same time. It is on this account that so many of the alto notes of the Boehm flute require to be made as pure harmonics; and hence the feebleness, and variable character of tone observed in these flutes.

We have compared the fingerings of the scales of the old, the Boehm, and the new Patent Flute; but we may again remark, that Gordon from the first wished to retain as much as possible of the old fingering; and the subsequent alterations designed to embrace more, detract materially from that degree of purity and equality which this flute would otherwise possess. An orderly or systematic fingering seems never to have been contemplated by any of the parties concerned in the fabrication of this instrument. It was too great and too daring an exploit to be attempted: and the convenience or prejudices of the performers of the day were allowed to overbalance the immense economization of time and labour, both to old and young, in all future time, and the still greater advantages henceforward secured; and thus the Boehm has been rendered as hotch-potch in its scales as the old flute; and, strange to say, after all, the systematic arrangement of the new Patent flute allows it to retain a greater number of the old fingerings, including, in fact, all that are good,

On the Boehm, as well as on the ordinary flute, the right little finger is employed in holding the Eb key open; on the patent flute it acts on the Eb and the E simultaneously, thus saving the work of one finger. Again, in the former flutes, the left little finger is employed on the G# only; in the patent flute it acts on the G# and A simultaneously, thus saving the work of another finger. Again, in our flute, the second finger, left hand, acts simultaneously upon the B aperture and the second C key, while on the Boehm, the left thumb is solely employed with the C2

In addition to our previous remark, as to the inconveniences attending this application of the left thumb, we must add, that the thumb requires to be removed from the flute at the very time that all the fingers are off the apertures, thus depriving the instrument of a main support, spoiling its tone by the consequent instability, and even endangering its preservation from destruction. 

Our flute is peculiarly free from liability to such, or indeed to any injury from accidents. By bringing the little fingers into use, it is held very steadily in the hands, while by the manner in which those fingers, and the second left-hand finger perform, as it were, double functions, in providing for the apertures supernumerary to the fingers, advantages accrue of the utmost value in every department of the instrument; and feats may be accomplished, with what some would style a ridiculous simplicity, which have hitherto baffled the greatest masters of execution.

At the risk of being thought tedious, we cannot avoid specially noticing one peculiarity of our flute, before concluding this branch of the subject. The appropriation of the lowest notes to the most distant moving power, viz. the left hand thumb, must, we are aware, appear at the first blush, a startling innovation. By the thoughtless we know it has been pronounced absurd.

We unhesitatingly assert (and we are joined by all those who have even tried the instrument), that it is one of the most, if not THE most, valuable of all the minor arrangements of the mechanism. Who has not experienced the difficulty of pouncing suddenly and with precision upon the long keys? Who, if nature has not given him more than the average length of little fingers, can even reach the lower keys without motion of the whole hand, involving every probability of uncovering some of the holes, as well as of disturbing the position of the flute? And how many, we ask, among a thousand, can accomplish the shake between Eb and D in a manner fit to be heard? We shall only say, that by means of our "absurd innovation," the masterly accomplishment of these matters becomes the very simplest of simple things.

We refer the reader to the forthcoming practical treatise, for further elucidation of the manifold advantages of the simple fingering of the Patent flute.

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