Cornelius Ward - The Flute Explained


THE great variety in the character or kind of tone - the very precise intonation - and the exquisite expression of which the flute is susceptible, in consequence of the means by which its sound is generated, as well as the simplicity of those means, distinguish it from all other musical instruments. The taste and feeling of the performer is unlimited, and in a great measure uncontrolled. Like the voice, its sounds are produced without the intervention of reed, string, wire, or hammer, and of course unalloyed with their attendant jarring, scraping, or rapping; and it is divested of that fixedness of character, which is so wearisome and monotonous in many instruments. The action of the embouchure is capable of being regulated with such extreme delicacy, for the production of various minute effects, of grace or temperament, that it would seem to depend more upon the volition of the performer, as guided by his taste and ear, than upon any other circumstance, beyond a knowledge of the general principles for producing the sound of the instrument.

It would require a volume to propound, investigate, and trace in their operation the philosophical principles involved in the action of the air at the embouchure, and, in connexion therewith, in the bore of the flute. We shall, therefore, only give, in this small work, such a general outline of this branch of our subject, as may serve to illustrate the advantages of the patent flute over the ordinary one; reserving, for a separate paper, a more minute investigation into this delicate, subtle, yet most interesting department of flauto-acoustics.

In some of the best books of instruction for this instrument, the performer is absurdly directed to "blow into the flute" to obtain the tone. This is very erroneous; for the tone is not produced by "blowing into" the mouth-hole, but by blowing more or less against its edge. This edge answers the purpose of the wind-cutter in the flageolet and the flute organ-pipe; and that portion of the stream of air which passes outside, is as much concerned in the production of the sound as that which passes into the interior of the tube. The sound of the pipes of a mouth-organ, as well as that of the stopped flute organ-pipe, is obtained in a manner nearly similar, in both of which cases the whole of the stream of air applied must escape at the aperture by which it enters. 

Now, the porte-vent apparatus of the flageolet and organ-pipe being substituted or displaced in the flute by the lips of the performer, it follows that the direction, force, and quantity of the current can be most delicately regulated at his discretion. In addition to the control thus acquired by means of the flexibility of the lips, &c., the circumstance that the stream of air is applied laterally, instead of perpendicularly to the transverse section of the column, confers the power of directing the stream more or less deeply into the section. These are peculiarities in the mode of generating the sound, proper to the flute, constituting its characteristics as distinguished from all other wind instruments.

To produce the sound of the flute, the stream of breath from the small longitudinal aperture in the nearly closed lips of the performer, should be directed across the aperture in the head of the flute, so as to impinge on that edge of it which is opposite to the lips. This edge, as before described, divides it into two streams, one of which passes away, while the lower stream enters the mouth-hole, performs a circuit in the interior of the adjacent part of the tube or bore, and is refracted to, and contends with, the main stream passing over the mouth-hole. Here, therefore, a contention is established between two, streams of air in motion at different angles. Now, from the laws of action and reaction, this contention of the two streams (the one striving for onward progress, and the other intercepting its efforts) gives rise to an alternate resistance and yielding; and consequently, that which would otherwise be a continuous stream, becomes an interrupted one. In consequence of the extreme elasticity of the substance air, these interruptions occur at periods of excessively rapid iteration; and at each interruption of continuity a concussion is produced. These rapid concussions or pulsations, thus created, are the direct origin of sound in the flute.

Purposely omitting any allusion to other agencies at work in the process above described, we must press upon the reader's attention the fact, that there exists a most intimate connexion and mutual dependence, between the foregoing operations at the embouchure, and the effects produced in the column of air below. Every change in the one is immediately reciprocated by the other; and a certain maximum of mutual adaptability must be attained, before the best effects can be produced.

The perfection of tone in each succeeding note in the scale of the flute, depends upon the air in the bore being correctly apportioned into the exact quantities, naturally demanded and required for the production of that number of vibrations of which, each note consists. And the perfection of convenience, as well as of excellence, is attained when this due apportionment of quantities is so accomplished as to admit of the proper number of vibrations being produced by a. uniformly graduated change in the direction and force of the stream of air from the lips of the performer.

For the lower tones, the stream of air is directed more into the mouth-hole, and in larger volume, thus acting more deeply into the section of the bore; and by this means it fulfils the conditions required by the moderate rapidity of the vibrations of the lower tones. On the other hand, as the scale of notes is ascended, a lessened dipping into the section, and a thinner volume produces the required adaptability to the increased rapidity of the vibrations.            .

Now, if the pitch of each note depends upon the number of vibrations in a certain time, and the number of vibrations depends upon the quantities of the column of air allotted to them, and also that they, by the same law, demand a certain force and direction of the stream of breath, we may see the importance of so constructing the flute as to admit of the most simple practical application of those laws. Once constructed, we have no further control over the proportions of the instrument; we cannot distend or contract its dimensions, or alter the position or size of its apertures. Upon the lips, almost entirely, depends the whole power of modification. How important, therefore, is it that this office should be rendered as simple and regular as possible; not, as in the old flute, varying and even opposite operations for, neighbouring notes, but systematic, consistent, and uniform; similar alterations producing similar effects upon all notes, whether those effects be of power, of intonation, or of expression.

By protruding the under-lip so as to encroach upon the space of the mouth­hole, the stream of air is diverted more out of it. This is the proper way to effect the change required in ascending the scale. .And by covering the mouth-hole more or less (which is usually done by rolling the flute upon the chin, so that the mouth-hole is turned more in or out), an effect is attained equivalent to a lengthening or shortening of the tube, or columns of air, By these means, any note may be flattened or sharpened to the extent of nearly a semitone.

This property of the embouchure is, of necessity, brought into constant use on the ordinary flute to procure anything approaching correctness of scales. Its acquirement to the extent demanded by this flute is laborious in the extreme, nor is the labour worthily employed; for there still remains the unconquerable defect of alternately feeble and strong tones, produced by the irregular size of the apertures: and as the mouth-hole requires more covering for one note and less for the next, there is an unceasing, irregular, zig-zag motion both of the lips and the instrument.

On the Patent flute we presume to hope that this "mouthing" and "see-saw­ing" is "reformed", not "indifferently," but "altogether," and that the "players" will find it easy both to "speak trippingly on the tongue," and "to acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness."

The senior and junior Nicholsons used very large mouth-holes, in order to take full advantage of this means of correcting the unequal effects of the large and irregular sized finger apertures introduced by the elder Nicholson. Very few, however, can manage the embouchure of the Nicholsons, from the time, attention, and peculiar talent it requires. And unless it be managed with surpassing skill, the inherent defects of the instrument are shown to a greater degree than with moderate sized apertures.

The square shape is unquestionably the best for the mouth-hole. The shape of the aperture between the lips when in action, and the form of the air in the flute, would induce us to suppose it would be so, if experience did not confirm the fact. This form is not new; it is an old and common practice to make them so in Vienna; and ourselves employed this form in flutes we made for L. Drouet twenty­five years ago, which he continued to use, and of which he spoke in the highest terms when here since.  

On, to The Bore, etc.

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