Cornelius Ward - The Flute Explained


ALTHOUGH the apertures should be placed consistently with the ratio of the divisions of the monochord, or of the air in an open tube; in other words, according to the musical scale pointed out by nature, it is equally and imperatively demanded that certain modifications should be made, in a ratio relative to those laws, in consequence of the manner and circumstances under which the sound of the flute is produced. The small opening of the mouth-hole is not equivalent to the open end of a tube, where the whole section of the column of air is in free connexion with the circumambient atmosphere; nor are the side or finger orifices equivalent to terminal openings: neither would the pulsations formed at the embouchure exert equal influence in all parts of a cylindrical tube. The investigation of these three points would require much space: we shall, therefore, confine ourselves, at present to an account of the manner in which the effects of these circumstances are provided for in the construction of the new flute.    

The lengths of the tubes required for each of the fundamental notes of the flute must be each about one and a half inch shorter than the monochord indicates, on account of the flattening effects of the mouth-hole, it being, as just stated, an imperfect substitute for an open end; and further, about one inch additional shorter on account of lateral apertures being substituted for the other open termination of the tube, making a total difference of about two inches and a half.

Again, we have repeatedly stated that the air in the flute is divided into parts or portions, for the tones of the second and third octaves; but the aliquot divisions of the monochord will not apply to the flute. We have experimentally proved that two inches in length of the embouchure end is equal to four inches at the other end; and that the positions of all the nodes occur at increasing distances from the mouth-hole.

By the scientific reader it will be readily understood that mathematical and theoretic laws are only applicable, in their utmost strictness, to cases where entire abstraction can be made of physical counteracting influences. Even in the most delicately constructed monochords, it is well known, that not absolute accuracy, but approximation only, is obtained, to the calculated results; and this, because it is impossible to procure strings of absolutely homogeneous substance, or of uniform density and elasticity; or to ensure other required conditions.

The same line of reasoning applies to the laws of air in tubes. But when, in addition, it is considered that not only are pneumatic and quasi-hydraulic laws called into operation, over and above the proper acoustic phenomena, in all experiments in air in tubes; but that, moreover, in the flute, the first cause and origin of sound is by no means applied uniformly to the whole section of the bore, but is strictly peculiar and sui generis - it will be manifest that the laws of strings cannot be, in all cases, or throughout, applicable to tubes or columns of air; certainly not in the case of the flute.

There is, indeed, a most extensive and beautiful parallelism and analogy between the two classes of experiments, viz., with strings and tubes; embracing even curious collateral and supplementary phenomena: but here, as in astronomy and all the physical sciences, corrections and compensations must be applied, corresponding with the contingencies of the occasion. To reduce these, also, to rule, and to apply them skillfully, requires the aid both of science, and a mass of experimental facts: and we claim for our instrument, the application and embodiment of these principles in their fullest extent; fearlessly asserting their almost total disregard in all other flutes.

To confer power and firmness on all the tones equally throughout the scale of the flute, - to ensure the facile production of the true quality of sound by a well managed touch of the breath, -and to provide the means of pushing each note to its utmost extent of power with moderate exertion, a certain size and shape of bore only is fit and proper to be used in connexion with the correct arrangement of the apertures. If the bore be large beyond the proper measure, more force of breath must be exerted to produce the sound; but no equivalent increase of power will result. Instead of this, we only induce a stiffness, and increased difficulty for the embouchure, which exhausts the player, and produces a tone of inferior quality and power.

A small difference in the calibre of the bore has a great effect upon the qualities of the instrument; as will be imagined when it is known, that the largest and the smallest do not differ more than about one-thirtieth of an inch.

The bore of the head should be cylindrical; but that of the rest of the flute of a taper form. From the point where it commences to taper, it should contract by a regular declination to half the diameter of the cylindrical part. If it contract more or less than this, then the due relation will not be preserved, in tone or tune, between the notes formed at the lower part of the instrument and those formed at the upper part; or else the harmonics wi1I be false; or, worse still, a tendency will be created to produce harmonics, especially in the act of increasing the force of breath when directed for the lower tones, which are consequently deficient in firmness and certainty when attempted as forte notes.

We say, that, to ensure firmness, power, and certainty, throughout the extent of the instrument, with correct intonation, the longitudinal section of the bore should be two straight lines, converging at the lower end to half their distance at the upper. To make a bore in this shape is much more difficult than to lessen it in an irregular way, as some pretend is necessary in the ordinary flute. No distortion of the bore will compensate for the erroneous positions of the apertures, nor for the muffling effects of cross-fingerings. Nothing in short, but the union of correctly placed apertures with a bore of true size and proportions, will allow of correct scales being produced by a regular transition of the direction and force of the breath.

The bore of the ordinary flute is made larger in this country than it should be for a flute properly constructed; because, from the enlarged capacity, and the necessarily increased force of blast, some of the cross-fingered notes become a very little better. The quack vendors of these instruments mystify the pretended effects of what they term chambering the bore, to convert to the best account their deficient skill, or their want of proper implements; as well as to cover a large amount of ignorance and pretension.

Akin to this mystification, is the course pursued in many instruction books. We have not seen one which candidly informs the learner of the manoeuvres required to play the ordinary flute in tune. They give a vast variety of modes of fingering the same notes; with the object, one might suppose, of perplexing the scholar, or of showing the author's ingenuity. Their silence on the one hand, and their profuse loquacity on the other, furnish strong evidence of their having (in the old flute) a bad case to deal with, requiring a large amount of special pleading, and a studious concealment of the important truths.

The authors of these books do not tell the student that the intonation of the instrument rests entirely with the performer, and depends upon certain zig-zag manoeuvrings of his lip, and other subterfuges. They do not point out which notes require the flattening or sharpening, the forcing or tempering process. Oh, no! the flutes they recommend are, doubtless, well in tune: the student is to blame if he cannot play in tune; and he must take expensive lessons to learn, not how to tutor his own ear, but to correct the false intonation of the instrument.

The good old Quantz was more honest and candid. He gives full, clear, and true directions for correcting as far as possible the bad notes, which he considers and terms the natural defects * of the instrument. And he states that unless the player can use his lips and chin with dexterity, under the guidance of a good ear, he can never become a musician on the flute. Quantz was evidently not interested in puffing any particular sort of flute; although he gives a true account of an improvement of his own. His remarks upon the method of playing in tune, and indeed upon all other matters concerning the instrument in relation to the per­former, contain more sound information, and in a better form, than any modern work on the subject, although he wrote one hundred years ago.

* Natural effects, we should rather say, of erroneous construction. Our flute demonstrates that such defects are neither natural nor necessary when the necessary natural laws are not con­travened.  

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