Cornelius Ward - The Flute Explained


THE sound of the flute is formed at and promulgated from the embouchure. The air in the bore of the flute modifies the pitch of the sound, by being apportioned, by means of the apertures, &c. into the appropriate quantities for each note of the scale. The bore decides the shape which the various portions of air should assume, to favour their being brought into full and effective vibration by the embouchure. The wood of the flute must be principally regarded as the receptacle and isolator of the air which produces the tones of the instrument. It is a mistake to suppose that the sound depends upon the vibrations of the wood, or that it is increased by them, as in instruments with sounding-boards; although it does partake of, and sympathize with the vibrations of the contained air, and may also, at the embouchure point, be a medium of communication with the mass of the atmosphere.

The peculiar character of the flute tone is owing to its being formed by the air alone. This, together with the manner in which it is produced, renders the tone so much like the human voice, and so much unlike all other instruments. Indeed, the circumstances upon which the tone and scale of the flute depend, are extremely similar to those upon which the voice and its modulation depend. The voice is formed in a very similar manner in the larynx, and the cavities of the head and throat afford the means of modifying the sound, as the bore and apertures do in the flute. It is also known, that as the wood of the flute vibrates sympathetically with the air, so do also the surface and tissues of the palate, nostrils, &c. &c. and the bones of the head, chest, arms, and upper part of the body generally. We are not aware, however, that any person ever imagined from these phenomena, that the sound of a person's voice was assisted by the thickness of his skull, or by his being a headstrong, stiff-necked fellow.

Respecting the kind of wood to be selected for the flute, it is very important that it should possess certain properties. It should be a resinous wood, that it may resist the action of and not imbibe moisture, and that it may preserve as nearly as possible an uniform calibre, when subjected to extremes of damp or dryness. It must be durable, tenacious, strong in the grain, and not porous.

The cocoa or cocus-wood of Jamaica possesses a greater number of the requisite properties, and in a greater degree, than any other at present known. The wood having the same name and colour which has been brought into this country in large quantities from Cuba, and other places, since the reduction of the duty, possesses none of the good qualities of that from Jamaica; but on account of the trees being better grown, the wood soft, and low in price, it is much used by the cheap flute makers. Although box-wood was much used for flutes formerly, it has extremely few of the requisite qualities. It is not sufficiently compact, unless saturated with oil; and it is so altered in bulk and form by moisture and dryness, as to be more fit for a hygrometer than a musical instrument. Ebony is objectionable on the same account, and also from its extreme brittleness; and both ought to be entirely discarded in the manufacture of first-rate instruments.

It is very important that the wood or frame-work of a flute should be solid, firm, and in as few pieces as possible, that it may maintain undisturbed the uniform vibration of the air. The joints of the ordinary flute occur in some places where the apertures ought to be situated. They are also liable to get loose, thereby disturbing the vibration and injuring the tone, besides rendering the flute liable to accidents occasioning its destruction, particularly in warm climates.

The Patent Flute is made but in two pieces, the head and the main piece; and of the very best quality of Jamaica cocoa wood only.

The Swiss Flutes were of the size of our small B, C, and D octaves, and of one piece of wood. When the Germans made flutes an octave lower, they stil1 made them in one piece; but when the French added the Eb key, 200 years ago, they made them in three pieces, the lower joint with the key, a main-piece with the finger apertures, and the head or embouchure piece. Some thirty years afterwards, the Germans made the main piece in two, for the purpose of having several extra middles for convenience of tuning. They also lengthened the middle joint at top and bottom, to perfect the scales, by getting some of the apertures higher up.

About 120 years ago, Quantz made the head piece in two, so as to slide at the joint, to tune more conveniently. At the same time he also applied a screw to the cork in the head, and he explains its use very correctly. It was the same as Potter's patent tuning-head. After the tuning-head was generally adopted, the practice of making the flute in so many pieces was inconsiderately continued.  

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