Bainbridge's Observations



William Bainbridge flourished in London from around 1803 to his death around 1831.  He seems to have been player, teacher and maker, and is best known for his flageolets. 

Bainbridge published his Observations in 1823.  They included observations on other woodwind instruments - they need not concern us here.  The "German flute" is what we now call the flute (as opposed to the "English flute" - what we now call the recorder).

His remarks come to us from an interesting time.  Flute bores were being reduced to improve access to the third octave.  Embouchures were changing from round to elliptical.  Nicholson had just introduced his "Improved flute" which brought some distinct improvements while exacerbating other problems.  Forgeries of flutes was a major headache and low quality flutes were being turned out at low cost to attract buyers.  Bainbridge comments on all of these.

In the pages that follow, I have taken some liberties with layout and punctuation to make meaning clearer. Any comments of mine will be [in square brackets]. 

O B S E R V A T I 0 N S






German Flutes;




Inventor of the Patent, Single, Double, and Trio Flageolets;
The Dolce, or Double Flute, &c. &c. &c,



Printed for the Author, and may be had at his Manufactory, 35, Holborn Hill,
and at his Residence and Musical Instrument Dépôt,
 86, Lisson Grove North, New Road, Paddington.

 Also sold by the principal Music and Book Sellers in Town and Country.


J. Innes, Printer, 61, Wells Street, Oxford Street.


are not many musical instruments so frequently attempted as the German Flute, but how seldom do we hear it played on, in tune!  Many great and important improvements have been made on the Flute, by eminent makers in London, and most excellent instruments have been produced.  But there are many, too many, who only finish Flutes to please the eye and not the ear;  nor do they stop here, but they even stamp the names of those, who have, by their talents and industry gained the confidence of the Public, on the trash which they make, merely to sell!

[Bainbridge is probably particularly sensitive on the issue of forgeries, as his own name was forged as Banebrigs.]

My manufactory being in a public situation, it affords me many opportunities to witness these impositions, from the number of instruments which are sent to be new leathered, or repaired.

I trust that not an illiberal expression has escaped me, my object being to guard the Public against impositions, and not to injure any industrious individual; at the same time, I wish to throw such light on the mechanical department of instrument making, that amateurs may overcome
the difficulties under
which they may labour. This end accomplished, I shall feel amply repaid, and shall ever be grateful for the unprecedented encouragement which I have met with for upward of twenty years.


Jan. 1823.


The German Flute.

A VERY important part of the Flute, is the embouchure or mouth-hole, and many are the opinions relative thereto.  When we reflect that the lips of individuals are formed very differently in many instances, too much attention cannot be bestowed in selecting a flute with a suitable embouchure.  It is a fact, that from the same instrument, two persons will produce a totally different tone; and that one will blow a quarter of a note sharper than another; and vice versa.  Many prefer a small embouchure, others a large one, some give the preference to the oval form, others decide in favour of the round ones, and frequently this occurs with good performer!

If this be the case with experienced professors, what must be the situation of the Amateur? - The only remedy that I can suggest is - two heads; one with an oval embouchure, and the other with a round one, of course differing in size.  The performer then will soon ascertain which suits him best; for possibly he will be able to produce a comparatively melodious tone from the one, while he may labouring in vain with the other.

I made an experiment lately, on this point,  I finished a flute for a gentleman, and recommended him an extra top-joint, with a different embouchure; I took care to render the bearings of the instrument accordingly suitable.  The gentleman had a friend who could play tolerably well - but he could not produce a tolerable tone from the oval embouchure, but could manage the round one extremely well; while the owner himself could not get a good tone with the round but played beautifully on the oval one.

This was a convincing proof to me, that students labour under great disadvantages frequently. We may easily alter the flute to the lip, but we cannot the lip to the flute.

[The issue remains as pertinent today, even if the decision is more usually between elliptical and rectangular forms, rather than round and elliptical.  It's good to remember that there is nothing sacred about the ellipse - it is just one of the infinite number of points on the path between round and rectangular.]

The old adage, in my opinion, may with great justice be applied to this case -

"That two heads are better than one."

An extra head can be easily fitted to Flutes of any makers, at a reasonable expense; as there are no keys required.

The Exterior of Flutes.

The flute (like all other wind instruments), in what may be termed its most perfect state, has many defects, and when these defects are multiplied, by inexperienced or pretended mechanics, it becomes very imperfect indeed.  A well-made flute should be turned to a proper substance, but proportionably; and the bore or interior made to correspond exactly with the thickness of the wood - the cork should be fixed in a particular place; and the holes made of a certain size; so as not to admit of more air to escape than will produce the tone required. A person who is capable of producing a good model may be expected to be able to remedy defects which will occur to the best workmen at the lathe; and that is accomplished by the strictest attention being paid to the various sizes of the holes; or the instrument will never be in tune.

For instance, let us suppose a person, who manufactures Flutes to sell cheap, shall work from a good model: if, in turning the wood, he should reduce it too much, in the parts where the holes are to be made, and he should finish the holes agreeably to those on his model, the instrument will not be in tune; or if the substance be too great and the holes not be made to correspond, the Flute will be defective. Hence, the imperious necessity that a maker of instruments should be thoroughly acquainted with all their bearings.  It is generally the case that several persons are employed in making one instrument; and when the low prices at which some are offered for sale are considered, it appears evident that men who understand their business cannot be adequately paid for their labour; consequently, a Flute is put together without attending to the most essential parts; on, such instruments a professor cannot play in tune; how then can it be expected that the amateur will? 

I will now proceed to:

The Bore, or Interior of Flutes.

The greatest nicety is requisite in boring a Flute; the least deviation will cause innumerable defects, not only in the intonation, but in the steadiness of the very tone itself; the utmost attention should be paid to this department, and an experienced person ought to try every tube.

[i.e. an experienced player should test each flute before it is pronounced satisfactory for sale.  Bainbridge would be aware that not all makers are players.]

If a small piece of paper be placed in any part of the interior of the Flute, it will be found to affect notes distant from it.

This proves that instruments should not be sent out of the maker's hands as soon as they are finished, as the bore will fluctuate and require regulating, but it is too often the case with those who make sale Flutes, that one day a log of wood is bought, the next day it is turned, and in a few days more metamorphosed into an apparently elegant German Flute, exposed for sale, or perhaps sent some hundreds of miles into the country, with all its imperfections!

[Bainbridge will be aware how wood, particularly after boring, can move substantially.  A flute made in a few days from the log will indeed give endless trouble.]

Experiments have lately been made by considerably enlarging the holes of Flutes: but it is the opinion of many professors that then the upper octaves become too sharp; certain it is that the Pitch is sharper, and the instrument may appear more brilliant, particularly to amateurs, who may have had in their possession a German Flute of a totally different Pitch.

[This can be taken as a criticism of Nicholson's Improved flute, introduced a few years earlier. Nicholson's opposing views can be seen at Nicholson]

There are various opinions with regard to the width in the bore of German flutes.  I lately had an opportunity of hearing a very fine player (a professor and teacher) perform on a wide one, which he had been accustomed to, the tone was certainly rich and full. He afterwards played the same passages on a German flute with a narrower bore. His opinion was that the wide-bored flute was more calculated for a large orchestra; but that the narrower was much sweeter in a room, and required considerably less exertion to play on it.  I observed, when in Paris, that flutes with a narrow bore were preferred by the good flute players.

[Around the turn of the century small bore instruments were being made by Potter, and large bored flutes by Monzani.  The small bore flutes with their easier third octave won out, but not quite yet.]

It is the opinion of several eminent professors in London, that when German flutes are made with a narrow bore, and with judgment in the turning department, there is no occasion to have the apertures of so very large a size, for they will be brilliant without it, and produce the upper notes very easily, and the lower notes also; nor will there be any necessity for the continual motion of the head to blow them in tune.

[The "continual motion of the head" referring to lipping notes up and down to get them into tune.  While it is sometimes argued that the flutes of this era were in tune at the time but have gone out of tune due to shrinkage or whatever change subsequently, Bainbridge is confirming that they were not in tune to start with.]

There are many amateurs who perform extremely well on the flute, as far as execution, taste, and expression go: but what a great drawback on their efforts is an incorrect intonation!  And this too not their own fault - they do not detect the imperfection themselves, their ears having been accustomed to them.  But when they accompany a well-tuned piano-forte, what a mortification it must be to them to be told that they play out of tune!  All this may be obviated by applying to a good maker (of whom there are many in London, equal to any in Europe) for a good instrument.  But it is a great misfortune to beginners, that they purchase what they call a cheap or common musical instrument; observing, that if they succeed, they will have a better; this is mostly the cause of their failure.  Frequently they rely on a friend, who plays but little, for his opinion in the choice of an instrument. 

I know there are a number of amateurs that play beautifully on the German flute, and who have great judgment in musical instruments ; but there are too many whose ears are spoiled by playing on their own imperfect German flute; and they frequently unconsciously lead their friends into the same error, by recommending an instrument of the same imperfect bearing. 

Some teachers of the German flute assert that there are gentlemen who from a peculiar defect in the lip, can never attain a good tone; certain it is that some very good performers on other musical instruments cannot do it. When the amateur has this defect, and has an imperfect or improper German flute, if he cannot find any means to supply the former defect, he should endeavour to remedy the latter.  Let me therefore caution all persons, who are not acquainted with the merits of musical instruments, to be careful, and not be led a way by gaudy appearances, for correctness of interior is of much more value.

As for the wood, it matters not whether the instrument be made of box, ebony, or cocoa, so it be a good one; and as for the shape of the keys, it is of little consequence: if the flute be air-tight, every end is accomplished, and the simpler the key, the easier it is to get repaired when an accident happens.

In conclusion, I beg to remark, that I have no other object in view, than that of guarding the public against impostors, particularly those who are daring enough to forge the names of men of talent on German flutes, in order to deceive the public; for how many apparently elegant Flutes, made of ivory, cocoa, box, &c. mounted with silver, and fine keys, are constantly exposed for sale, whose intonation, generally speaking, is very imperfect!  But many are satisfied with their fine appearance; and it is mostly to this cause we hear so many amateurs perform on the German flute imperfectly.


Not a long document, but a lot of good common sense contained within, much as relevant now as then.


Thanks to the Dayton C Miller collection at the Library of Congress where I found Bainbridge.



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  1st draft: January, 2006