Some letters from Boehm




This is a most interesting contribution to the pages of the “Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review” for March 1890 by a Manchester correspondent styling himself “Mancuniensis” (Latin: "of Manchester").  It was referred to by Richard S. Rockstro in Article 912 of his “Treatise on The Flute” published later in the same year, since the Rockstro Model flute is mentioned several times.

The letter incorporates a number of extracts from various letters of Theobald Boehm written in the years 1878 and 1879.  These letters are of considerable interest.  Even at this late stage of his long life (he was 84 years old in 1878) Boehm was clearly still very active as a flute maker despite his failing eyesight, which he mentions repeatedly. The clearly unedited letters demonstrate that Boehm’s command of English as a (to him) foreign language was very good indeed, and the task of editing his writings into colloquial English represented no great challenge. This makes the failure of Rudall & Rose (probably under the influence of Richard Carte) to publish Boehm’s 1847 English-language “Essay on the Construction of Flutes” all the more difficult to understand. 

The letter from “Mancuniesis” is here reproduced in full.  Boehm’s letters appear in italics for clarity.  All emphasis indications are the original writers’ as per the original text.  The comments of the present authors appear in [brackets].

Letter from the “Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review”

No. 150, Volume XIII, March 1, 1890


To the Editor, Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review;


I have read with considerable interest the correspondence which has appeared in your columns on the subject of flutes.

Boehm, your readers will recollect, died in 1881, and about three years before his death I purchased from this celebrated maker a flute of cocus wood.  Its mechanism is of a finer quality and finish than any English flute I have ever seen, excepting, perhaps, a “Rockstro” of recent make, which is of exquisite manufacture.  All the other instruments of the celebrated firm [Rudall, Carte & Co.] who make the “Rockstro” – at all events that I have seen  - have been of a heavier style; perhaps better suited for rough orchestral work than the lighter finished ones.

As a result of the necessary correspondence in connection with the purchase of my Boehm, I have in my possession various letters from the great flute maker, the originals of which I forward to you, sir, for inspection, and extracts from which I make for the interest, I hope, of your flute playing readers. 

[One wonders where those originals are now!  Perhaps “Mancuniensis” should have kept them …………….]

In the spring of 1878 – I had previously ordered an instrument – I wrote to him asking him to make the holes as large as possible; in reply to which I received the following characteristic letter:-

 Munich, March 1, 1878

SIR, - The holes on my flutes are made as large as possible, according to my system: and if others make them still larger, so it is simply nothing than humbug.

[The holes on the Rockstro model, which “Mancuniensis” clearly admires, were very large indeed.  Boehm seems to be saying that his holes are made as large as necessary and that there is nothing to be gained in making them any larger]

I have not heard anything yet of Rockstro’s model.

[Rockstro challenged this statement in Article 912 of his Treatise, claiming that Boehm’s flutes made after 1864 showed clear traces of having been influenced by Rockstro’s own designs].

Probably it is again an addition to the many “improvements” made on my flutes, all of which have not lasted long.

Yours Truly,

Theobald Boehm

Another enquiry of mine procured me the following reply:-

Munchen, April 24, 1878

SIR, - I send you herewith another price list, whereupon I have marked with (*) what I would recommend to you.  The key mechanism of my flute must be very carefully worked, and therefore the difference of the price between fine silver and German-silver is only in the value of the metal; and, being only about 50 marks, it is not advisable to choose a metal which wears not well: silver is much preferable.

What I find not necessary is the lever for the C natural key.  I have never used it, and prefer to play the shakes with my thumbs.

As I know nothing about the Rockstro flutes, I would be very much obliged to you for sending me some explanation.

[Repeating the statement later challenged by Rockstro]

So many flutes have been made and called improved Boehm flutes; but all have not lasted long, as my system is founded on scientific principles, and cannot well be improved.

Yours very truly,

Th. Boehm

Excuse my bad writing; I am suffering very much in my eyes.

Further correspondence brought me, about a month later, the following:-

 Munich, May 20, 1878

MY DEAR SIR, - Many thank for your communications.  As I believe you will easily find some friend for translating from German into English, I send you herewith a treatise, which I had published (1847) at Paris and Mayence.

[This can be none other than the German text (published in 1847, as Boehm says) of Boehm’s afore-mentioned “Essay on the Construction of Flutes”, an English manuscript of which was provided to George Rudall in 1847 but which was to remain unpublished in English until 1882 when Walter Broadwood rescued it from the oblivion of Richard Carte’s old papers.  Broadwood’s edition appeared after Boehm’s death in 1881 and four years after Boehm wrote the letter quoted here. So at the time when Boehm was writing, no English translation was generally available.] 

You will find in the pages 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11, marked with red ink, that I never had used anything of M. Gordon, but that he had to thank me for what I had done for him.

[Most interesting!!  “Mancuniensis” had clearly raised this matter with Boehm in 1878, probably as a result of the continued and ultimately unsuccessful efforts of Richard S. Rockstro to prove that Boehm had stolen his original 1832 flute design from the Swiss national Captain James Gordon.  This charge originated in 1844 with Cornelius Ward, who published it in his treatise “The Flute Explained”. Boehm clearly remained as anxious as ever to clear his name, an opportunity which had been denied him 31 years earlier in 1847 when Rudall & Rose failed to publish his Essay, despite the fact that he had gone to the trouble of preparing an English-language manuscript for them.  The fact that the Boehm/Gordon issue was Boehm’s focus in sending this Essay to “Mancuniensis” is proved by the very fact that it was his Essay that he sent rather than  his later work “The Flute and Flute Playing” (which had been published in German in 1871 but was not to be published in English until 1908, when Dayton C. Miller published his own translation). The later work does not deal with the Boehm/Gordon controversy, and therefore sending the German text of that work  would not have answered the case.  Boehm may have been quite surprised and doubtless extremely annoyed to find that the old controversy was still dogging his reputation in 1878!!  He would have been even more annoyed to know that, thanks to Rockstro, it was to continue to dog his memory for a further 14 years until Christopher Welch finally disposed of Rockstro’s allegations once and for all in the 1892 Second Edition of his “History of the Boehm Flute”!!]

In regard of a flute for your own use, I think I can now make a good proposition.  I am just finishing a flute for a friend, who has got so very ill some days ago that there is no hope for his playing again for many weeks.  Therefore I can offer that flute to you, and make another for him.  The flute is of cocoawood [cocus wood], with keys of silver.  It is in the English pitch  [presumably English High Pitch (A=452) in 1878 when Boehm was writing] down to C1, and marked in the price list, No. II., at 375 marks; and including the requisites, the price is, for you – allowing you ten per cent – 350 marks, or seventeen pounds ten shillings in English money. You know, perhaps, that you can send to me any amount by paying the money at the post office, under my address, and you have only a trifle to pay for the sending. The flute is very good and fine, and made true to my system, just so as I play now more than twenty years myself.

If my proposal is not convenient, I will make for you another in about a month, having a shake key, an octave key (Schleifklappe) and gold springs, at the price of twenty pounds ten shillings.

I like simplicity myself, and I can play any music just as good on the simpler instrument.  Please to give me an answer as soon as possible, as there are others who will be glad to get a flute without waiting. My eyes are very bad, and I must cease writing.

Yours truly,

Th. Boehm

My best thanks”, says Boehm in another letter, “for sending me the price list of----------.  There is a good deal of nonsense and humbug in it”.

[It is very difficult to resist the conclusion that this was Rudall, Carte & Co.’s illustrated catalogue given that “Mancuniesnsis” was apparently a good customer of theirs and had been discussing their “Rockstro Model” with Boehm!  He had probably sent the catalogue to Boehm in response to Boehm’s request in his letter of April 24, 1878 (see above) that “Mancuniensis” send Boehm some “explanation” of the Rockstro Model.  An illustrated catalogue would answer this request very well. There is reason to believe, beginning with the non-publication of his 1847 Essay, that Boehm may have had little time for Carte’s firm by this stage in his life!  This may in part explain his expressed views on the claims presumably made in the catalogue regarding the various models included]. 

Alterations” he continues, “can be made ad infinitum, but nothing has, as yet, been better than my system, which will very likely remain the best”.

[Boehm is probably referring here to the breathtaking array of different models, many of them based on his system, that Rudall, Carte & Co. were then offering.  History has proved his verdict to be completely correct in terms of public acceptance]

The old fellow says what he means, and gives his opinions on the goods of other makers very freely.  His next letter urges me to prompt decision:-

Munich, June 3, 1878

DEAR SIR:- As I have waited for your last decision, so I have still the cocoa flute in hand, but I can wait only a few days longer for a definite answer.  I think I have written in my last that I cannot make a better flute  but only add another shake lever, an octave key and gold springs, at the difference of three pounds in the price.  I cannot decide if a silver flute is better for you.  If you don’t like the feeling of metal on your lips, and also prefer the sound of a wooden flute – then it is surely better to get a wooden flute.

You want a certificate to the perfection of the flute.  There is my name on the flute, and it is known in the whole world that I never send off an instrument which is not as perfect as a flute can be made. Anybody who understands anything of acoustics or mechanism knows that nothing is perfect, and that all what is said about it is only humbug.

[The acoustical impossibility of making a truly perfect flute was a life-long mantra for Boehm. His steadfast honesty in this regard is striking given that he was in the business of selling flutes and that “perfection” was a pretty standard claim by competing flute makers everywhere!  The only other flute maker to consistently express a similar view was the London-based Irish flautist and flute maker John Clinton, who at one point in his life was a close associate of Boehm’s]

As to mentioning my name in regard to -------------, you can be perfectly quiet. I never dispute with others about their improvements.  I leave the judgement always to the sense of the public, and I have always got the preference.

[It seems that “Mancuniensis” was trying to drag Boehm into an open debate on the merits of one of the many Boehm variants then going the rounds, quite possibly the aforementioned Rockstro Model.  Boehm very wisely declines to be drawn into any such debate – he feels that time will prove the soundness of his system, as indeed it has.]

Yours truly,

Th.  Boehm

And now, as will be seen by the following communication, my flute is on its way!

                                                                                              Munich, June 9, 1878

DEAR SIR:- I thank you for sending me the seventeen pounds ten shillings.  The flute is already on its way to Manchester.  You cannot get a better flute. If you follow my advice, given in my work on the flute, you have nothing to fear, because the cleaning is the best preservative against cracks, &c.

I have published Twenty-four Etudes (with and also without accompaniment of pianoforte) by A. Schott , of Mayence; and also Twelve Etudes, as an appendix to my work, by Jos. Aibl, in Munchen.  You will find them in London surely.

[“Mancuniensis” has clearly inquired regarding the availability of any of Boehm’s compositions for the flute]

I hope you will give me soon notice of the arrival of the flute, and of your contentment with it. I can write no more!

Yours truly,

Th. Boehm

Further correspondence ensued, the replies to which are here given:-

Munich, July 7, 1878

MY DEAR SIR, ~ You will allow me to correct your notions about flute making and acoustic principles.  A lining of a wooden head-joint with metal is an absurdity, as two heterogen (sic) substances of very different capacity of vibrating – like wood and metal – cannot vibrate together, and therefore make the tone stiff and hard, and destroy all sonority of tone.  Those makers in London, New York, and Vienna, who have made such lined heads, show only that they know nothing of acoustics.  Also, facing the cork with metal is good for nothing.

[Another very interesting point – Boehm was opposed to the use of a metal lining in a wooden head joint!  This is very much in step with many modern makers of wooden flutes for Celtic music and historical performance.  The lining has another drawback not mentioned by Boehm – it tends to cause cracks in the head joint as the wood shrinks with age around the inflexible lining].

About the crutch, as you call it, I see that you have not read with attention my work on the flute, or you would have found on page 17, line 3, that I had made it since I reformed the flute.

[“Mancuniensis” must have expressed a belief that the infamous crutch was a new invention of Boehm’s!  Boehm is certainly well launched into schoolmaster mode here!]

As the stem of the crutch is always long enough for a large hand, it must be adapted to the length of the fingers, and therefore it is not fastened in the other part; but when it has the right length, then it is a great advantage, and when you have used it only about a week, then you will never more play without it.

[The crutch for supporting the flute independent of the left thumb while playing went back to the 1840’s, when Boehm first promoted its use.  It seems that he had never abandoned it despite the fact that it had not achieved public favour, being generally dismissed as a “useless” contrivance!]

As to the gold springs, I advise you to keep the steel springs, as long as they do not break. There is always time for sending the flute when something more important is to be repaired.

I hope you will soon find that I am right in all I say.

Yours very truly,

Theobald Boehm

Munich, February 16th, 1879

DEAR SIR:-  A piccolo or octave flute of silver costs 300 marks; and of wood, with silver, 250 marks.  I think you will get one cheaper and much quicker from Mr. Louis Lot, at Paris, as we are so much occupied that I could not make one before several months.

I cannot understand that the low notes at the foot of your cocoa flute should be too low. It must be the embouchure.  The low notes must be right if you draw out a little (three millimetres) at the head.  We make the middle pieces a little shorter, that the flute can be drawn in a little if the pitch is very high.

I have now finished a new flute model, which is the best flute I ever had in my hands. By a little alteration, in the acoustic proportion, the tone, the intonation and the emission of tone is greatly improved.

[Now here is an interesting observation!  Even as late as 1878, it seems that Boehm was still fine-tuning his design! And it is fascinating to read Boehm’s claim that his latest “alterations” have “greatly improved” the tone and intonation!  What does that say for the tone and intonation of his earlier products??!?  It would take a detailed examination of representative examples of his work over the decades to determine the nature, extent and effectiveness of any changes]

Yours very truly,

Th. Boehm

The last letter is in response to a wish of mine to possess an octave flute of similar make to the larger instrument; and it having been discovered by a friend to whom I had lent the flute that the lower notes – C1 and C# - were not so well in tune as when the instrument first came from Boehm, I sent the flute back to Munich to have it made right, also the extra keys added.  This was done, and the “fault” discovered to be due to my careless friend in “boring” out the face of the cork when thrusting the rough end of a flute cleaner into it after each time of playing on the instrument.

[Seems to be an argument in favour of using a metal facing on the cork, contrary to Boehm’s opinion expressed earlier!  But presumably Boehm was limiting his views to acoustical considerations.]

The leading English makers till lately lined the flute heads with metal.  I possess specimens of the best models of English make, and the only one not lined is the beautiful Rockstro in ebonite mentioned above, and made about five years ago.  From this [presumably “this” being the Rockstro] I gather that the English are finding out that the lining was a mistake.  The French makers, Lot and Millereau, I believe, never lined the heads of their flutes.  The New York flute maker, Badger, has always lined his; - at least, I have never seen one without.

Yours, &c.,


February 18, 1890


So there we have it – in effect, the final written testimony of one of the great innovators of all time in the field of musical instruments in general and the flute in particular. The above collection of letters is of the greatest interest in that it provides direct first-hand evidence of Boehm’s thinking just three years before his death and during the final year of his flute-making activity – his  workshop ledgers (a copy of which has been very kindly provided to us by his descendant Ludwig Böhm, an invaluable friend and colleague) show that he sold his last flute on April 11th, 1879, just two months after the writing of the final letter in the above sequence.  No doubt the failing eyesight to which he refers so consistently made a major contribution to this unhappy conclusion.   

Of particular interest is the evidence that right up to the last, and despite his failing eyesight,  Boehm was still working on detail improvements to his basic design. We are certainly indebted to “Mancuniensis” for taking the steps that he took to ensure that  these letters would remain available to us.

In hindsight, though, it does seem unfortunate that “Mancuniensis” forwarded the originals of these letters to the “Musical Opinion”.  It is clear that there were others that are not quoted and also that some of the quotes are only fragments of the complete originals.  It would be fascinating to know where the originals are now located, if indeed they survive at all……...  

Which leads us to the final question -  who was “Mancuniensis”?  It is impossible to be certain at this distance in time, but the content of the above letters coupled with the information contained in the ledgers seem to offer some possibility of at least a tentative  identification.

The letters provide the following information:

1)      Mancuniensis” bought a cocus-wood flute from Boehm “about three years before his (Boehm’s) death”, i.e., in mid or late 1878.  This is clearly the flute referred to in the above letters from Boehm.

2)      The flute in question had originally been made to the order of another customer who had fallen ill and was temporarily unable to play the flute as a result.  This flute was nearing completion on May 20th, 1878 and was still in Boehm’s possession on June 3rd, 1878.  Boehm had put in the hours required to make this instrument and was doubtless keen to receive his due compensation for his efforts.

3)      As of June 3rd, 1878, Boehm was still awaiting a decision from “Mancuniensis” regarding the purchase of this flute and was becoming a little impatient!  It is clear that he received confirmation of the sale, along with the asking price, only a few days after sending his June 3rd, 1878 letter.  The letters probably crossed in the mail.

4)      At the time of the sale, “Mancuniensis” was unquestionably resident in Manchester  – at least, that is where Boehm sent the flute to which reference is made.  This must surely have been at the specific request of “Mancuniensis” himself.  And the writer’s nom de plume clearly reflects this location!

5)      Boehm sent the flute to Manchester sometime after the 3rd but before the 9th of June 1878.  It is clear that it must have arrived safely.

6)      Despite Boehm’s failing eyesight, he was still clearly making fine instruments, given “Mancuniesnsis’s” subsequent praise for the quality of this example.

Referring now to the ledger, we find only one English customer recorded for the year 1878, as follows:

{date unclear}  - Cocuswood flute, C foot, octave key (Schliefklappe), gold springs, high pitch, Mr. Mills in London [our emphasis].  Selling price 286.25 marks.

This must surely be W. P. Mills, who is known to have been in correspondence with Boehm at exactly this time.  Letters from Boehm to Mills dated November 8th, 1873 and July 1878 had previously appeared in the letters section of Walter Broadwood’s 1882 edition of Boehm’s “Essay on the Construction of Flutes”.  The text of the July 1878 letter as published by Broadwood appears to be only a partial quote and reads as follows:

     Munich, July, 1878        

To W. P. Mills

The head-joints of our wooden flutes must be oiled, but never the middle or the foot-joint [Boehm’s emphasis throughout]. You can apply a little oil (the best is oil of Provence) with a feather, when the head is perfectly dry, and when you have taken out the cork. The best time is to oil it in the evening, that the wood may have time to absorb the oil before the morning. Then you wipe it dry with some linen before playing.  If you oil the head once a fortnight at first it is quite enough, and afterwards only every month.

I am quite well in my old age of eighty-five years, only my eyes are very bad.” 

This text is clearly incomplete, but a few conclusions may be drawn regardless. The letter reads very much like a piece of advice provided at the request of a new purchaser of a wooden flute from Boehm.  It appears to refer to the oiling of a new wooden flute built by Boehm, since Boehm speaks of “our wooden flutes” and refers to fortnightly oiling “at first” with a later reversion to a monthly oiling schedule.  This fits in perfectly with the concept of Mills having received a new flute from Boehm in June 1878 and having subsequently asked for his advice regarding maintenance of the new instrument.  The style of this letter is very much in keeping with that of the letters published by “Mancuniensis”. So far, it all fits………this may well be one of the additional letters referred to by “Mancuniensis” but not included in his piece in the “Musical Opinion”.

Against that, the letter of May 20th, 1878 to “Mancuniensis” quotes a price of 350 marks, which is not in accordance with the ledger value of the instrument sold to Mills. Also, Mills is specifically stated to be a resident of London, not Manchester.

Of course, there are a number of possibilities here.  With respect to the discrepancy between values, Boehm could have been in the habit of recording the net value of his instruments in his ledger (selling price minus cost of materials and cost of mailing).  This would reflect his actual compensation for his efforts. Or he could have been in the habit of understating the selling prices of his instruments for taxation or other purposes………..  Finally, and in our view most probably, he could have made an error in his initial May 20th, 1878 “sales pitch” calculation of the exchange rate at the time between marks and pounds sterling. Perhaps he was anxious to sell the flute and just “guesstimated” the figure very loosely at the time. The remarkably precise recorded value of 286.25 marks strongly suggests a re-calculation following receipt of the requested price in pounds Sterling (perhaps when he presented the draft at his financial institution for exchange) and a more precise (and perhaps disappointing!) figure having been arrived at.  Perhaps he forgot to include the bank charges in his initial quotation ……….

Even the Manchester address is by no means an insurmountable barrier – Mills could have been temporarily resident in that city for family or business reasons despite a permanent address in London.  Since the two men appear to have been corresponding since at least late 1873, Mills would certainly have been well established as a Londoner in Boehm’s eyes if he had previously been writing from that city, and in such a case a temporary residency in Manchester would not have changed Boehm’s view of Mills as a Londoner.  Indeed, there is nothing else anywhere in these letters to suggest that the correspondence overall had been carried on from a Manchester address – merely that the buyer wished the flute to be sent there.  This could easily have been due to a temporary residency in Manchester for business or family reasons.  To us, the choice of the nom de plume of “Mancuniensis” strongly suggests a family connection.

Anyway, where does this leave us??  Well, all we can say at present is that Mills appears to be the sole currently-identifiable candidate for the identity of “Mancuniensis”.  Due to the inconsistencies noted above, the identification cannot be regarded as firmly established, but no alternative candidates are discernable from the records.  It would be helpful if we knew a little more about Mills and his connections.  Did he have a family connection with Manchester, for instance, or did he reside there in a business context during the period in question while residing in London at other times? 

We agree with anyone out there who holds the view that it really doesn’t matter much after all this time, but nonetheless we’re insatiably curious!!  So if anyone has anything to add to this discussion, please don’t be shy about joining in …….

Back to McGee-Flutes Home Page