William Hall - New York Flute Maker



The emphasis in the current revival of interest in 19th century wooden flutes has been on London-made instruments, particularly on the instruments of Rudall & Rose, and later Pratten.  But flute-making had become big business in the US too, particularly around New York.  We'll look at a flute by famous American maker, William "General" Hall.

Company History

The New Langwill Index tells us that Hall was born in Sparta in 1796 and was apprenticed to a musical instrument maker in Albany (possibly Meacham) until 1812, when he joined the militia.  After the war, he moved to New York, working for Edward Riley, whose daughter he married.  In 1820, he set up independently, a year later joining with John Firth (who had also worked for Riley and married one of his daughters) as Firth & Hall.  In 1831, they were joined by Sylvanius Pond (Firth, Hall and Pond).  He left that company in 1847 to set up with his son James as William Hall & Son.  They seemed to have moved into piano manufacture by 1850, ceased exhibiting flutes by 1869; James left the company in the following year and it was bought up by Ditson in 1875.

The flute we will look bears the mark:

    239 BROADWAY

The company seemed to retain that address between 1848 and 1858.

Nicholsonian Leanings

Charles Nicholson published his "A School for the Flute" in London in 1836.  The two volumes were reproduced for sale in the US by William Hall & Son.  They add the comment at the bottom of page 6:

"NB.  The publishers of this work would beg to say they are extensively engaged in manufacturing flutes after Nicholson's patteren (sic) and would recommend purchacers (sic) to call an examine them.

Unfortunately, the reproduction is undated, but carries the address 239 Broadway, suggesting a date after 1848.  That seems a late date for such a publication however.

Nonetheless, it gives us reason to expect a English style of flute from the General, rather than the German-inspired flutes of some of the other US makers.  Indeed, it leads us to expect a Nicholsonian flute of some degree - that is to say a flute of larger proportion than the Astor flute that Nicholson's father modified.  A flute like that would have holes around 6.5mm maximum.

The Flute

And here it is, long, thin and elegant:

Hard to be sure about the wood - it could be a particularly red piece of cocus, or perhaps rosewood.  As you can see, the head and barrel are a little redder than the rest, though this might be because of refinishing.

Unusual features

There are quite a few features that set it apart from London-made flutes of the time.

The angled G#

English flutes normally have a G# that runs parallel to the body.  German flutes use an angled G# but implement it in post mounting. Occasionally, you see blockmounted angled G# keys, but these are hard work and therefore rare.  

Note how the block is orthogonal, but the slot and pin are set at the angles needed.

Low Profile Short F

The Short F key touch is made circular, set low and given a hole underneath it to descend into.  Like some English flutes, it's also twisted slightly to facilitate moving the R3 finger to it more easily.

Foot key touches

The overlap between the touches for low C and C# is handled very neatly.

Key Marking

The mark (VIII) shown to the left appears under each of the keys.  
I have a feeling I've seen it somewhere before ...

Countersunk key seats

As we'll see later, the key holes are not large.  This brings the risk of attendant noise.  Hall has employed a trick used by oboe-makers - the hole is countersunk to improve the aerodynamics.

Vital Statistics


Sounding Length, minimum 581.7
Sounding Length, at A=440 Hz 604.7
Cylindrical Length, minimum 127.7
Cylindrical Length, at A=440Hz 150.7
Conical Length 454
E to End Length 159.5
Head bore 18.9
Top of Cone bore 18.2
Minimum Bore (from top of cone) 10.35 @ 437
End of cone bore 10.6
Cone average slope (to minimum) -55.7
Cone average slope (after minimum) 68.0
Proportional reduction at top of cone 96%
Proportional reduction at minimum 55%
Proportional reduction at end 56%
Embouchure hole Length 12.85
Embouchure hole Across 11
Size of B hole 8.9
Size of F# hole 9.3
Outside Diameter at Embouchure 28.8
Outside Diameter at Hole 1 26
Outside Diameter at end of RH section 23.6
Spacing LH1 - LH2 36
Spacing LH2 - LH3 37
Spacing RH1 - RH2 32
Spacing RH2 - RH3 37.5

A typical bore

The chart below illustrates the bore of the flute in rather exaggerated terms, without which we would have no way of appreciating fine detail.  

In aqua, we have the head and barrel bore.  The vertical line represents the face of the stopper, the effective top of the flute.  The gap in the horizontal trace is the embouchure.  I've chosen to illustrate the head bore with the slide partially extended, to show the relatively large perturbation (compared to the vagaries of the conical section of the bore) that this represents.

In dark blue, we have the left hand section.  Note immediately that it starts at a diameter considerably smaller than the head bore.

Following on, in pink, we have the right hand section.  Note the interesting kink towards the lower end.  This might be just bore compression due to an overtight winding of the lapping, or might be there intentionally.  Rudall & Rose flute exhibit this peculiarity, but it would be seen on the lower end of the left hand section as well.

Finally, in yellow, the foot.  As is commonplace, it reaches a minimum a little before the end of the bore, expanding slightly for the remaining section.

Flute Performance

Just like the London-made flutes of the first half of the 19th century, intonation isn't all we would prefer.  Indeed, the same general pattern of tuning issues manifests itself:

  • the foot notes (C, C#, D and Eb in the first octave and D and Eb in the second) are particularly flat

  • of these, C# and Eb are flatter than D which is flatter than C

  • F# is also quite flat

  • Some of the keyed notes are flat (F and G# in particular)

  • G is flat.

This tuning chart tells the story:

Looking for reasons, the Venting Chart is helpful:

We see:

  • a general similarity between this flute and R&R 742, in terms of overall lengths,

  • hole sizes are more similar to medium-sized English 2nd Generation flutes

  • a long gap between G# and the G hole.  The tiny size of the G# hole and the long way to the next vent hole explain the flatness of this note,

  • the long gap between the left hand cluster and the right hand cluster explains the relative flatness of the right hand notes (in both octaves),

  • the further big gap between the right hand cluster and the foot notes ensures that the foot notes are even flatter,

  • F# gets no useful venting support and simply isn't big enough to get that note up to pitch

  • Because F# is flat, G suffers for want of venting and is also flat,

  • F is too small and too low (compare the G# to G semitone with the F# to F semitone)

  • Low C# is well spaced between D and C but very much smaller, so it ends up particularly flat

  • Eb is bigger but needs to move up a bit


Summarising all the above, we can see the definite influence of English flutes on the work of Hall in New York.  This flute best resembles the medium-holed flutes made by English makers such as Rudall & Rose.  As such it brings the same kinds of challenges, particularly in terms of flat foot and the other classic intonation issues.  


Thank you to Canberra Flute Player, Michael Stone, for the opportunity and permission to bring this story to you.

More to come

The ACT Government, through its Cultural Council, has enabled a further study of flutes by William Hall, by funding a collaboration with American player Grey Larsen to be in Australia this Easter.  We'll be bringing you the outcome of that study on these pages.

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Created: 13 Jan 2003