A Snapshot of Late Nineteenth Century Opinion on the Flute,
and a Reality Check on its Development

Letters to Musical Opinion & Music Trade Review, 1889-90


Once in a while, something turns up that is just too good not to share!  This is one of those very special cases…

During the course of our studies of nineteenth century flute development, our attention was drawn to a hitherto obscure debate which took place in the London musical media over an eighteen month period during 1889-90.  Upon reviewing this material, it became apparent that here was a unique opportunity to gain some insight into the status of the flute at that time and the then-current state of opinion regarding the various designs which continued to vie for public attention even at this relatively late date.  We are privileged to “eavesdrop” on our colleagues of over a century ago as they debate the status of the flute and the relative merits of the various flute designs then available. 

The sheer volume of this material precludes any attempt to publish it verbatim – a complete book would be the result!!  However, this is far too good an opportunity not to share, and we have therefore decided to publish a précis of the discussion for the information and, we hope, enjoyment of all who share our interest in flute development.  But before we embark on that course, a few preliminary remarks appear warranted in order to provide some context to the main discussion thread.

Perhaps the most dynamic period in the history of the flute as an evolving instrument was the four turbulent decades from c.1830 to c.1870, when the radical new achievements of Theobald Boehm were added to the mix of ideas for improvement of the flute and were considered and digested by a number of competing designers in different ways and with differing practical results.  During this period, a veritable plethora of competing flute designs (most of them using at least some of Boehm’s ideas) were developed, placed before the public, debated, lauded, decried and in most cases ultimately discarded.  

It appears to be a commonly-held impression that the introduction of Boehm’s 1847 all-metal cylinder-bored design with its tapering head joint very quickly and decisively determined the future design pattern of the flute once and for all, with the Boehm cylinder flute rapidly emerging triumphant over all others.  In the long term, this is what happened – during the early decades of the twentieth century, the Boehm flute (albeit somewhat modified in detail from Boehm’s original 1847 design) finally did indeed assume the position that it still holds today as the “standard” concert flute in use the world over for contemporary solo and ensemble performance of all but certain folk and early music forms.  It is this eventual complete ascendancy of the Boehm instrument as the “standard” flute  that seems to have promoted the broad assumption by today’s players and many previous writers that its adoption must have been more or less immediate following its introduction in 1847.

However, in the shorter term, this view is very far from correct!  Indeed, the appearance of the 1847 Boehm design did nothing whatsoever to subdue the raging torrent of controversy regarding the design of the flute – on the contrary, if anything it further complicated the matter by adding several new elements around which the debate could rage on with renewed vigour!  The issues of open versus closed keys, large versus small holes and the retention of the “old” 8-key fingering versus Boehm’s very different “new” fingering were already being hotly debated prior to 1847 – now Boehm threw in the additional elements of the all-metal construction (as opposed to wood) and the cylinder bore as opposed to the conical. The introduction of ebonite (basically, vulcanized rubber) as a material for woodwind instruments during the early 1850’s contributed yet another element to the debate. The various protagonists seized eagerly upon these additional factors as matters for discussion along with the old issues of the keys, the hole sizes and the fingering.

As a result of this ongoing controversy, the general adoption of the Boehm cylinder flute was in fact anything but immediate – many of the established performers in England and elsewhere such as Jose Maria del Carmen Ribas, William Card, Jean Remusat, John Clinton, Joseph Richardson, Jean-Louis Tulou, Jules Demersseman and others never made the switch at any time, and even in the early 1860’s we still find eminent flautists such as Robert Sidney Pratten and Joseph Richardson occupying prominent orchestral positions in London and elsewhere using various developments of the old wooden conical-bored instrument. The Boehm cylinder flute first appeared in the Philharmonic orchestra as late as 1868, when Oluf Svendsen replaced the prematurely-deceased Pratten as first flute of that orchestra. It would thus appear that the general adoption of the Boehm cylinder flute and its direct derivatives by professional flautists and orchestras in England was a process taking at least 20 years from the introduction of the cylinder bore in 1847. In certain Continental regions, notably Boehm’s native Germany, the process took far longer than that!  During this period of transition, it seems certain that the numbers of amateur players still using the old conical-bored 8-key flute and its relatives continued to far exceed those who had both the means and the desire to switch to the far more complex and expensive Boehm instrument with its very different fingering system.

Paradoxically, as the flute became more acoustically sophisticated, and as its musical capabilities were enhanced,  its popularity underwent a steep decline.  This was actually a predictable effect of the ongoing controversy over fingering systems and bore designs and the resultant marketplace confusion coupled with the rising prices of the increasingly complex flute models which followed Boehm’s 1847 intervention.  A number of commentators foresaw this situation, perhaps the earliest and most vocal exponent of this view being the prominent flute teacher, player, designer and manufacturer John Clinton.  In a treatise written in 1850, Clinton openly predicted the speedy eclipse of the flute as a popular instrument unless something was done quickly to standardize its fingering (preferably for Clinton along the lines of the “old” 8-key system, given that the majority of amateur players still used that system) and to restrain the steady rise in its selling price. Clinton’s mantra was in effect “simplification and standardization” if the future of the flute was to be assured.  His own 1850 flute design was clearly aimed at both of these goals – it used the standard “old” fingering and modified wooden conical bore applied to tone holes arranged along the lines of Boehm’s designs but with a far simpler and sturdier mechanism which allowed it to be sold considerably more cheaply that the all-metal Boehm competition. Abel Siccama had earlier (1846) introduced his own slightly less sophisticated design which followed very similar principles to those advocated by Clinton and was very well-received for a time at least.

However, Clinton was a voice crying in the wilderness, and others continued to pursue their own “advanced” designs regardless of cost, complexity or adherence to any standard fingering system.  Richard Carte introduced his own uniquely-fingered Boehm variant in 1851, with an even more complex and “delicate” mechanism than Boehm’s, and followed this up in 1867 with his famous 1867 Patent model, which attracted many adherents for a time. Carte also designed an “Old System” model which applied the “old” fingering to Boehm’s cylinder bore, albeit none too successfully. Starting in 1855, Clinton himself developed and manufactured more complex models (both conical and cylindrical as well as in metal, ebonite and wood) in an attempt to compete with those of Carte and Boehm – how ultimately successfully we shall never know, since he died prematurely in 1864 and his company effectively died with him after only nine years in production. The Siccama design remained in production by various makers for some time with considerable success, but even this model  was adapted by Pratten to create the more sophisticated “Pratten’s Perfected” models later made by Boosey & Sons and others in both conical and cylinder forms.

Richard S. Rockstro initially rejected the cylinder bore and instead developed his own variant of Boehm’s 1832 conical-bored flute.  Only in 1858 did he finally adopt the cylinder bore following its modification in detail by Rudall, Carte & Co.  From that point onwards, Rockstro undertook a lengthy program of further development leading eventually to the final form of his cylinder Boehm-based “Rockstro Model”, which entered production by Rudall, Carte & Co. in 1877.   

The last-ditch defence of the “old” fingering system was launched  in 1870 with the introduction of the Radcliff model flute.  This was a design by the extremely talented flautist John Radcliff, who was a die-hard defender both of the conical bore and the old fingering.  His new 1870 design was broadly based on Carte’s 1851 design, and constituted perhaps the most successful attempt to apply the “old” fingering to Boehm’s cylinder bore and hole arrangement (although Radcliff himself continued to use a conical bored flute into the early 1880’s).  His design found quite a few buyers, including some very eminent performers such as John Amadio and John Lemmone as well as Radcliff himself.  It ultimately outsold the Rockstro model.

Even as late as 1878, Boehm himself was continuing to experiment with minor improvements to his own design.  In a letter (presented elsewhere on this website) to a Manchester correspondent (who will be met again in the following summary), Boehm refers to certain unspecified acoustical improvements which he has just applied to a new Boehm-system flute which he claims to be the best that he has ever built!  And this after 31 years of building such flutes!!

Thus it may be seen that the introduction of the Boehm cylinder flute in 1847 did nothing whatsoever to slow the rate at which new competing designs were introduced to the marketplace.  If anything, the pace of development increased as a result of Boehm’s intervention, and new designs continued to appear just as they had prior to 1847. In fact, the Boehm flute itself continued to evolve in detail from its original form

The result foreseen by Clinton in 1850 was not long in becoming obvious to one and all - by 1862 the Rev. T.C. Skeffington was confirming in print that the flute had by that time largely been displaced as an instrument of popular appeal.  It was not to recover from this situation for many decades to come, as the following media debate will confirm.  

It is necessary for the reader to retain a general grasp of the above picture in order to fully appreciate what follows.  The main point to keep in mind is the fact that beginning in the 1840’s the flute had begun a steady decline in popularity among the general public, a fact which resulted in part from marketplace confusion arising from the availability of many competing designs (there being no such thing as a “standard” flute at the time) as well as the steadily rising cost of the flute by comparison with other instruments of potential interest to the amateur. The quality of music available for the flute may also have played a role in this decline.  Despite this, enough people retained an interest in the flute to keep alive the debate regarding its design, and modifications to the design of even the standard Boehm flute were still ongoing in the late 1870’s, with new designs continuing to appear in the interim.

Throughout this period, the old 8-key flute continued to find adherents among the ranks of amateur players, who naturally far outnumbered the professionals, then as now.  Such flutes were presumably readily available quite cheaply on the second-hand market as a result of the downturn in the popularity of the instrument coupled with the adoption of other designs by some players, and thus the declining sales figures for new 8-key flutes during this period cannot be interpreted as representing a proportional reduction in its relative popularity. 

With the above picture in mind, we may now turn to our main subject.  Beginning in 1888, an exchange of correspondence appeared in the pages of the widely-read London monthly “Musical Opinion & Music Trade Review” (published on the 1st of each month) which throws a great deal of light on the then-current range of opinions regarding the flute.  All of the flute models and designers mentioned above appear in this correspondence, and it is for that reason that the above summary was provided as an introduction to this topic.

The authors have reviewed the pages of the “Musical Opinion “ (in which shortened form we shall hitherto refer to it) from October 1887 to September 1890 inclusive. The early issues in this series contain nothing at all about the flute or indeed about any woodwind instruments at all, being very much focused on the organ, the piano and the human voice as well as a range of educational and music trade matters. It appears from later comments that the woodwind instruments had in fact been essentially ignored in the media for some considerable time prior to this. The only appearance of the flute in the earlier issues in the series under review is an illustration in an advertisement which was placed sporadically by Rudall, Carte & Co. every few issues or so.

The story begins  

Things began to stir a little when an individual styling himself “B Flat” (following a fashion of the time in which correspondents frequently used pseudonyms) contributed an article in the form of a letter on the subject of “Neglected Solo Instruments”.  The writer includes the entire wind instrument family in this category, and decries the fact that these instruments, although still very much an integral component of the orchestra, seldom or never appeared any longer in a solo capacity. However, he them goes on to make it clear that his primary interest is the clarinet rather than the flute.  Subsequently, “B Flat” contributed a series of articles under the general heading of “The Outlook for the Clarinet” in which he indulges in an in-depth discussion of the various design factors relating to that instrument as well as the current state of teaching and practice upon it.  Although not relevant to our main topic, this would have a great deal of interest for students of the history of the clarinet.  It amounts to a short book on the subject, in fact.

Be that as it may, this series of articles prompted the initial appearance in the June 1888 issue of one of the main protagonists in the upcoming flute debate – one “Ebonite”   It becomes clear that this worthy is both a practicing clarinetist and flautist, thus following in the footsteps of the great dual soloist Jose Maria del Carmen Ribas. “Ebonite” agrees with “B Flat”  that a “Clarionet School” is badly needed to standardize the teaching of the clarinet, but takes issue with him on the subject of clarinet mouthpiece design, of which “Ebonite” has apparently made a detailed study.   In a later issue, “Ebonite” actually published a very detailed and technical essay on this specific subject.

But that does not concern us here, since the flute is our main interest.  We find this topic well and truly launched in the August issue of the “Musical Opinion” with the first of what was to be a series of articles written by “Ebonite” on the subject of the Boehm flute.  Obviously liking the sound of his own voice, beginning in August 1888 “Ebonite” felt encouraged to emulate “B Flat” by launching into a somewhat similar treatise on the Boehm flute, spread over a number of issues.  

It is worth digressing at this point to mention in passing that an almost identical series of articles on the same subject began appearing in the pages of the periodical “English Mechanic and World of Science” in May 18, 1888 under the byline of one “Vulcanite”.  This series ran until the Feb 15, 1889 edition of that periodical.  A comparison of the two texts shows that this series and that which appeared in the “Musical Opinion” are (with very minor alterations) one and the same, and the choice of pseudonyms makes it very clear that we are looking at parallel publication of the same material by the same author for the perusal of two different audiences – the musical audience and that interested more in science and technology.  

Be that as it may, “Ebonite” states at the outset that his intention is not to present a detailed history of the flute but rather to go into the technical aspects of the Boehm instrument, particularly with respect to the challenges inherent in its manufacture.  He begins by giving a very brief history of flute development which is generally reasonably accurate, although he has a few dates wrong.  Siccama, Ward, Clinton, Tulou, Pratten, Briccialdi, Carte, Rockstro and Radcliff are all mentioned.  “Ebonite” then goes into great detail regarding the design and construction of flutes on the Boehm pattern, amounting almost to an instruction manual on “how to make your own Boehm flute” (take one length of well-seasoned cocus wood ……….)!!  This is spread over six issues in all and amounts to a detailed handbook on the construction of the Boehm flute!  There are drawings, dimensions, hole sizes and spacings, mechanism details, materials, construction techniques – the works!!  Following the August 1888 debut of the series, further installments appeared in the September 1888, October 1888, January 1889 and February 1889 issues, with the final installment appearing in the March 1889 issue.  The focus is very much on the manufacture of the Boehm flute rather than its musical attributes.

Apart from this technically-interesting series of articles, the one other item of flute-related interest during the balance of 1888 is a notice in the September 1888 issue regarding the completion of a major renovation of the premises of Rudall, Carte & Co. located at 23 Berners Street, London.  Apparently the roof had been raised and the interior space re-organized to create almost twice as much useable space as formerly – there were now five useable floors on the premises.  The Editor of the “Musical Opinion” had lately called on the firm to see the changes, and commented on a few of the unusual products on which work was then in progress. Among these were a cylinder flute made entirely of glass and an ebonite cylinder flute with a glass head-joint.  Extensive use was being made of ebonite for a variety of woodwind instruments, and the firm had an interesting “museum” of  “old and curious instruments”.  Visits by interested members of the public were encouraged.

Things became somewhat more interesting from a flute enthusiast’s viewpoint beginning in January 1889.  This may be taken as the first stirrings of the debate to come, and hence from this point on, we shall deal with the correspondence in question under the dateline of the issue in which it appeared.  The length and complexity of the correspondence is such that a verbatim reproduction would be time rather tediously spent and would teach us little more than may be extracted from the following précis of the content of these letters.  We trust that the following summary will adequately inform our readers regarding the points which emerge from this exchange. Any reader wishing to peruse the original letters verbatim is referred to the articles themselves, which are readily available on micro-film through the library system.

January 1889 issue

In this issue, the series of articles by “Ebonite” elicits a response in the form of a letter from none other than the flautist and teacher Richard Shepherd Rockstro, soon to become famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view!) as the author of his monumental “Treatise upon The Flute”, first published in 1890.  This letter constitutes a disarmingly and rather uncharacteristically modest statement by Rockstro!  In the “chapter” of his series on the Boehm flute which initiated the series in the August 1888 issue, “Ebonite” lists 13 “improvements” which he claims first appeared on the Rockstro model flute, although he expressed doubt regarding the value of a number of these “improvements” (including the substantial enlargement of the tone holes, which had actually been pioneered in 1862 by Clinton, see Cylindrical flutes - a History of Holes).  Among other things, he incorrectly credits Rockstro with originating the concept of the perforated plate keys, which were an obvious feature of the Rockstro model flutes  (these too had in fact been used previously by Godfroy, Clinton and others).  Now we find Rockstro hastening to disavow any such credit as being due to himself, assigning the credit instead to Nolan in 1808 for the original idea, to Godfroy for its original application to the “modern” (i.e., Boehm) flute in 1847 or 1848 (he seems unsure which), to Briccialdi for its adoption in 1848 as a prominent player and finally to himself only for applying it to his own 1858 cylinder-bored model. A very fair statement on Rockstro’s part.

After a two-month hiatus in the series, this issue also carries the fourth installment of “Ebonite’s” technical essay on the Boehm flute.

February 1889 issue

To start this issue off,  “Ebonite” publishes a brief response in which he says that he designated the perforated plate keys as improvements introduced by Rockstro simply because they are a recognizable feature of his model and his model alone (presumably at the time of writing). 

Also in the February 1889 issue, we find a letter by a correspondent styling himself “J. K. G.”.  This letter is of considerable significance because it serves as a kind of prelude to the main debate which was to gain momentum later that same year.   “J. K. G.” has read “Ebonite’s” series with interest, but fears that it may prove to be of little practical use to ordinary flautists, almost none of whom will have the ability to actually apply the instructions given to the actual making of a flute.  That said, he does suggest that in a future article “Ebonite” might impart some information on matters such as the advantages of the Boehm flute over the “ordinary six or eight-keyed flute” (clearly implying that such flutes remained in common use), the number and characteristics of the various derivatives of the standard Boehm flute (presumably the Carte 1867, the Radcliff and the Rockstro models) and a comment regarding what “J. K. G.” sees as the “exorbitant” price of contemporary flutes.  He notes that a “genuine”  flute cannot be had for less than 16 or 18 pounds, and this at a time when he claims that a “very fair” violin can readily be had for 5 pounds!!  He believes that this price discrepancy sets the flute beyond the financial reach of “ordinary amateurs”.  This theme was to recur frequently in the pages of the “Musical Opinion”, as we shall see.  

Finally, the same issue carries the fifth installment of “Ebonite’s” series on the Boehm flute.

March 1889 issue

In this issue, “Ebonite” concludes his six-part series on the technical aspects of the Boehm flute. He also takes time to write separately in response to the questions raised by “J. K. G.”.  

In his letter on the latter subject, “Ebonite “ first deals with the advantages of the Boehm flute over the old 8-key conical-bored flute. These advantages are summarized as improved facility in execution of “difficult” pieces (presumably those in flat keys); a more “powerful” tone; and a greater ease of playing consistently in tune. The disadvantages of the Boehm flute are cited as its higher price and the greater challenge involved in keeping its mechanism in order. Generally speaking, a reasonably balanced appraisal, although we would not all necessarily agree with it in its entirety.

Ebonite” goes on to agree with “J. K. G.” that few will attempt to make their own Boehm flute based on his directions, but asserts that if one is seeking an exercise in fine woodworking, one could do a lot worse than attempt the making of a flute. Finally, “Ebonite” suggests that anyone having a problem with the high prices of flutes should in fact make the attempt to construct his own!!  He feels that anyone doing so will quickly revise his opinions regarding the value received for money in terms of the required level of effort and standard of workmanship!  He concludes by stating for comparison purposes that a 5 pound quality violin can be made in about six days except for the varnish, while the construction of a reasonable Boehm flute requires at least 14 days.  In his view, this explains the price discrepancy mentioned by “J. K. G.”.

After the conclusion of the series of “Ebonite’s” Boehm flute articles in this issue, things temporarily settle down once more as far as the flute is concerned – no flute-related letters appear for some time thereafter.  However, this does not last long – the September 1889 issue sees a letter headed “Flutes: Ancient and Modern” from one “Flauto”.  It is this letter which acted as the necessary spark to set in train the main debate which was to become a regular feature in the “Musical Opinion“ for the ensuing year.  

September 1889 Issue

This is the issue in which “Flauto’s” pivotal letter appears.  The text of this letter touches on an extremely wide range of matters. The writer has become aware of a series of lectures which had been presented by John Radcliff, designer and (at the time) most eminent English player of the Radcliff flute. These lectures were presented under the title “Flutes: Ancient and Modern; or, From Pan to Pinafore” and featured both commentary and musical examples performed by Radcliff, assisted by the singer Madame Rita when demonstrating the art of the flute obbligato.  They were apparently very popular indeed.  “Flauto” wanted to know if Radcliff’s text was available in print.  He also pays tribute to “Ebonite’s” series on the Boehm flute, and wonders whether the open G# of Boehm or the closed G# of the French school is best.  Based on his understanding of Boehm’s own views, he inclines towards the open G#, but would welcome other opinions. He notes from “Ebonite’s” comments that the Radcliff flute was designed as a “bridge” to assist players using the old system of fingering to adopt the newer cylinder bore of Boehm, and wants to know if the Radcliff flute has now fulfilled that bridging function or if it is still much used 20 years after its introduction.

Flauto” goes on to note the earlier existence of a “double holed” flute which had apparently been tried and discarded by the flautist and manufacturer A. Collard.  He thanks “B Flat” for espousing the cause of the wind instruments, even if mainly in connection with the clarinet.  On the subject of materials, “Flauto” inclines towards the use of silver for the making of flutes, citing ease of tone production and lightness as its main advantages.

The writer then comments that in his view the flute is very suitable as a lady’s instrument - more so than the clarinet in his view - and mentions an un-named lady (likely Miss Cora Cardigan, of whom more anon) who had recently been prominent as a performer on the instrument.  Finally, he notes the strangeness of the fact that despite all the improvements which had been made to it as an instrument, the much-improved flute is now substantially less popular than it had been in Nicholson’s time when it was a far less perfect instrument!  He sets this down mainly to the relatively high cost of flutes, noting (without giving actual prices) that a good cylinder flute costs three times as much as a clarinet of equivalent quality!!  In saying this, he confirms the accuracy of John Clinton’s prediction made in 1850 with respect to the cause-and-effect relationship between relative price and popularity of various instruments.   

October 1889 issue

The letter from “Flauto” which appeared in the September issue was quick to draw a very lengthy response from an individual styling himself “P. R. B.”.  On the basis of reports from friends of his who have heard it (he has not done so himself), “P. R. B.” agrees with “Flauto” that Radcliff’s lecture appears to be very good, stating that it is evidently “entertaining and instructive, not to flute players only, but to all interested in music”.  He (correctly) does not think that Radcliff has published the text (how we subsequent researchers wish that he had!!).  He joins “Flauto” in endorsing “Ebonite’s” articles on the Boehm flute, and feels that “a discussion in your columns would be very welcome”.  This appears to confirm that some discussion in the media regarding the flute was long overdue in the minds of those having an interest in the instrument. 

P. R. B.” notes for “Flauto’s” benefit that the Radcliff flute is used by a number of amateur and professional players, but cites the reason for this as having more to do with the persuasive abilities of its designer than upon any intrinsic merit of the instrument.  He has tried a Radcliff flute himself and has found the fingering “less simple” than on the Boehm instrument. He cites the keys for F natural and F# in particular as being more complicated than on either the Boehm or Carte 1867 models since on admittedly rare occasions certain fingers of both the right and left hands are supposedly required to produce these notes on the Radcliff. 

P. R. B.” acknowledges the merits and the popularity of the Carte 1867, but does not himself see it as an improvement on the Boehm instrument.  Again, he feels that its popularity is based more on “the prestige and recommendation of its manufacturers” than anything else.  He dislikes the two left-thumb keys – for B natural and B flat – in both the Carte and Radcliff models, feeling that this is less convenient than the Boehm thumb key for B natural combined with Briccialdi’s B flat lever.  He feels that the Carte 1867 shares the Radcliff’s disadvantages with respect to F and F#.  He notes the “open D” of the Carte designs, but claims that Carte hence necessarily has a “closed” C# and that hence he simply exchanged an open C# for an open D, thus retaining the same issue but moving it up a note!   He also claims that the tone of Carte’s open D is vastly inferior to the Boehm-fingered D, describing it as a “mere caricature of the ordinary one” and claiming that most players avoid using it wherever possible (this is confirmed by many later writers in this series). He cites the fact that a well-known player of the Carte 1867 (W. L. Barrett) has recently gone back to the “closed D”  because of this.

The writer then states that he himself uses the Rockstro Model and proceeds to “puff” this model as having  “the simplest mechanism, the best tone and intonation and the greatest number of extra facilities”.  He notes that the Rockstro model “incorporates” the Boehm design with a few useful additions, as follows:

  1. an extra F#

  2. an extra hole for the D shake, which also gives a fine shake in the third octave from G natural or G# to A.

  3. a lever for F# in the third octave

  4. a key to make B natural with L1, enabling the thumb to play B flat without back fingering with the right hand.

He is however very far from being in Rockstro’s well-documented anti-Boehm camp – he lauds Boehm very highly and responds to “Flauto’s” query by repeating Boehm’s arguments against the closed G#.  He goes on to echo “Flauto’s” concerns regarding the prevailing high prices of flutes as a deterrent to the more general adoption of the instrument. He then comments on the double-holed flute formerly used by Collard to which “Flauto” made reference, stating that three years previously (in 1886) he had met at Brighton with a professional flautist named Collins who had shown him his flute on which there was visible evidence of there having been extra duplicate holes which had been filled in following an experiment with the double-hole system twenty-five years previously (i.e., prior to Collard!).

P. R. B”  also supports “Flauto’s” comment regarding the suitability of the flute as a lady’s instrument by mentioning having heard a lady flautist, Miss Cora Cardigan, on several occasions and says that he is “still waiting to hear a better performer”.  We shall see her name again ………………..

 “P. R. B.” then expresses his regret that the flute is currently “so persistently boycotted from the concert platform”, and largely blames the choice by performers of fluffy “showcase” material over pieces having real musical value for this situation. He comments on the fact that three seemingly contradictory things have occurred over time – a great improvement in the flute as an instrument; a significant loss of popularity of the flute; and an “alarming” degree of “sloppiness” among soloists. He feels that it is up to flute players themselves to demonstrate the worth of the flute as an instrument if the flute is to return to favour. 

Finally, the writer refers the reader to the publications on the Boehm flute by Christopher Welch (1st Edition, 1882) and Boehm himself (Broadwood’s 1882 Edition of Boehm’s “Essay”), recommending a reading of the two works by any who may have been “misled by a fairy tale, originated by some contemporary enemies of Boehm, that he stole his ideas from a man named Gordon”.  However, having said this, he tells his readers to watch out for Rockstro’s forthcoming book, which Rockstro has “for years been preparing”!!  We gather from this that he does not yet know the source of the then-current slanders against Boehm and expects Rockstro to set things straight once and for all!  How disappointed he must have been ……………………..

Ebonite returns in this issue as well.  In response to “Flauto’s” query regarding the relative popularity of the Radcliff flute, “Ebonite” says (rather dismissively) that he does not have any information on the popularity of that model, which he clearly does not like.  As far as he is concerned, the most used flutes are (in descending order of popularity) the Boehm, the Carte 1867 and the Rockstro. His answer to “Flauto’s” comment regarding lady flautists is that the flute can never become a lady’s instrument because it takes more breath than they can muster (in part because of their contemporary mode of dress!!)!!  One cannot help but wonder what Miss Cora Cardigan might have said to him on that score!   As we shall see, some insights regarding that question were not long delayed …………………

Ebonite” concludes by noting that the reason for the high price of flutes is the relative difficulty of their manufacture - he claims that for every workman who can make a good cylinder flute there are five who can make a good clarinet and fifty who can turn out “passable” violins.  Hence the fact that the same dealer can offer violins for as little as 15 shillings (no Stradavarii here!!) while a clarinet costs 4 pounds and a cylinder flute 20 pounds.   

November 1889 issue

In the November issue, we find an interesting letter from a new correspondent, self-styled  “Amateur”.   Until January of 1889, this worthy had played “for many years” upon an 8-key flute with its closed G#.  But he has just acquired a Carte 1867 with its open G#, and now will not return to any closed G# instrument. He studied the fingering charts of the various available flutes before deciding on the Carte as being in his view the easiest to finger.  He likes the open D in rapid passages but never uses it for “ordinary playing” if he can avoid it – he does not say why, but we may assume that the tonal quality of the note must have something to do with it, as mentioned by “P. R. B.” in the October issue  Contrary to “P. R. B.”, he likes the two thumb keys on the Carte, preferring them to the Boehm/Briccialdi arrangement we see on the modern flute.  But he shares the concerns of  “P. R. B.“ and “Flauto” regarding the price of flutes.  He holds the personal view that the problem relates to high retail mark-ups, stating (without citing his sources) that a flute which costs the manufacturer 4 pounds to produce sells for around 18 pounds!!  He claims to know of a source of supply (which he does not name) for Boehm flutes in cocus and German silver at prices in the 9 pound range, and feels that prices will eventually find their true level.  Obviously, he believes that market forces will set this matter straight.

Amateur” also inquires about Carte’s 1875 Patent, which he claims to have come across recently.  He is not sure if Carte ever actually patented the 1867 (he did!).

The November issue also contains a long letter from one “Flauto Traverso”. He uses the Carte 1867 as well, but again avoids the open D where possible, saying that it is out of tune and the standard Boehm D is much preferable. However, he finds it useful as a passing note in certain passages. He takes issue with “P. R. B.'s“ characterization of the Carte as having a “closed C#”,  claiming that it is as open as the rest of the scale.  He states that he has been playing the flute for well over 20 years, having begun by spending a number of years playing the old 8-key flute, on which he expended “an enormous amount of time and energy”. He has since tried most of the other “major” systems, including Carte’s Old System, Radcliff, Boehm, etc.  For his initial switch away from the 8-key flute (a challenge which he was not really that keen to accept), he used an old second-hand conical Boehm (presumably the 1832 ring-keyed version) for a while, then went to the cylinder Boehm and finally to the Carte 1867. He does not think that the Radcliff has anything to offer, and finds the G# of that instrument “objectionable” (he does not say why).  He comments that Radcliff is simply yet another of those who have tried and failed to improve upon the flute, listing Nicholson, Drouet, Card, Pratten and Clinton as designers whose flutes “are all now properly put away as old lumber”! 

The writer then rails on at length about the high price of flutes.  He disagrees with “P. R. B.” that the problem is a scarcity of skilled workers, stating instead that the manufacture in England of Boehm-style flutes is “practically a monopoly” (referring no doubt to Rudall, Carte & Co.), and that this is the real reason for the high prices. He notes that an Old System cylinder flute with German silver keys costs just over 11 pounds, while the same-specification Boehm instrument from the same firm costs almost 19 pounds. He claims that the additional work involved to produce the Boehm does not justify this difference, and believes that the lower price of the Old System flute is due to the fact that there are still more manufacturers making old-system flutes than Boehm models (an interesting observation for 1890!) and hence there is more marketplace competition for old-system flutes.  He would like to see Boehm flutes sell at one-quarter of their present price (dream on, baby!!)!!  Finally, he proposes the formation of a “flute player’s society” to exchange music and ideas as well as lobby manufacturers for lower prices.

The best letter of this month’s crop is from one Louis Honig, writing under his own name from 70 Church Road, Richmond Hill, in response to “Ebonite’s” comment regarding lady flautists.  Honig is evidently a pianist, but his wife is none other than the very same Miss Cora Cardigan (professional name) mentioned in the previous month by “P. R. B.”!   After trying four different flute models, she has adopted the Rockstro model, considering it an improvement over the standard Boehm instrument.  She is apparently a well-know professional flautist of some 12 years’ standing who has played concerts in 178 towns in America and on 27 occasions in Berlin, as well as appearing in all the great musical centres in Britain.  Solid credentials – Honig (who accompanies her) is extremely proud of his talented wife’s accomplishments!!  And it seems that in Honig’s quaintly expressed opinion some ladies (including his wife) “have enough air about them to move a schooner”!!  So much for “Ebonite’s” views on lady flautists!! 

Honig also endorses “P. R. B.’s” comments about the “sloppiness” of many solo performers. He attributes this to a lack of musical appreciation on the part of many performers, coupled with insufficient daily practice.  His wife apparently spends time each day practicing scales and exercises, and the happy couple indulge in playing many of Kuhlau’s flute/piano duets strictly for practice.

An interesting aside in this issue is provided in the form of a letter from the flautist and manufacturer A. Collard, who is responding to “P. R. B’s” comments in the October issue on the double-holed flute which Collard was said to have tried and discarded and on Collins’ claim to priority in this regard.  According to “P. R. B.”, Collins had claimed to have originated this idea in around 1865 and to have himself discarded it, filling in the extra holes on his flute (which somehow still worked!!).  Collard confirms that he first played in public on such a flute at Brighton in 1882 and that Collins was his partner at the flute desk on that occasion.  He states that Collins examined Collard’s double-holed flute but made no comment about having tried the idea previously, nor were there any signs of filled holes on Collins’ flute, which Collard had the opportunity to examine. He thus discredits Collins’ claim, overlooking the possibility that Collins might have more than one flute!  He states that he himself gave the idea a fair trial and then discarded it on the grounds of cost, focusing his subsequent efforts on mechanical and production improvements intended to reduce the cost of flutes of all descriptions.   

Finally, one “J. D. “inquires regarding which flutes are played by the leading players of the day and which materials (cocus, silver or ebonite) are preferred, thus introducing an important new element into the discussion.  He also joins Honig in taking a shot at “Ebonite” for his opinion regarding lady flautists! 

December 1889 issue

In the December issue, we kick off with a letter from our old mate “Ebonite” .  It is quite clear from his earlier articles on the Boehm flute that “Ebonite” is extremely interested in the mechanical aspects of the flute, and this letter is very much focused on that topic.  “Ebonite” wishes to draw attention to a mechanical “improvement” which is apparently about to be patented by one J. Sharpe of Pudsey, Leeds.  This allows two fingers to independently control three holes, three to control five holes, four to control seven and so forth.  A flute built to this system has apparently been successfully tried, along with three oboes. A sketch is provided to clarify the concept, unusual if a patent is to be sought.  As there seems no record of a patent being issued and no maker has followed up on the idea, we can probably assume it doesn't solve any significant problem.

It is noteworthy that after his rough treatment at the hands of Honig and “J. D.” in the previous issue, “Ebonite” is now completely silent regarding his views on lady flautists!!  

P. R. B.” is once again in full cry in this issue!  He deals in turn with the expressed views and queries from the previous month’s correspondence....

With respect to the views of “Amateur” on the fingering of the Carte 1867, particularly with respect to its two thumb keys, “P. R. B.” defends his own contrary views in considerable (and rather tedious) technical detail.  Clearly, neither has convinced the other to change camps! 

With respect to the comments from A. Collard, “P. R. B.” reiterates his earlier statement that Collins’ flute which he examined in Brighton in 1886 showed clear evidence of having been temporarily converted to a double-holed instrument at some point. Our conclusion is that either “P. R. B” or Collard are lying or (more probably) that Collins was using a different flute when Collard played with him at Brighton in 1882.  “P. R. B.” clearly has nothing against Collard – on the contrary, he praises him as “the only manufacturer who leaves the beaten track of trade prejudice, along which most of the flute making fraternity drag their painful course” and characterizes Collard as “a pillar of strength to the ’67 flute”.  Having said this, he expresses the hope that Collard may become “as ardent a supporter of the flute of the future – the Rockstro”.

In response to the Carte 1867 supporter “Flauto Traverso”,  the writer defends his view that the Carte 1867 has in effect a “closed” C#, since it is necessary to put down certain fingers to produce that note. He sees this as being at least as complicated as the effort required to produce Boehm’s D.  He comments adversely upon the “clumsy and irritating cross action between the first and third fingers (left hand) necessitated upon Carte’s flutes for the production of C# ”  He describes the modification which has been made by W. L. Barrett to his Carte 1867 to restore the “closed D” (sounds complicated!) and says in effect that Barrett could have achieved the same end far more simply by just switching to the Rockstro model!!  He supports “Flauto Traverso’s” views on the Radcliff flute, citing it as an “emasculated version”  of Carte’s 1851 design. He states that it is the worst open keyed flute on the market, and warns beginners against it.  He recognizes  that “many players use it”, but (very interestingly!) states that “some players still use the 8-key flute with good effect”, indicating to him that mere continuance in use is not a valid argument against ”the manifest inferiority of both systems”. He also cites Honig’s letter about his wife Cora Cardigan and her choice of a flute as further evidence of the superiority of the Rockstro model.

With respect to the question raised by “J. D.” regarding materials, “P. R. B.” holds the view that the material of the body is of little consequence – in his opinion, the tone is produced in the head joint.  The best-sounding head joint that he ever heard was an unlined thinned-wood item.  He reports that most professional players had for years used wooden flutes, noting that the eminent conductor Sir Michael Costa crusaded against the use of metal flutes and in fact banished them from his orchestra.  Having said this, he acknowledges the  main drawback of wood as being its “unreliability” due to its tendency to crack or warp in unpredictable ways.  He then notes that ebonite has recently been coming to the fore, citing its “beautiful tone” and “handsome appearance” as well as its durability.  He predicts that it will the most-used material in years to come.  He claims that metal flutes sound thin and shrill in the upper register. 

The letter finishes with the comment that gold has been used for flutes, but that the cost of a gold flute at the time of writing was of the order of 180 pounds. “P. R. B.”  feels that this figure could be reduced by careful application of materials to some 120 pounds, but concedes that flutes of this material will likely remain out of reach for most people.

Another letter from one J. C. Boyes refers to his having greatly appreciated the correspondence on flutes which had appeared in the “last three numbers” of the journal, again suggesting that there had previously been a dearth of such contributions. This was not Boyes’ initial appearance in these pages – a letter of his had appeared in the April 1889 issue of the periodical, in which he requested information regarding what he called a “flute-a-bec” but which may in fact have been a flageolet, made by Bainbridge & Wood of 35 Holborn Hill, London. This instrument had five keys – very odd indeed if a recorder!!

In the present instance (December 1889), Boyes supports Honig’s comments about the suitability of the flute for female players.  However, his main object is to seek advice from other parties to this correspondence regarding the desirability or advisability of getting a new foot to B flat made for his existing flute.  He does not say what kind of flute he plays.  

Finally, we hear from someone signing himself simply “B.” , who claims to be a professional flautist.   In response to “J. D.’s” earlier inquiry (November 18889 issue), the writer states that he is personally familiar with all flute models currently in use and that the Carte 1867 is now “by far the most popular flute in existence” due to its ease of playing. The standard Boehm model is in his view the other really important model of the day.  Well below these in terms of  importance come the Carte 1851, the Radcliff, the Clinton and the Rockstro models;  but “their numbers and importance are very small” in comparison with the two more important systems named.  In response to “J. D.’s” inquiry regarding materials, the writer claims that most British professionals are using cocus-wood flutes at the time of writing.  He then names some important English players and their flutes:

  • A. P. Vivian (member of the Queen’s Band, Professor of Flute at the RAM) – Carte 1867

  • W. L. Barrett – Carte 1867  (modified to return to the closed D, as the writer acknowledges)

  • John Radcliff – Radcliff

  • Benjamin Wells – Carte 1867

  • J. A. Hamilton – Boehm

  • R. Samson (Philharmonic orchestra) – Boehm

He cites the above as “holding the most important positions in England”.

January, 1890 issue

In this issue, we find an inquiry from one “Siccama” regarding the extent to which the Siccama flute remains in use and the extent to which modern flutes are superior to it.  He also inquires if there is such a thing as a cylinder flute with the “old” fingering that can be recommended.   Clearly he is a player of the “old” flute at the time of writing – perhaps indeed a Siccama.  

Amateur” returns in this issue also. He gets very tediously technical in maintaining his support of the Carte 1867. One issue that emerge quite clearly from the morass is his view that Boehm’s F# is awkward and that the Carte design overcomes this very well.  He also claims that the open D is a great advantage in certain rapid passages.  In response to “J. D.” and “B” on the subject of materials, he mentions a strong preference for ebonite as a material for flutes.

But the piece de resistance of this issue is a letter from none other than the celebrated Benjamin Wells!!   This letter is worth reproducing in full, and we have presented a full transcript elsewhere on this web site.  For convenience, a few points may be summarized here.  Wells does not wish to appear as a partisan or as a critic of any particular model  He plays the Carte 1867 himself because it suits him best, but says that this is only his own individual opinion, which is “not worth much”.  He claims that both Rockstro and Radcliff are “old friends of mine”, an odd thing to say about the writer (Rockstro) who was just about to completely ignore Wells (and Radcliff, for that matter) in his forthcoming “Treatise on the Flute”!! 

Most interestingly, Wells says that at the 1851 Exhibition in London he was appointed as Rudall & Rose’s representative (not Boehm’s!) to demonstrate their new flutes on Rudall & Rose’s stand (not on Boehm’s stand!). This is very interesting indeed – it would appear that Richard Carte either wasn’t good enough or famous enough to demonstrate his own newly-designed flutes!!!  Fascinating!!  The present authors had always assumed that Wells was Boehm’s demonstrator and that Carte would have been his own demonstrator, so this is an important insight!   It seems that Boehm did his own demonstrating!!  As an aside, we learn that Boehm was present during the aforementioned demonstration of Carte’s flutes even though he had his own stand.  We also learn incidentally that Siccama had red hair!! 

Wells mentions the famous and often-quoted  faux pas comment by Richardson in response to a quick question from Berlioz (a member of the Jury) that the reason for the effectiveness of Siccama’s flute was that it used a bore “more like that of Mr. Boehm’s flute”. Now what on earth did Richardson mean by that??!?  Siccama’s conical bore is of course  not like the cylinder bore used in the 1847 Boehm, and Richardson must have known that!  If they really examined the two flutes, so should the Jury!  We can think of two possible explanations:

  • Perhaps Richardson meant to say that it used holes arranged more like those on Boehm’s flute - ie closer to their acoustically ideal location, with extender keys to make that possible.

  • Or perhaps he meant that Siccama's bore, being less acutely tapered than the flutes from the preceding era was therefore a little more cylindrical, and therefore a little more like Boehm's. 

Obviously a case of getting flustered by an unexpected grilling from the Jury!  Regardless, the Jury took the statement at its face value as an “endorsement through imitation” of Boehm’s design by Siccama!!  What a farce – no wonder Siccama was reportedly so upset!! 

Wells says that he played a Carte 1851 from then on until the 1867 came out.  He credits George Spencer with the evolution of the Carte 1867 design, a matter which Christopher Welch disputed in the second edition of his book on the Boehm flute (see Welch, page lxxvi, where Welch actually quotes the letter in question).  Wells claims to have been the first public performer on the 1867 and says that he sold his 1851 to A. P. Vivian, then a pupil of his.  Finally, he endorses the use of ebonite as a material for flutes.  In this, he sides with Rockstro, “P. R. B.” and “Amateur”.

Flauto Traverso” is also back with a vengeance in support of his beloved Carte 1867!  He waxes tediously technical on the fingering facilities of this model.  He’s back on the old issue of too-high prices as well.  He does not agree with respect to the superiority of ebonite – he remains a cocus-wood man himself, agreeing with “P. R. B.” that a thinned-wood unlined head joint is best.   He quotes no less an authority than Boehm himself (quotes taken from Broadwood page 48) in support of his opposition to ebonite. He cites Boehm as the final authority on such matters given the fact that Boehm made more experiments than any other designer, and feels that Boehm’s advice should make anyone think twice before adopting flutes made of ebonite or silver.     

February 1890 issue

In February, we hear yet again from “P. R. B.”, who by now seems to see himself as the self-appointed flute columnist of the journal!!  He’s still extolling the Rockstro model over the Carte and Boehm opposition, although he concedes that the Rockstro model is basically a Boehm flute with a few useful additions and modifications.  He mentions the delicate mechanism of the Carte design as a major objection. This is of course a long-recognized aspect of that design.  He also reiterates his view that Carte’s open D is a waste of time, since it is “not fit to be heard” and deprives the player of what “P. R. B.” sees as the advantages of Boehm’s all-fingers-off C#.   

So far, nothing new.  But things then become really interesting!  First, “P. R. B.” says that Boehm must have had very poor material if he really couldn’t make a good-sounding ebonite flute as he says that he couldn’t (see Broadwood page 48).  He goes on to state that while Boehm did a great deal to improve the flute, he has been given credit for some inventions that he never claimed as his (quite true – the open keys, rationally-spaced and sized holes, etc., for which Boehm always disclaimed any credit).  He says that Rockstro’s forthcoming book “will clear up many disputed points and hopelessly demolish some accepted beliefs”.  Well, with hindsight we could suggest that he might have waited a little on that one, given Rockstro’s extremely shabby and grossly prejudiced treatment of Boehm and others in his forthcoming “Treatise”!! 

P. R. B.”  then credits Boehm (correctly) with the introduction of the magic combination of the cylinder bore and conical head.  But he then says that the makers (Rudall, Carte & Co.)  incorrectly describe this as the “parabola” head despite the fact that “it does not contain in any part of its form a resemblance to the parabolic curve”.  Even more provocatively, he says that he is not aware “who was first guilty of this utter misuse of the word “parabola” and hope(s) that it was not Boehm himself. (in fact, Boehm said (once only) that the form of his new headjoint “approached” the parabola – see Broadwood page 35) Even if it were he who made such an unscientific blunder, that is no excuse for people who ought to (and who do) know better, to perpetuate error in order to invest their wares with a halo of fictitious science”.  He claims that such misuse of terms of this nature, if not corrected, will make the flute “an object of derision instead of interest”. Ouch!!  The “guilty” party was, of course, Richard Carte, who used the term “parabola” as part of his marketing strategy for the various Boehm-based flutes made by his firm after 1851, and this looks like a direct shot at Carte’s marketing strategy.  “P. R. B.” was of course not the first commentator to make this observation – in his introduction to the 1860 “Code of Instructions”, John Clinton had also commented that Boehm’s head joint was “erroneously termed “parabola”.


Boehm is probably on pretty safe ground here, as, if you take just the section from the face of the stopper to where the taper in the head suddenly meets the cylindrical section, it is extremely close to a section judiciously exacted from a parabolic curve.  Not the characteristic part of the parabolic curve where it bends back on itself, but well out from there, where it is approaching a straight line.  Take any more of Boehm's bore into account and it immediately loses any resemblance to a parabola.

It's when you then attempt (as Carte did in his Sketch of the Successive Improvements in the Flute) to draw parallels to the parabolic reflector used to concentrate light into a beam that you move beyond science into shameless promotion:

"The parabola-head-joint seems to effect that for propagating sound, which the parabolic reflector does for propagating light. The vibrations are concentrated in, and propelled from the one, as the rays of light are concentrated in, and transmitted from the other, both with superior velocity and power."

Might work if the flute were big enough for the focal length of the parabola to approach the 1/4 wavelength of the lowest notes, but the flute would have to be 15 times larger in diameter!  Back to the story.... 

Next, there’s a paragraph in support of “Flauto Traverso’s” comments regarding the use of ebonite as a flute material.  “P. R. B.” maintains his view that the material of the flute body is irrelevant, and cites a blindfold test in which three players who respectively used wood, ebonite and silver flutes were unable to correctly identify their own instruments when played by others!  He characterizes the tone of the three materials as follows:

  • Wood – strong, but inclined to be “hard”.
  • Ebonite – hardly so powerful as wood, more sympathetic – velvety
  • Silver – throughout, more bell-like than the others.  In the lower notes, better – in the upper notes, worse than either of the other two.  In the middle register, similar.

In other matters, the writer advises J. C. Boyes (December issue) against going with a foot to B flat for his existing flute, stating that it will affect the intonation of other adjacent notes.  He says that a flute with such a foot has to be designed that way from the outset.  

In response to “Siccama” (January issue), the writer dumps all over the Siccama flute, claiming that it is merely an 8-key flute with “two or three of the holes nearer to their proper place than before”.  He says that “this high-sounding Siccama inherits all the congenital vices of its discredited ancestors”  and concludes that “the sooner it finds its way to curiosity shop and the vendor of chump wood, the better”.  Ouch again!!  He mentions Pratten’s Perfected, but says that it “looks like a modern one, but it is a  wolf in sheep’s clothing, and is to the Siccama what the Siccama is to the 8-key”, i.e., not much of an improvement!!

The letter concludes with an unabashed  “puff “ for the Wind Instrument Chamber Music Society, of which “P. R. B.” is clearly a member. This group meets monthly in the Concert Room at the Royal Academy of Music, Hanover Square. This seems to be one of the few opportunities around to hear wind instruments both is a solo and ensemble capacity.  The reader is cordially invited to join in the fun…

One “Peter Piccolo” (aptly claiming to be mainly a piccolo player!) welcomes the recent correspondence regarding the flute given his impression that the flute as an instrument “is under a cloud”.  He is clearly an old-timer, since he claims to have heard Richardson (who died in 1862) play “splendidly” on the old flute (presumably his Siccama model?!?) and feels that more attention needs to be paid to the music for the flute rather than the flute itself.   He sees the on-going competition between systems as a reason why the flute is at that time under a cloud and why many amateurs are giving up the flute or embarking on the study of other instruments.  He seems to have heard about the glass flute which Rudall, Carte & Co. were reportedly constructing back in the September 1888 issue, and wonders rather cynically if everyone will now have to exchange their old flutes yet again!?!  Sound familiar??  Seemingly, some things hadn’t changed much since Clinton sounded the warning back in 1850!!  The writer claims to have heard Wells play on an ebonite flute, and to have been unimpressed by the tone.  So he is not surprised that many “professors” are going back to wood.  That said, he wishes that Wells would “come forward” again as he used to do – if Wells were to re-invigorate the solo repertoire, things would improve.  Finally, the writer wonders why, if the cylinder bore is superior, piccolos are still made with conical bores.

A certain “Embouchure” enters the lists this month.  He has been following all of this with some dissatisfaction. He was about to buy a new flute when this correspondence began, but is now confused as to which one he should buy (sounds like a puff for the views of Clinton and “Peter Piccolo”!!).  Although all the writers seem to think that the old fingering is worthless, he personally knows a certain professional flautist who still plays a Pratten’s Perfected and does so “splendidly”!  He decided to buy one of these, but Rudall, Carte & Co. told him that there would be a wait time of three months or more.  This was presumably due to the fact that by this time the Pratten’s Perfected model would have been a “special order” item.  The writer is fed up with the high price of flutes, and thinks that for the money one should get faster service. A rather simplistic view, one is forced to think – he’s clearly not in tune with the realities of the “custom” flute market!!  Also puzzling why he is going to Rudall Carte for a Pratten's Perfected, when these are made and marketed by Boosey & Co.

The letter concludes with a statement of support for the formation of a “Flute Players’ Association” as suggested by “Flauto Traverso” in the November 1889 issue, and regrets that no more has been said about it during this debate. .

March 1890 issue

We then come to March, where a certain  “Mancuniensis” makes his appearance.  This individual too has been following the ongoing flute debate with interest and feels that the parties to this debate may be interested in seeing some letters from none other than Theobald Boehm which he has in his possession. These letters were written in 1878, only three years prior to Boehm’s death.  They shed a great deal of light on Boehm’s thoughts and activities during the twilight of his long and illustrious career, and the importance of this letter is such that we have reproduced it in full elsewhere

The key issue which may appear relevant to the main thread of this ongoing debate is the fact that at the time of writing (1878, remember) Boehm had yet to hear of Rockstro’s Model, which had just been introduced by Rudall, Carte & Co. in 1877.  Boehm doubts that it will stand the test of time, since he feels that his own design achieves all that is required for the flute.  In response to an inquiry from Boehm, “Mancuniensis” apparently sent Boehm a copy of Rudall, Carte & Co’s then-current catalogue featuring the Rockstro model and others such as the Radcliff and 1867 models.  Boehm’s comment was that there was a great deal of “humbug” in this catalogue!  Presumably by this he meant the comments relating to the various derivative designs such as the Carte 1867, the Radcliff and the Rockstro models.  He remained convinced to the last that despite all the claims to the contrary, his own basic design would outlast them all, and history has of course proved him right.   

This issue also marks the return of our friend  J. C. Boyes from the December 1889 issue.  He’s read the previous advice provided by “P. R. B.” back in  the February issue against having a foot to B flat made for his existing flute, and is now seeking advice regarding the purchase of a new flute with a foot to B flat.  He notes that a number of composers (he names Furstenau) composed for the flute down to B flat, and that Furstenau himself used one with an A foot.  He feels that extending the compass would elevate the status of the flute.  He also introduces a new topic – the difficulty of obtaining good flute music as opposed to “mere rubbish”.  He would value a list being prepared by someone in the know of worthwhile pieces for the provincial amateur to attempt.

April 1890 issue

The April issue begins by confirming that the Henry Wylde who was a judge at the 1851 Exhibition is not the well-known flute-making Henry Wylde – a question which has long intrigued the present authors and thus a very important point to have cleared up.  This point is clarified through the publication of the obituary of the said learned gentleman. He was born in 1822, far too late to have been the flute-making Henry Wylde (who was working for Rudall & Rose in the 1820’s), although one supposes that he could have been a son?!?  The age, name and location all fit ……………..regardless, the deceased Henry Wylde was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and subsequently took the Mus. Doc. Degree at Cambridge University in 1850.  He founded the London Academy of Music and ended up in the “important post” of Gresham Professor, holding that position until his death from “congestion of the lungs”.  One of the cited candidates as his successor was W. S. Rockstro, illustrious brother of our flautist friend Richard S. Rockstro! 

Next, we’re back with “P. R. B” yet again, advising J. C. Boyle against getting a new flute with a B flat foot on the grounds that the keys for C natural and C sharp are quite enough trouble to manage and keep sealing well as it is and that even those two keys are “practically useless” in his opinion.  He then picks up on Boyle’s inquiry about good flute music and starts railing about the musical worthlessness of many solos commonly performed by flautists to show off their technique (what many modern players would call “fluff”) instead of bringing out their musically best pieces. He sees this as a major reason for the exclusion of the flute from the solo concert stage.  He questions the need for a published list of good music, because he says (quite rightly) that no two professors would produce anything like the same list and it is all really a matter of personal taste and abilities.  He advises Boyle to get in touch with a good local professor and go from there.

That’s it for April – things are calming down.

May 1890 issue

In May, we meet a new correspondent – “Tone”.  He expresses great surprise at hearing Rockstro’s model held up as superior to the Carte 1867 – if it were indeed so superior, then he would expect to find it far more extensively used.  He says that he has been playing the flute for 17 years and has never even seen a Rockstro model, nor has he met with anyone who played one (shades of Boehm in 1878!)!  He concludes that few must have been made in reality. He personally finds the 1867 to be a very fine instrument from a playing standpoint and predicts that it will eventually drive all others out of the market – he himself has persuaded no less than five of his flute-playing friends to adopt it!  However, he admits its tendency to get out of order easily – “no other flute is worse in this respect”.  He doesn’t use the open D much, since he finds its tone inferior to the Boehm fingering. He likes cocus-wood flutes above all others, and really does not like ebonite, finding its tone “rough and unsympathetic”. He sympathizes with. Boyes (March 1890 issue) in his search for good flute music, and agrees with “P. R. B.” (April 1890 issue) that more needs to be done to get good pieces back into the repertoire. Finally, he joins “Embouchure” (February 1890 issue) in endorsing the proposal by “Flauto Traverso” (November 1889 issue) regarding the formation of a flute players’ society. 

It is in this issue that we first hear a trans-Atlantic voice in the form of an article from the well-known American flautist and teacher  Henry Clay Wysham, who was later (1898) to write a largely derivative book entitled “The Evolution of the Boehm Flute” in which he sided with Christopher Welch in challenging Rockstro’s deeply prejudiced view of Boehm as published in his 1890 “Treatise on the Flute”. Wysham has apparently recently had an article published in the periodical “American Musician” on the subject of the treatment of the flute in Grove’s Dictionary, first published the previous year (1889).  This took the form of an open letter to Sir George Grove, Editor of the Dictionary.  The editors of the “Musical Opinion” have been encouraged by the recent spate of interest in the flute to reprint this article for their readers. 

It seems that the flute-related articles in Grove were written by one William H. Stone. M.D. Wysham says that he lived in London for some years (1878 – 1881) and met many flautists at the house of Walter S. Broadwood (editor of the 1882 publication of Boehm’s 1847 “Essay on the Construction of Flutes”), but had never as much as heard of Dr. Stone!  So he doubts the latter’s credentials to write on the flute with any authority.  Wysham hammers Stone on his description of the flute as currently used, on his treatment of Boehm and his comments on the well-known flute composer Kuhlau. He mentions the Boehm/Gordon controversy (previously raised by “P. R. B” in the  October 1889 issue) as having “passed out of the field of discussion” long before his arrival in England in 1878. (He should have stayed on a year past 1881 – he’d have heard more then, especially if he was a mate of Broadwood’s!!)  He directs readers to Welch (first edition, obviously, as of 1890) as having finally put this old charge to rest. He also takes issue with the comments made in Grove on the capabilities of the Boehm flute, of which Wysham is of course a staunch partisan.  He rails at any suggestion that wood is better than metal – he reckons that wood belongs only in the head-joint.  This is a very long article with a lot in it, but it really doesn’t say much that isn’t to be found in Wysham’s later book on the subject.

June 1890 issue

In June, “P. R. B.” returns to applaud Wysham’s demolition of Grove’s Dictionary as it applies to the flute.  He claims to have been on the point of writing himself in similar vein, but had refrained from doing so on the basis that “the articles in question are universally regarded as a series of unhappy jokes” and hence needed no debunking!  He provides some information on the infamous Dr. William H. Stone, with whom he is personally familiar.  Stone is not a “practical flautist”, but apparently aspires to be a “theoretical one”.  He has even been heard to advocate a return to the old 8-key flute!!  He is a distinguished man in his field and a noted lecturer on acoustics. He is apparently an accomplished bassoon player who according to “P. R. B.” was apparently largely responsible for the revitalisation of that instrument.  “P. R. B.” had sat next to Stone in “that chaotic mass of instrumentalists called the Handel Festival orchestra” and it was on that occasion that he heard Stone’s comment about the 8-key flute.  The writer also joins with Wysham in decrying the dismissal of Kuhlau in Grove.  Finally, he reminds his readers that while one can blame Stone for the poor quality of the flute-related articles in the Dictionary, it is Grove himself who bears the ultimate responsibility, and it is for Grove to ensure that matters are corrected in a future edition.

This is the only flute-related letter.  The trail grows cold …………………………..

July, 1890 issue

July sees things take up a new track – the tirade unleashed back in September of 1889 appears to have run its course, but new horizons beckon!  The first contribution comes from a new correspondent, Lancelot Bayly, writing from Paris to wax lyrical about the historic origins of the flute, leading up to Boehm’s intervention.  Pretty thin stuff – reminiscent of  W. N. James, in fact!!  For one thing, he has Gordon down as a Frenchman rather than the Swiss that he actually was!! 

But now for the first time Henry Clay Wysham takes a direct hand – having noted the re-publication of his earlier article on Grove in the “Musical Opinion”, he now writes directly from San Francisco  He laments the fact that so many people are so concerned about minor improvements to what he sees as an ideal instrument which should become the standard – the Boehm flute. He thinks that too much emphasis is placed on materials, mechanism and fingering and too little on the music and the role of the player.  He defies anyone to tell the difference between ebonite, wood and metal in the hands of a capable player who is familiar with the particular instrument. In this, he echoes “P. R. B’s” comment in the  February 1890 issue.  He comments that if Wells sounds as good as he does on a flute made of “the most tubby, un-resonant stuff of the whole rubber tribe”, i.e., ebonite, just think how good he would sound on a gold Boehm!!  He claims that Radcliff makes his own flute sound so good (thus attracting customers to it) not because the flute is good but because Radcliff is himself so good that “he can play from “Pan to Pinafore” (echoing the title of Radcliff’s lecture series mentioned by “Flauto” in the September 1889 issue) – anything with a hole in it, from a pig tail whistle to a fog horn”.  High praise indeed!!  He actually says that it’s perhaps just as well that great players like Wells and Radcliff do not get the best instruments, otherwise they would set a standard that would cause all others to give up in despair!! 

With respect to the sorry state of music for the flute and the “showman” tendencies of flautists inherited from an earlier generation, Wysham notes that the likes of Richardson, Drouet and the rest had no choice but to “take flight” (reprising a quote from Wells’ letter in the January 1890  issue) in order to cover up the “frightful intonation” of their instruments.  One might hear bad notes, but not for long!!   However, on the Boehm there is no need for this – one can expose any note as much as one likes!  Wysham waxes lyrical once more in praise of the Boehm flute, and states that a silver body with a wooden head joint is the best set-up.  He also takes the opportunity to express a complete lack of sympathy for those (like “Embouchure”) who have been complaining about high prices and slow delivery – in America, a good basic English or Continental instrument can cost up to 50 pounds and take eight months to arrive!! 

August 1890 issue

It seems that the old crew of “P. R. B” and Co have now abandoned the field.  However, a new Messiah has now arisen – Henry Clay Wysham returns in August, apparently liking the sound of his own voice!   He writes this time about the role of the flute in the orchestra and the best way of approaching it. His point is that the mission of the flute in the orchestra is quite distinct from its mission as a solo instrument, and therefore needs to be approached differently.  He actually concedes that wood (or even ebonite) may be superior for flutes intended for orchestral work, since their sound blends better. However, for solo or salon work, a metal flute is the one to use. Naturally, the Boehm flute is the best by far for either kind of work!!  Interestingly, Wysham actually endorses the use of a B flat foot, stating that it improves the overall resonance of the instrument!! 

Lancelot Bayly too is back – he expresses his appreciation of the contributions by Wysham. Writing again from Paris, he states that all the leading French players now use silver flutes.  He gives a few statistics to back this up – all the flautists at the Paris Opera, the Opera Comique, the Lamoreaux orchestra and Colonne’s orchestra use silver flutes, and these are said to be the most important appointments in Paris. It seems from this that the then-current fashion for wood among orchestral players in England was not being followed on the Continent.

September 1890 issue

The September issue is back to business as usual!  A new voice is heard – one Norris F. Davey, writing from Abergavenny in Wales.  He is a flute player of 60 years’ standing, so he goes all the way back to the Nicholson era!  He goes on at some length about the flute in antiquity, again rather reminiscent of W. N. James and the previous contribution of Lancelot Bayly (July 1890 issue).  Then he notes that the flute “fell from fashion after Nicholson’s time”, echoing what we have already heard from Clinton, Skeffington and others. He blames the soloists – the universal presentation of works of great technical difficulty but no musical value did the damage, in his view, by both boring the listeners and scaring off new players.  He thinks that things are starting to improve at his time of writing and that the flute will make a come-back.  Finally, he thinks that too much is said about the relative technical merits of different flutes and not enough about the playing of said flutes!  In this, he seems to be supporting Wysham.

Another new correspondent, Charles T. Howe of Ohio, USA also shows up.  He is a friend of Wysham’s.  He says that the debate regarding the competing flute designs has also reached America, and that “our leading journals are full of the subject”.  He takes this to mean that the final struggle for supremacy is now at last underway, and is certain (correctly, as events proved) that the Boehm flute will emerge victorious. He repeats the interesting observation made by others that may have something to it – he says that, while the fashion for pyrotechnics may indeed have caused people to turn away from the flute as a serious instrument, the old masters were forced into this mode due to the inherent imperfections of their instrument (pre-Boehm) – they could not afford to dwell too long on any given note!!  But in his view there is no excuse for this on such a perfect instrument as the Boehm flute!  Finally, he thinks that flautists should cease debating the various “improvements” to the Boehm flute – to do so shows “their ingratitude for Boehm’s unselfish labors on their behalf” - and just be thankful that due to Boehm they have such a fine instrument.  The energy being expended on these “improvements” would be better spent in exploring its resources. In essence, he seems to be arguing for the standardization of the flute on the Boehm design, a situation which did in fact come about over time.

And then there’s Wysham himself.  By now he has found his feet and his audience and nothing will stop him – he has assumed the mantle discarded by “P. R. B.”!! He begins with a poetically-framed tirade against the old German flute – the “genuine Meyer”, as he calls it -  which apparently “still obtrudes its dissonance into homes and halls, and brings reproach upon the humble but romantic lineage of the flute”.  He spends some time in poetical musings on the subject of the imperfections of the Meyer style flute, and then tells the story of Boehm in further lyrical terms.  He claims that only prejudice (he blames the Germans) could have kept the Meyer alive after Boehm had completed his work, and asks his fellow flautists to forget the Meyer and join him in paying homage to Boehm.

One is forced to actually wonder whether in this series of writings from Wysham we are seeing the genesis of his later book?!?  This exchange could well have been the catalyst that started Wysham down the road to authorship.


The debate actually appears to be losing steam at the point of departure, and has essentially degenerated into a case of Wysham puffing the Boehm flute.  It seems to be losing attraction at the point where we must leave it for now.  However, the exchange does show the value of searching through correspondence of this sort in order to get a feel for contemporary attitudes

What it all amounts to for the present authors is that in England at the time in question the Carte 1867 was very highly thought of and much used, along with the standard Boehm, the Radcliff and the Rockstro.  Those were the Big Four.  But the key point to grasp is that there was a Big Four – the flute appears no closer to standardization in 1890 than it had been in 1850!!  And this after the lapse of no less than 43 years since the introduction of the Boehm cylinder flute which was eventually to become the standard.

The main debate embodied in these particular letters was between the Carte 1867 model, the standard Boehm and the Rockstro – the Radcliff was generally dismissed.  This is difficult to square with the indisputable fact that, according to the Rudall, Carte & Co. records held by our friend and colleague Robert Bigio, the Radcliff actually somewhat outsold the Rockstro model in the end prior to both models succumbing to the all-conquering Boehm in the early decades of the twentieth century.  So it must have had at least as many advocates as the Rockstro, and it’s too bad that some of the Radcliff crowd didn’t join in the fun!!  A letter from Radcliff himself would have really livened things up...

Opinions expressed in these letters on the Rockstro model vary greatly, as do opinions on the extent to which it was actually then in use. The mechanical complexities of the Carte 1867 were openly acknowledged by even its supporters, and perhaps that is what caused it eventually to join all but the original Boehm design and fall by the wayside. In addition, there was almost universal criticism of the quality of Carte’s open D, although players of the 1867 found it useful as a passing note in certain passages. 

The Radcliff was acknowledged as being quite widely used, but none of this particular group of correspondents had anything good to say about it and the expertise of Radcliff himself in rising above its shortcomings was seen by Wysham at least as a major factor in its ongoing acceptance.  The Pratten’s Perfected was still in use in its later versions and was available from Rudall, Carte & Co. as a special-order item. Furthermore, the old 8-key flute still had its adherents even in 1890!  The old conical-bored Meyer-style flute was still apparently in widespread use in America and Germany as of 1890, much to Wysham’s disgust.  And neither Siccama nor Clinton were completely forgotten even then. 

It would seem that the flute had still not recovered from the slump into which it was driven in the mid nineteenth century by a combination of high prices, “fluffy” technically-challenging but otherwise meaningless music and the proliferation of competing flute designs (Clinton’s stated nightmare come true).  There is a lot of concern expressed about repertoire.  Acceptance of lady flautists is well underway – “Ebonite” is alone in holding the views that he does, and Cora Cardigan is well accepted as a fine artiste.  Finally, we see the English literary debut of Henry Clay Wysham in these pages.

All in all, quite a treat!!



Thanks to my colleague Adrian Duncan for researching and interpreting these letters for us.  A reminder that your local library system should be able to put the originals before you if any of the above has sparked an enthusiasm for further study.


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