Letter from Benjamin Wells
 to the “Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review”

Published in the January 1st, 1890 edition


The core text which follows is taken verbatim from a letter which was written by the eminent English flautist Benjamin Wells (1826 – 1899) to the London monthly publication  “Musical Opinion & Music Trade Review”   It was published in the January 1890 issue of that periodical as part of an interesting series of letters on the subject of the flute which appeared at that time.  We have presented a summary of the remainder of these letters elsewhere on this web site.

Wells was born in Cambridge, England in 1826, making him a direct contemporary of the flautist and writer Richard S. Rockstro, who was born in the same year.  However, Wells far outshone Rockstro in terms of his musical accomplishments, becoming one of the most celebrated flautists and teachers in England for many years while Rockstro toiled in relative obscurity prior to the publication of his famous “Treatise on the Flute” in 1890.  Rockstro is however mentioned in the letter which follows.  

Wells was an accomplished pianist as well as a flautist, and composed some music for flute.  In his teenage years he was a  pupil at the Royal Academy of Music and studied first under Joseph Richardson and then under Richardson’s successor John Clinton.  By 1843 (at only 17 years of age) he had become sufficiently well-recognised  to participate in the first performance of Balfe’s “Bohemian Girl” at Drury Lane Theatre. He subsequently became a close friend of Balfe’s. In 1845 (aged nineteen) he was appointed first flute at the “showcase” concerts given by students and professors at the Royal Academy of Music – a high honor for one so young.

Wells began on an 8-key flute and adopted the Siccama Diatonic flute for a short time in the late 1840’s, but by 1851 he had abandoned that instrument.  In that year he was appointed as principal demonstrator of Rudall & Rose’s various renditions of the Boehm cylinder flute at the 1851 Exhibition, and the following letter deals at some length with his experiences on that occasion. 

Following the 1851 Exhibition, Wells played a Carte 1851 model flute thenceforth until 1868.  He became a regular member of Jullien’s orchestra until Jullien’s departure from the scene in 1859. In 1856 at the age of thirty, he succeeded his old teacher Clinton as Professor of Flute at the Royal Academy of Music.  At about the same time he became private flute tutor to the Royal Consort, Prince Albert (who died in 1862) – a signal honor!  He subsequently became President of the London Flute Society and a popular lecturer and teacher of the flute as well as maintaining an active performing schedule.  Upon the introduction of the Carte 1867 flute, which replaced the 1851, Wells immediately (1868) adopted the new design and played it thereafter until his death in 1899 at age 73.   

At the time (1890) when he wrote the following letter at the age of 64, Wells was still a prominent performer – indeed, he was widely viewed as one of England’s most talented performers upon the instrument, and his reputation had reached America and elsewhere.  This view of Wells is fully reflected in the series of letters to the  “Musical Opinion & Music Trade Review” of which Wells’ letter forms only a single contribution. 

Despite this celebrity, Wells was completely ignored by Rockstro in his 1890 “Treatise on the Flute” , the publication of which followed shortly upon the heels of the following letter.  His equally celebrated flautist colleague John Radcliff  (b. 1842, d. 1917), who had designed his own old-fingered variant of the Boehm flute, was similarly ignored despite the fact that others of lesser or at least no greater accomplishment were recognized by Rockstro.  The reasons for these and other glaring omissions in Rockstro’s work have never been satisfactorily explained, and to judge by the tone of his letter with respect to Rockstro, Wells must have been quite surprised to find himself excluded!

It should be readily apparent that Wells was a consequential figure in the story of the flute in nineteenth century England.  It is a real shame that he left so little in the way of written commentary on the changing state of the instrument during his career.  A text of one of his lectures would have been of the greatest interest (as would a similar contribution from his younger colleague John Radcliff, who also gave lectures). Failing that, the following letter at least gives us some insight into his views and experiences.

We have taken the liberty of inserting our own comments in [brackets] at various points in the text,  Otherwise, the letter is reproduced word for word as it was written.

To the Editor, Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review;


I have been much interested and amused by the correspondence, in your excellent journal, on the subject of “Flutes, Ancient and Modern”, which is the title of a lecture that I delivered for many years in London and the provinces, and I still have a number of old programmes connected therewith.

[The first point of interest – the title of Wells’ lectures was apparently exactly the same as the title of those delivered by John Radcliff, although Radcliff’s lectures carried the extended title of “Flutes, Ancient and Modern; or, from Pan to Pinafore”. This may be read as a very veiled challenge to Radcliff  - Wells has the programmes to prove his case for priority in the title!!]

If you will allow me to say a few words on the subject, it might interest some of your readers, although I am by no means desirous (even if I were capable) of entering into competition with the vast amount of mechanical knowledge of flutes exhibited in your pages.  I am simply a flute player who has performed upon all flutes, from the shilling fife to the elaborate instruments at the present large prices.

[Clearly, Wells has experience with more or less anything with a hole in it that can be made to produce a note or two!]

I do not wish to make invidious comparisons between the improvements of Mr. Rockstro, Mr. Barratt [sic – Rockstro spells his name “Barrett”] or Mr. Radcliff, who are all old friends of mine,

[Wells does not want to take sides in the debate regarding various models which has been raging in recent issues of the periodical.  This allusion to Rockstro as an “old friend of mine” is puzzling – here Wells is speaking of the very individual who was about to publish his life’s work on the flute – the “Treatise on the Flute” which appeared later in 1890 -  without any reference at any point to his “old friend” Wells (or for that matter to Wells’ other acknowledged friend and equally distinguished colleague Radcliff).  It would be fascinating to know the reasons for Rockstro’s omissions here!

In the case of Radcliff, a possible explanation of sorts is apparent – Radcliff had introduced his own flute design in 1870 which as of 1890 was still very much in direct competition for customers with Rockstro’s own Boehm-based model (introduced commercially in 1877), both models being made by Rudall, Carte & Co.  The main correspondence thread reflects this competition very well.  Rockstro may have been unwilling to give Radcliff any space in his book because to do so would have inevitably involved drawing attention to Radcliff’s model.  If this was the strategy, it did not succeed – the Radcliff model actually outsold the Rockstro model, albeit by a relatively small margin. 

But this explanation does not cover Wells, who had never thrown his hat into the flute design ring.  Perhaps it was simply Wells’ championship of the Carte 1867 model flute (implying its superiority over the Rockstro) that drew Rockstro’s ire?!?  But then if that was the case, why include the third member of Wells’ acknowledged cadre of friends - William Lewis Barratt (or Barrett)??  The latter was a prominent professional flautist who ranked with Wells and Radcliff (as reflected in the main correspondence chain summarized elsewhere) and had recently modified his Carte 1867 flute to eliminate the “open” (all fingers off) D which characterized Carte’s successive designs and which complicated the fingering for C sharp. Barrett was mentioned by Rockstro – Article 685 deals in detail with his modification.  This makes the suppression of Radcliff’s design (which was based on the Carte 1851 minus the open D) all the more difficult to understand, and does nothing to help us to understand Wells’ exclusion either!

It is possible that Wells’ exclusion was based on nothing more than professional jealousy – as we began by saying, Wells and Rockstro were direct contemporaries, but Wells quickly achieved (and retained) far greater prominence as a player than Rockstro ever did.  This may have rankled more than we can guess …………………..]

and I am sure that they each and all conscientiously believe that the alterations they have suggested are for the benefit of the flute playing community.  That being the case, they are entitled to the gratitude of the flautistic world, even though there be differences of opinion as to which or either of them has hit upon the narrow path that leads straight to perfection in flute playing.

[This comment refers to the fact that the series of letters of which this one is a part had thrown up some strongly partisan views regarding the various designs mentioned.  Wells seems to think that such arguments do nothing to detract from the value of the efforts of each and every one of them.  A commendably balanced viewpoint ……………..]

In the year 1851 I was appointed to represent Messrs. Rudall, Rose & Carte (who were the patentees of Mr. Boehm’s last splendid invention, the “cylindrical and parabolic flute”) at the Great Exhibition, and to play this flute before the Jury, the chairman of which was Hector Berlioz, other members consisting of Sterndale Bennett, Sir George Smart, Sir Henry Bishop and Charles Godfrey, father of the present Lieutenant Godfrey of the Grenadier Guards.  There were a number of flutes exhibited, each maker bringing his own professor to play for him. 

[This is an extremely enlightening paragraph! It begins with an error – the entry at the 1851 Exhibition was under the name Rudall & Rose, since Rudall, Rose & Carte had yet to be established as a corporate entity – this only happened the following year (1852). It could well be that Carte was sufficiently prominent that it was Rudall, Rose and Carte in all but name.

But more significantly, Wells has long been recognized as the “demonstrator of the Boehm flute” at the 1851 Exhibition.  However, it has widely been assumed that he did so on behalf of Theobald Boehm himself (who entered his own instruments entirely separately from Rudall & Rose and won the prestigious Council Medal under his own name) and that Richard Carte, who was himself an eminent professional flautist who had recently introduced his 1851 design variant of Boehm’s flute and had just in consequence been admitted to the firm, would have demonstrated the products of Rudall & Rose.  Wells confirms that this was not so – for some reason, Carte was no longer considered up to the task of demonstrating his own flutes!!] 

It so happened that Siccama’s and Boehm’s flutes were to be tried together, and I found myself face to face with my old master, Joseph Richardson, who was, without exception, the finest executant in the world.  Of course, Richardson had to start, which he did by taking flight in a chromatic scale (the astounding speed of which I shall never forget) and perching upon the top note.

[The Siccama flute had been introduced in 1846 by the linguist and keen amateur flautist Abel Siccama.  His flutes were made to a very high standard by the talented maker John Hudson.  They were basically similar to the old 8-key conical bored flute but with a modified conical bore and simple mechanism to bring the holes for E and A into their proper location and size. In that respect, they followed the design precepts of Boehm, who had established the dictum that the holes in a flute should be placed and sized correctly on the basis of their acoustical functions, it being then up to the maker to devise suitable mechanism to bring them under the control of the fingers.  Richardson played the Siccama flute until his death in 1862, and Robert Sidney Pratten played this design for some years also. Wells was undoubtedly familiar with this design, having played it himself for a time.] 

Berlioz immediately said: “Gently, Mr. Richardson, this is not a question of your talent; we all know that.  But please play me the scale of G flat very slowly”.  To make a long story short, we had alternately to play arpeggios of diminished sevenths and various other combinations, slow and fast.  Berlioz suddenly asked Richardson what special improvement he claimed for Mr. Siccama’s flute, to which he replied that it was in the bore, being more like that of Mr. Boehm’s flute.

[This comment must surely rank with the greatest faux pas in recorded musical history, and to the present authors it seems quite incredible not only that those present on this occasion should have accepted it at face value but that later writers (including Wells, it would seem) have never questioned it!  To anyone (like Wells) having the slightest familiarity with the two designs, Richardson’s quoted statement is clearly absurd!!  Siccama’s modified conical bore is of course nothing like the cylinder bore used in the 1847 Boehm, and both Richardson and Wells (as present and former users of the design) 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 an understandable case of getting flustered by an unexpected grilling from the Jury!  Regardless, instead of probing further into this clearly untrue statement, the Jury immediately took it at its face value as an “endorsement through imitation” of Boehm’s design by Siccama!!  What a farce!! ]

This admission was fatal to Siccama, whose face and red hair were like the fiery furnace poor Daniel was thrown into, while Boehm seemed much gratified. 

[Here we must include Boehm as one of the guilty parties to this debacle – he of all people must surely have known that Richardson’s statement was untrue.  Evidently, though, he took pleasure in the unwarranted discomfiture of his rival manufacturer!  The main importance of this statement is that it shows that Boehm was present at this comparison even though he had his own stand exhibiting his own instruments under his own name.  We also learn incidentally that Siccama had red hair!!]

Berlioz directly turned to the other members of the Jury, and said “It appears to me, gentlemen, that we could not have a better compliment to the ingenuity of Mr. Boehm”.  The result is well known.  Mr. Boehm obtained the Council Medal, and Messrs. Rudall, Rose & Carte the prize medal for Mr. Carte’s improvements for facility of fingering the Boehm system.

[Now we come to one of the greatest misunderstandings of all in connection with the 1851 Exhibition.  To understand the following comments, it is necessary first to understand the criteria for which the cited medals were to be awarded.  Direct reference to the criteria with which the Jury was provided by the Exhibition organisers reveals that the two medals were specifically intended to recognise two completely distinct criteria – innovation of ideas (the Council Medal)  and execution of ideas (the Prize Medal).  The distinction was specifically cited as being intended to help the Jury and to avoid any appearance of relative merit between the two awards – they were in fact for totally different criteria and hence implied no relative merit whatsoever. The Prize Medal (which Rudall & Rose won for Carte’s Patent Boehm Flutes) was specifically to be conferred by the Jury upon exhibitors whose offerings displayed “a certain standard of excellence in production or workmanship”.  A vital  point – there is no mention here of ideas or design innovation. Recognition of those factors was reserved for the Council Medal (awarded to Boehm), which was only to be awarded by the Council of Juries (as opposed to the individual Juries) to those exhibitors whose offerings displayed “some important novelty of invention or application” and was specifically not to be awarded on the basis of “excellence of production or workmanship alone, however eminent".  The comment was actually made at the time that some winners of the Council Medal were far inferior in terms of workmanship to their less innovative brethren!

Once we grasp this, the true state of affairs becomes quite clear.  Boehm won the Council Medal fair and square for his innovative ideas expressed in the flutes and oboe which he exhibited on his own stand.  The oboe was critical – the Jury specifically noted the fact that Boehm had demonstrated his improvements to be applicable to more than just flutes. Indeed, in the official citation for Boehm’s Council Medal, the word “flutes” appears only once as part of a list of instruments to which Boehm’s ideas can be applied.

By contrast, Carte’s 1851 flute was largely derivative (by Carte’s open admission) and hence did not qualify for an award based on innovation.  In fact, for the most part it used the same innovations for which Boehm received separate recognition – even the principles (as opposed to the application) of its mechanism were similar. However, the manufacturing expertise of Rudall & Rose was deservedly well known, and we cannot doubt that they put their very best work on display at the Exhibition.  They duly received the Prize Medal for their rendition of Carte’s 1851 flute on the Boehm principle, but this was specifically for workmanship and had nothing whatsoever to do with any level of recognition for innovation.

Despite this, marketing considerations induced Carte to claim that the Prize Medal constituted recognition of his innovative mechanism, despite the fact that the award criteria clearly excluded this. It is another mystery why this claim has never been challenged – seemingly, even Wells was taken in!  This can only be explained by Carte gambling successfully that few people would be familiar with (or bother to make themselves familiar with) the true criteria for the various awards.  It is high time that this false impression was corrected.]   

In the year 1867, Mr. George Spencer, an amateur flautist who took a deep interest in flutes and flute players, and more particularly – being an engineer – in the mechanical construction of the instrument, suggested that the complicated mechanism necessary for the long F natural key (played with the little finger of the left hand) might be dispensed with by doing away with the hole on that side altogether, and making another, to be played with the first finger of the right hand.  This was done, and the 1867 patent sprang into existence.

[This statement was directly challenged by Christopher Welch in the preface to the Second Edition (1892) of his 1882 book “History of the Boehm Flute”.  On page lxxvi of that work, he quotes the above passage from Wells’ letter directly, stating his view that Wells was most likely writing in good faith, and then proceeds to dispute Spencer’s claim to this innovation.  Welch says that as a result of an injury to his right forefinger, he had certain modifications made to his own Carte 1851 flute which included the relocation of the hole as described by Wells. He claims to have the dated drawings to prove his case.  Together with certain other modifications, this led to the Carte 1867 model entering production with Welch’s modification as one of its main features.]

Mr. Spencer and myself immediately gave up the 1851, and I believe that I subsequently sold mine to a professional pupil, Mr. A. P. Vivian, who was then playing on a conical “Pratten’s Perfected” .  I was the first to play in public on the 1867, and still play on it.

I observe that the gentleman rejoicing in the initial of “B” says that “the open D, which is on the Carte 1867, and no other system”  Now I am sorry to be obliged to contradict him, as I have played the open D ever since 1851, it being one of the principal features of Mr. Carte’s inventions at the Great Exhibition;

[Quite true – the open D is a feature of the Carte 1851.  But Wells is becoming a little picky here – if one reads the letter of “B” to which he refers, it is apparent that the writer was referring to the open D as being used on no other system than the Carte 1867 at his time of writing.  “B” never meant to imply that it had been used in the past on no system other than the Carte 1867!] 

and it was at my suggestion, in 1855, that Signor Paggi (who was an exceedingly fine oboe player) transposed his solo ”Rimembranze  Napolitane”  from the key of G to A, on purpose to trot out the open D;  it was dedicated to me, and I played it for the first time at a concert in the Hanover Square Rooms – the late Mr. J. L. Hatton accompanying.

My opinion, being that of a single individual, is not worth much.  I cannot, however, before concluding, refrain from saying, with regard to the material employed for the construction of flutes, that there is nothing in the world that can compare with ebonite for volume of tone, durability and, indeed, everything.  I say this after playing on it for twenty years.

[Opinions regarding the qualities of ebonite as a material for flutes were all over the map at this time, as a perusal of the main letter series will make clear.  In truth, it seems to have been very much a matter of personal taste.]

Yours, &c.,

Benjamin Wells

3 Shaftesbury  Rd., Ravenscourt Park, W., (A. R. A. M.).

December 16, 1889

So there it is – one of the few known surviving written testaments of a great flautist and teacher, who has been undeservedly overlooked in the past, notably by his “good friend” Rockstro. One wishes that Wells had contributed more to the literature of the flute  - having participated from Richardson’s time right through the entire great “transition stage” of the flute in England from 1840 to 1880, he would have been uniquely placed to enhance our understanding of this period.  Still, we must make do with what we have – and at least the above letter allows us the opportunity to dispel a few errors which have been perpetuated in the past, to the detriment of historical objectivity.


 Other know surviving works by Wells include:

  1. Album célèbre. 10 Morceaux choisis transcrits pour Flûte et Piano par B. Wells. Vol.ii / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1880  

  2. Dramatic Fantasia for Flute and Piano, etc / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1883

  3. Gems of Melody, selected from the ... works of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Bellini, Donizetti, Mozart, Weber, Auber, etc., for the flute ... with an accompaniment for the pianoforte by Parry, Forde, Carte, Dipple, Clinton, B. Wells, &c. New Edition. 1 / [by] Auber, Daniel Franois Esprit, 1782-1871 , et al. 1880

  4. The Merry Maid. Ballad ... arranged with Flute obligato by B. Wells / [by] Guglielmo, P. D ; Wells, Benjamin . 1876

  5. Scale Practice for the Flute / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1866

  6. Scena pastorale, Flute and Piano / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1883

  7. Scène dramatique for Flute and Piano Forte / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1883

  8. Serenade. [Flute and P. F.] / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1883

  9. Simpson's Flute Gems, a series of favorite melodies ... for Flute & Piano / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1878

  10. Simpson's Flute Gems ... arranged for Flute & Piano by B. Wells / [by] Wells, Benjamin . 1879


Adrian Duncan, Vancouver, for locating and preparing this interesting piece of correspondence for us.


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