Essay Construction Flutes

English modified simple system, "hybrid", and "modern" flutes

Boehm had been impressed with the English virtuoso Charles Nicholson's tone and power, and was in part motivated to design his new flute(s) so that Nicholson's sound could be made available to others who could not handle the difficulties of the Nicholson-style flutes. So it is no surprise that the English immediately appreciated the tone and power of Boehm's flutes.

But many English players had no patience for the change in fingering necessitated by Boehm's design. The open G# key certainly would have been a major complaint, as well as the loss of the F# fingering (1234--k) of the simple system flute. Most of the objections were because players had learned on and were used to, and comfortable with, the old system, not because of any actual superiority. But there certainly were musical passages where the old fingering really was, in an objective sense, easier or better. And we have earlier noted Rockstro's remark that "The old flute, with eight keys and upwards, possesses certain facilities in the fingering of the third octave which are not afforded by any flutes on the open-keyed system [e.g. the Boehm flute]..."

The power, and the tonal evenness, of the Boehm flutes (more power on the cylindrical model) is due to the large, evenly spaced tone holes and the "full venting" (avoidance of veiled forked fingerings) available with open-standing keys. This was immediately recognized—and had, of course, been understood well before Boehm did his work.

A number of English players and inventors tried either (1) to combine most or all of the old fingering with the new bores and hole sizes used on Boehm flutes, while keeping most or all closed-standing keys, or (2) to "improve" the Boehm flute fingering, by incorporating some of all of the old flute's fingerings, while adhering to the open-standing key principle. Flutes of type (1) I sometimes call "modified simple system" flutes, and those of type (2) I tend to call "hybrid system" flutes; but these or any other terms can be misleading. The Rudall Carte firm used the term "modern flutes" for cylindrical bore flutes with large holes. Rocktro in one instance speaks of "psuedo-old" flutes; see below. Actually, "hybrid system" may describe type (1) well, because these instruments have both open and closed-standing keys.

Many inventors helped themselves to parts of the Boehm mechanism, like axles and ring keys, but these ideas existed before Boehm anyway.

These efforts to combine aspects of both systems are fascinating. Extreme cleverness was called into play, with positive results in many cases, appreciated and used by many. The Carte 1867 System flute may actually be better than the Boehm flute. It was "the only important and lasting modification of the Boehm flute", according to Adam Carse. It still had a number of British professional players in the 1960s. The 1867 model did fail to become the world standard flute, but, while standards can be useful, remember that what becomes the standard is not always the best or ideal (some may wish to think of e.g. computer operating systems at this point).

Still, one must admire Boehm's system (as he originally designed it—including the open G#, in particular). His goal of simplicity of mechanism was achieved about as well as can be imagined. Some of the hybrid system mechanisms are quite complex.

Because of the colorful story of these modified and hybrid systems, there is a tendancy for some books on flute history, in particular the older English language books, to give a mistaken impression of the importance of these English systems. They are important; they certainly influenced thinking elsewhere. But they were only really popular in England and some English speaking countries. In 1889, Rockstro wrote

In justice to the consistency of our Continental neighbours it should be mentioned that while we [the English] have been too prone to vacillation between the old, the new, and the psuedo-old systems, the French have been generally loyal to the [Boehm flute]..., and the Germans have, with equal pertinacity, adhered to the old flute, pure and simple.

So if one is more interested in French or German flute music from 1889, perhaps one should spend more of one's effort on understanding the Boehm flute or the old flute, respectively, as made and played at that time.

An early effort to combine the old system and Boehm was made by Cornelius Ward, but his flute is largely forgotten. The most successful English designs were

These are discussed in detail on the separate pages linked to above.

The first three are still based primarily on closed keys for the notes outside D major, and so I think of them as modifications of the simple system even though there are open standing keys or ring keys for some of what would be the six open finger holes.

The top photo on this page shows a cylindrical flute similar to the "old system" flute, the fourth instrument on the Rudall Carte list below, model "d1". Robert Bigio tells me it is a "k1", made in 1883. The closed keys for C, Bb, G#, and the long and short F keys are clearly visible. There are six open-standing keys for the first three fingers of each hand.

The latter three may be considered hybrids, though I think they are much more Boehm-like than not. They were manufactured exclusively by Rudall, Rose & Carte, or Rudall, Carte & Co. and almost always made with cylindrical bores.

The pages below were appended to Rudall, Carte's 1882 edition of Boehm's An Essay on the Construction of Flutes. (Also see the Rudall Carte catalog of 1922.)

Rudall, Carte's brief descriptions of these flutes follow. The last two are Boehm flutes.

Readings in the History of the Flute

Monographs, essays, reviews, letters and advertisements from nineteenth-century London. Selected and edited with an introduction by Robert Bigio.It was estimated in 1829 that one man in ten in London played the flute. Players, teachers, composers and makers competed for their share of the vast market for anything to do with the flute.Much of the published history of the flute in the nineteenth century is based on the works in this collection, which includes descriptions of newly-invented flutes, arguments about their relative merits and some extraordinary battles between rival makers and players.This collection contains the full texts of these most important nineteenth-century works on the flute:•Charles Nicholson “A Word or Two” to Mr. W. N. James (1829)•W. N. James Mr. James’s Answer to Mr. Nicholson (1829)•William Annand A Few Words on the Flute (1843)•Cornelius Ward The Flute Explained (1844)•John Clinton A Treatise Upon the Mechanism and General Principles of the Flute(1851)•Richard Carte Sketch of the Successive Improvements made in the Flute (1851)•John Clinton A Few Practical Hints to Flute Players (1855)•T. C. Skeffington “The Flute” in its Transition State (1862)•Theobald Böhm Essay on the Construction of Flutes (1847, first published in 1882 with notes by W. S. Broadwood)With a Miscellany of essays, letters, reviews and advertisements from the daily press and from musical journals plus personal letters from George Rudall and John Clinton to Theobald Böhm:George Hogarth on the flute;  Philo-Flauto;  Letter from an amateur flute player;  Charles Nicholson appointed Flutist to the King;  The death of Nicholson;  Bucher and Boehm;  Richardson and Card;  ‘My Dear Phunniwistl’;  The Paris Conservatoire and the Boehm flute;   Prowse and the Nicholson flute;  On the Tone of the Flute;   Monzani and Wylde;  Flute-mania;   Hodgkinson;  Review of Clinton’s Boehm flute tutor;   Carte’s advertisement;   Card’s advertisement;  Acrostic on Richardson’s name;  The Boehm flute controversy;  Advertisements by Prowse, Ward and Clinton;   More Boehm flute controversy;   Review of Carte’s Boehm flute tutor;  ‘To Make a Flute Solo’;   Clinton’s letter to Boehm;   Siccama’s advertisement;   Carte’s advertisement;  Rudall’s letter to Boehm;   Carte and the metal Boehm flute in Newcastle;  Madame Dulcken and Mr. Carte;  Richardson and Pratten;  The flute controversy continues;   Card’s Melodion;  The Great Exhibition;   Review of Clinton’s Practical Hints;  Clinton and Carte caution flute players in advertisements in The Times.Illustrated with more than thirty engravings, photographs and line drawings.First published 2006. Third impression 2011. Paper bound. 234mm by 156mm. 368 pages. Price £30 (30 GBP). ISBN 978-0-946113-07-1Available from the publisher, Tony Bingham ( or from the author (, and from the usual specialist booksellers and flute shops.

Robert Bigio flute pages

Articles on the flute

Books by Robert Bigio

Reviews of Readings in the History of the FluteThe Galpin Society Journal LX (April 2007) pp. 246–247. Please click here for a PDF.The Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, 2009. Please click here for a PDF.

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