Boehm’s Ghost: A Vicarious Portrait of a Flute Maker in London

This essay was written to accompany the exhibit “Boehm’s Ghost: A Vicarious Portrait of a Flute Maker in London.” The exhibit opened in Duke University’s Biddle Music Building in March 2019. The research and text presented here were prepared by Jeremy Sexton, a second-year Ph.D. student in musicology, under the supervision of Professor Roseen Giles, curator of the Duke University Musical Instrument Collections.

All flutes included in the exhibit, with the exception of D2, belong to the G. Norman and Ruth G. Eddy Collection of Musical Instruments.

Flute D2 is a gift of Keith W. and Karen Bryan.

Few individuals have played so central a role in the history of the flute as did Theobald Boehm (1794–1881): the German flautist, goldsmith, and instrument maker who fundamentally redesigned the instrument in the first half of the nineteenth century. Even today, the standard flute employs the famous “Boehm system” of fingering and construction. Given the near-universal acceptance of Boehm’s design for at least the past fifty years, it is tempting to describe the modern flute as the product of a linear, quasi-evolutionary process with the capital “S” Boehm System as its goal. Such a view is overly simplistic, however. Featuring instruments of the Duke University Musical Instrument Collections, the exhibit “Boehm’s Ghost: A Vicarious Portrait of a Flute Maker in London” offers a more nuanced view of the context in which Boehm formulated his influential ideas. While Duke’s collections contain no instrument built by Boehm’s Munich workshop, they do hold a number of instruments that illustrate the circumstances under which Boehm’s design came to fruition. Special emphasis is placed on London, a particular strength of the Musical Instrument Collections and a city of great importance both for Boehm himself and for the manufacture of flutes in nineteenth-century Europe. As a survey of our exhibit will reveal, the development of the Boehm flute was closely tied to social and economic changes in Europe beginning in the late eighteenth century that also spawned a large number of competing designs around the same time. Boehm’s invention did not mark the clear and decisive turning point in the history of the flute that we might be tempted to attribute to it today. Rather, it vied with rival designs and only gradually won acceptance, at different rates in different locales. The “vicarious portrait” painted by the exhibit is one that throws Boehm’s work into relief against the vibrant cultural environment in which it participated.


A flute can be described as a woodwind instrument, generally of a tubular shape, that is played by blowing across a specially-shaped opening (known as the embouchure) in such a way as to produce a vibrating column of air whose pulsations we hear as sound. This manner of generating sound by blowing directly across the embouchure distinguishes the flute from other woodwind instruments that produce sound through the use of one or two reeds. The embouchure may be situated either at the end of the tube, as in a recorder, or on the side of the tube, as in the modern flute. A flute whose embouchure is on the side of the tube often is referred to as a “transverse” flute because the player directs the airstream across the side of the tube.

Around 1660–80, a group of flute makers in Paris inaugurated the history of the modern flute through their experiments with new methods of building transverse flutes. The new type of instrument created by these makers featured a largely conical bore for improved tone quality and intonation, especially in the “overblown” upper register of the instrument, which was reached by the player’s adjusting the angle and increasing the speed of the air such that the instrument sounds at a different harmonic. (Similar “overblowing” remains an aspect of modern flute technique.) Late seventeenth-century French makers were the first to construct flutes from multiple segments, called “joints,” that are assembled when the instrument is to be played. This design feature allowed makers greater flexibility in adjusting the positions of holes and fine-tuning the instrument’s intonation. These French flutes also featured a seventh hole in addition to the traditional six finger-holes. By opening the six finger-holes in succession, the player could obtain a diatonic D major scale, while chromatic pitches outside this scale could be attained by means of special fingerings known as cross fingerings or forked fingerings. The novel seventh hole was sealed by a key and positioned so that the player could obtain the pitch D♯, which was not available by any cross fingering of the other six holes. These one-key Paris-made instruments were some of the earliest flutes to employ keys.

The Athenaeum and Literary Chronicle, 19 August, 1829.

These enhancements of the transverse flute did not cause it to gain immediate acceptance among European musicians. The recorder remained the most widely accepted form of the flute well into the eighteenth century, in continuation of a tradition extending back through the Renaissance into the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, by the late eighteenth century, the transverse flute was firmly established in the European musical world. (See “The Transverse Flute and the Recorder.”) Indeed, the late eighteenth century saw a new flourishing of the flute. The instrument experienced a rise in popularity related to its association with good taste, high social class, and manliness. (See “The Flute and Social Status.”) The increasing popularity of traveling flute virtuosi during the late eighteenth century—for example, Michel Blavet (1700–1768) of France, Friedrich Ludwig Dülon (1769–1826) of Germany, and Andrew Ashe (c. 1759–1838) of England—both contributed to and reflected the importance afforded the instrument itself. Composers became more ambitious in their use of the flute. Significant works from this period that feature the flute prominently include two flute concerti and a concerto for flute and harp by Mozart (K. 313, K. 314 (285e), and K. 299); a G major trio for piano, flute, and bassoon by Beethoven (WoO 37); and numerous flute sonatas by C. P. E. Bach. The flute also assumed a significant role in the symphonic works of these composers and of Haydn, and composers began to exploit its upper registral extreme to an unprecedented degree. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the flute enjoyed great popularity among wealthy men who both patronized concerts of traveling virtuosi and played the instrument as amateurs. Such interest in the flute stimulated a thriving amateur market for flute music, treatises, and method books, as well as technical innovations in the design of the instrument itself—innovations, as Nancy Toff has documented, that were often of a highly individual nature with an eye toward competing with rival makers for the best and most popular design (Toff 1979, 24–42). So intense was the public interest in the flute in early nineteenth-century Britain that the August 19, 1829 edition of the London Athenaeum and Literary Chronicle affirmed, “We take it for granted that one man out of ten plays the flute.” Nor was this flute mania a transient phenomenon: fourteen years later (January 26, 1843), a writer for The Musical World could still assert that “A flute is a musical weed which springs up everywhere”—a statement that testifies as much to the persistent popularity of the instrument as it does to the writer’s personal distaste. This atmosphere of “Flute Mania” was the environment in which Theobald Boehm forged his career.

Flutes A1A2, and A3 of our exhibit illustrate just a small portion of this dynamic environment by providing a snapshot of flute-making activity in London in the first half of the nineteenth century. London had been an important center for flute making since the late 1750s, when English makers had begun to experiment with the use of extra keys in addition to the one contributed by earlier French makers. One may observe that Flutes A1 and A2 are stamped with the same address and insignia—79 Cornhill, London, with a unicorn’s head—despite being built by different makers. This detail warrants some explication. Flute A1, a six-key instrument, was made by the firm of George Astor, a German immigrant to London, brother of the American entrepreneur John Jacob Astor, and co-founder with John Jacob of what would become one of the leading flute manufacturers in early nineteenth-century London. In 1796, thirteen years after his brother’s emigration to the United States, George Astor moved from his former quarters at 26 Wych Street to new premises at 79 Cornhill (also in London), where he worked under the company name “Astor & Co.” until his death in 1813. Astor’s widow continued the firm under the same name. She formed business partnerships first with a maker named Horwood (“Astor & Horwood,” represented by flute 27 in Duke’s Eddy Collection, not displayed) from about 1815–1819, then with the younger maker Christopher Gerock, also a German émigré, beginning around 1824 (“Gerock, Astor & Co.”). Gerock continued to work at the 79 Cornhill address after 1831, when his employee Robert Wolf married Gerock’s daughter. The firm briefly adopted the name “Gerock & Wolf” before switching simply to “C. Gerock & Co.” until Gerock’s retirement in 1837. Flute A2, which bears Gerock’s name along with the same 79 Cornhill address and unicorn insignia as the Astor flute (A1), is the product of these business interactions, which exemplify the vibrancy and mobility of the London flute-making community during this period.

stamp on flute
Detail of a maker's stamp on Flute A2

Exhibited with these two instruments is Flute A3, a product of the London workshop of Richard Bilton from about 1826–27. This flute, like those by Astor and Gerock, features a unicorn stamp alongside the name of the maker. (See “What’s With All the Unicorns?”) The eight-key format of this instrument is sometimes considered the “standard” or “most advanced” form of the pre-Boehm flute, but such a description is misleading. Note, for example, that the Gerock instrument (A2), though almost contemporary with Bilton’s flute, has only one key. Neither the eight-key Bilton nor the one-key Gerock was anomalous in early nineteenth-century Britain: even after instruments with many keys had been produced, different players continued to have different tastes. Some players in early nineteenth-century Europe still preferred instruments with only one key, and makers often produced a wide variety of different instruments to meet players’ varied demands and appeal to different sections of the market. In light of this situation, it is best to accept Toff’s conclusion that “the flute was, in fact, far from standardized” in the early nineteenth century (Toff 1979, 29).

Another important seller of flutes in early nineteenth-century London was Clementi & Co., whose instruments are displayed here as Flutes C1C2, and C3. This was the same Muzio Clementi (1752–1832) who was famous as a pianist, piano teacher, and composer of music admired by Beethoven. In addition to the flutes displayed here, the Duke Musical Instrument Collections hold a Clementi fortepiano and clarinet, both featured in our downstairs exhibit space. While the Clementi firm is perhaps best known today for its pianos, it also played a significant role in the history of the flute through its connection with Charles Nicholson (1795–1837), the most famous and influential flautist in early nineteenth-century England.

Charles Nicholson (1795–1837). Portrait by T. Bart.

Nicholson extended the virtuoso tradition that had been established in the eighteenth century, gaining renown especially for skilled performances of his own compositions, including preludes and sets of variations on well-known tunes. He became famous for his cultivation of a full, powerful tone, which was facilitated by the instrument he used: a flute that his father had modified for him by enlarging the tone holes. He was also well known for a technique called the “glide,” whereby a kind of fingered glissando was inserted between adjacent notes. In his 1836 treatise A School for the Flute, Nicholson describes his ideal sound for solo performance: “as reedy as possible, as much like that of the hautboy as you can get it, but embodying the round mellowness of the clarionet” (Powell 2002, 134). Nicholson’s renowned tone and virtuosity made him something of a national celebrity in Britain. His contemporaries seem to have associated his tone with the idea of flute-playing as a masculine endeavor. Indeed, British critics of the early nineteenth century compared Nicholson’s “masculine” sound favorably to the less forceful playing of non-British performers who visited London. (See “Masculinity and the British Sound Ideal.”) As amateur flautists sought to imitate this sound, a market developed for instruments that resembled Nicholson’s. Although Nicholson himself preferred to use a modified George Astor flute (see Flute A1), he gave his consent for flutes bearing his name to be built by the maker Thomas Prowse and marketed under the stamp of Clementi & Co. Flutes C2 and C3 display the influence of Nicholson on the Clementi firm’s designs. Flute C2, a seven-key instrument, features the large tone holes associated with Nicholson, whereas the eight-key Flute C3 displays the same feature along with the marking “Nicholson’s Improved.” The enlarged tone holes of these two instruments are visible by direct comparison to Flute C1, a one-key instrument with smaller holes that may predate the Clementi firm’s involvement with Nicholson. 

The characteristic British sound exemplified by Charles Nicholson was to have a profound effect on the work of Theobald Boehm. Boehm trained both as a goldsmith and as a flautist and carried both of these professional activities with him into adult life. The young Boehm quickly earned a reputation as a talented performer in his native Munich, obtaining a post in the Royal Bavarian Orchestra in 1818. As early as 1824, he was noted by the German flautist Karl August Grenser as a famous flute maker, and by 1829 he had established his own factory in Munich. Some of Boehm’s flutes from this early stage of his career, while adhering to the so-called “simple system” of fingering, already employed one of the mechanical modifications that would characterize his later work: the use of a metal rod-axles for the purpose of joining keys together. 

Having secured the beginnings of a promising career in Germany, Boehm set out for Paris and London in 1831 to try his luck as a touring performer. Years later, in a letter to W. S. Broadwood, Boehm recalled his experience in London as follows: “I did as well as any continental flautist could have done, in London, in 1831, but I could not match Nicholson in power of tone, wherefore I set to work to remodel my flute. Had I not heard him, probably the Boehm flute would never have been made” (Boehm 1960, 8). It is not clear whether Boehm’s desire to match Nicholson’s power of tone came from a personal admiration of such power or from a desire to compete professionally with the prominent English flautist. It is clear, however, that by the time he left England in 1831, Boehm was already considering enhancements to the design of his instruments. The traditional story is that Boehm undertook to build a prototype of his redesigned flute in the workshop of Christopher Gerock (the maker of Flute A2) and his business partner Robert Wolf. Following a brief meeting, the Gerock workshop printed a flyer advertising “Boehm’s Newly-Invented Patent Flute,” which the firm attempted to market with little success. Only one such instrument survives, and Robert Bigio’s extensive investigation of that instrument leads him to doubt Boehm’s direct involvement in its construction. Bigio calls the workmanship uncharacteristically “shoddy” by Boehm’s standards and identifies several features of the instrument that are inconsistent with both Boehm’s earlier and his later designs (Bigio 2011, 83–87). Later in life, however, Boehm recalled in a letter his personal involvement in the creation of an instrument in the Gerock and Wolf workshop during his 1831 visit to London.

Whatever the degree to which Boehm personally supervised the construction of the 1831 Gerock and Wolf flute, this instrument serves as a harbinger of technical innovations to come. By 1832, Boehm was ready to begin production of a new model of flute in his Munich workshop. Several features of this new flute are worthy of note, all calculated by Boehm to produce “free and therefore powerful tones,” as he would later write in his 1871 treatise Die Flöte und das Flötenspiel (Boehm 1960, 26–27). From Nicholson, Boehm borrowed the idea of using extra-large tone holes to achieve a greater volume of sound. He also added additional tone holes to his instrument such that each chromatic pitch corresponded to its own hole, and he designed a system of open-standing keys for these holes that aided the venting of air. In order to facilitate the operation of the large number of holes thus produced, Boehm used two devices: ring-keys and the same rod-axels, mounted parallel to the body of the flute, that he had employed in his earlier designs. Boehm’s 1832 flute can be seen as a radical departure from the traditional “simple system” flute because it was created, from the outset, with a chromatic rather than diatonic scale in mind. This change, in turn, parallels musical trends of Boehm’s time, as composers increasingly experimented with chromaticism and novel key relationships.

Despite the ingenuity of this new design, Boehm had little initial success in marketing his instrument. Indeed, financial hardship forced him to close his factory in 1839. His flute was slow to be adopted in both Germany and France, in part because of the new fingering system performers had to learn in order to use it and in part because of the powerful tone, which resembled the English sound ideal more than the continental one. In France, Boehm’s flute only came to be used widely after such firms as Buffet and Clair Godfroy aîné had made adjustments to its mechanism and construction and altered some of its features to make it more consistent with French taste. In England, although the maker William Card claimed retrospectively to have been the first English flautist to play and sell the Boehm 1832 flute, the model only gained significant attention in that country after it was adopted and promoted in 1843 by the skilled maker and performer Richard Carte of the firm Rudall, Rose, & Carte. In that year, Boehm sold the right to exclusive production of his 1832 design in England to Rudall, Rose, & Carte and in France to Clair Godfroy aîné.

After undertaking a two-year study of acoustics with University of Munich professor C. F. E. von Schaufhäutl, Boehm refined his earlier work, producing a new model of flute in 1847. In place of the conical bore that had characterized his 1832 model, Boehm decided that the best combination of strong tone and good intonation could be achieved with a fully cylindrical-bore body and a head-joint crafted to a particular conical bore called a “parabola” by Boehm. The “parabolic” shape of the head-joint adjusted for intonation problems caused by the otherwise cylindrical bore. In addition, Boehm used his new knowledge of acoustics to calculate the ideal positions of the 1847 flute’s holes, and he recommended the construction of this new instrument from metal rather than wood. Upon the completion of this refined design, he sold the English and French production rights, respectively, to the same two firms as his 1832 model: Rudall, Rose, & Carte, and Clair Godfroy aîné. The centerpiece of our exhibit, Flute D2, is a Godfroy flute from around 1858 that employs the 1847 Boehm system, produced under this special agreement between Boehm and the French firm. The particular instrument displayed here was restored by its former owner Lamar Stringfield, a skilled flautist and flute maker in his own right and a musician of some import in North Carolina. (See "Lamar Stringfield.")

Given the prominence of the Boehm flute today, one might be tempted to regard 1847 as a decisive date in the instrument’s history and Flute D2 as the most historically “advanced” flute in our exhibit. However, such a view would be misleading: although the Boehm flute did achieve a significant following within Boehm’s lifetime, many makers put forth competing designs that also attracted the attention of major players. This state of affairs is illustrated by the three Rudall, Rose, & Carte Flutes B1B2, and B3. The three flutes displayed here represent models developed by the firm’s co-partner Richard Carte (1808–91) in direct response to the Boehm flute. These instruments were designed to address some players’ concerns about the Boehm flute, as outlined by Carte in his 1851 Sketch of the Successive Improvements Made in the Flute. The first of these models, exemplified by Flute B1, is Carte’s so-called “Old System” flute. Carte designed this flute to meet the needs of those musicians who appreciated the Boehm flute’s tone quality and intonation but did not wish to give up the traditional system of fingering. The instrument featured the same large and carefully-spaced tone holes of Boehm’s 1847 design and was available in two versions that mirrored the bore profiles of Boehm’s 1832 and 1847 flutes, respectively. The fingering of the “Old System” flute, however, was changed to that of the traditional pre-Boehm flute. 

Richard Carte (1808–91). Engraving from Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review, January 1892.

Flutes B2 and B3 represent Carte’s attempt to appeal to another sector of the flute-playing public: those musicians who had learned the Boehm flute and come to appreciate the sound quality and intonation it could afford them but who found it lacking in its “facility of execution” (Carte 2006, 222). As in the design of his “Old System” flute, Carte’s 1851 design (Flute B2) retains many of the details of Boehm’s 1847 model, which Carte admired, but seeks to improve upon the fingering system by proposing an entirely new one of Carte’s own design. In particular, Carte’s new system is conceived so as to moderate the extensive use of the thumb and pinkie finger called for by Boehm’s design. The inscription on the barrel joint of Flute B2 encapsulates the hybrid nature of this 1851 model: “Bohem’s [sic] parabola / Carte’s Mechanism.” Carte’s 1867 design refines his 1851 flute by keeping most of the same fingerings but adding additional keys that permit some Boehm fingerings on the same instrument as alternatives. The Carte 1867 flute (Flute B3) may be considered one of the most complicated flutes to be commercially produced on a large scale, combining as it does two already complicated fingering systems: those of Carte’s 1851 design and of Boehm’s 1847 design. Here again, the hybrid nature of Carte’s invention is summarized by the inscription on the barrel joint: “Carte and Boehm’s Systems / Combined.” Bigio’s study of the Rudall, Rose, & Carte stock records reveals that, while Boehm’s 1847 model remained the most popular design manufactured by the firm, Carte’s own designs made a significant mark on the market as well. Up to the year 1889, the firm sold 630 Boehm system flutes, compared to 182 of Carte’s “Old System” instruments, 58 of his 1851 patent instruments, and 530 of his 1867 patent instruments. Indeed, Carte’s 1867 flute remained popular in Britain well into the twentieth century—so much so that Philip Bate’s seminal 1969 book The Flute records that “The 1867 flute was very successful and still remains the favourite of many English players” (Bate 1969, 148). According to Bigio, one of the last players to use Carte’s 1867 instrument was William Bartlett, who played in the BBC Concert Orchestra into the 1980s.

Richard Carte was not the only maker to create his own models of flute after the Boehm. Flute D1 illustrates another competing system designed by John Clinton (c. 1809– 64), who was well known in his time as a talented flautist but whose writings and advertisements have raised the eyebrows of many a scholar. The fascinating history of how Clinton came to produce his “Equisonant Flute” is worth examining in some detail. Clinton had been one of the first British flautists to adopt the 1832 Boehm flute, and in 1843 he published the first English-language tutor for the instrument, the Theoretical and Practical Essay on the Boehm Flute. In that same year, Clinton participated actively as a pro-Boehm partisan in a high-profile debate over the instrument in The Musical World. (The primary anti-Boehm partisan was Thomas Prowse, the maker of the “Nicholson’s Improved” Flute C3, and possibly also the Nicholson-influenced Flute C2, on behalf of Clementi & Co.) In 1845, when Richard Carte published his own tutor on the 1832 Boehm flute, Clinton became involved in something of a competition with Carte’s firm to receive Boehm’s official sanction for the promotion of his instruments in England. Indeed, Clinton visited Boehm in Munich later in that same year to discuss possible refinements to Boehm’s 1832 instrument. In a letter dated December 20, 1845, Clinton attempts to persuade Boehm to sanction his tutor (soon to be published in an 1846 revised edition) while rejecting Carte’s: “It is possible that Mr. Carte may write you for a testimonial for his work, as I hear he is much chagrinned at the prospect of my work…; you know, of course how to reply to him. He will doubtless make a strong case for himself” (Bigio 2011, 63–64).

Based upon Clinton’s 1851 Treatise Upon the Mechanism and General Principles of the Flute, however, Clinton and Boehm appear to have disagreed on the changes Boehm eventually settled upon in his 1847 design. While Rudall, Rose, and Carte secured the rights to produce Boehm’s 1847 flute in England, Clinton explored his own ideas, which included numerous objections to the fingering system of the new instrument and the complexity of its mechanism. As well, Clinton complained about Boehm’s system of open-standing keys, which in his opinion weakened rather than strengthened the tone. Having attempted in 1851 to create an old-system flute that maintained the enhanced intonation and tone quality of the Boehm, Clinton introduced a new design of his own, dubbing it the “Equisonant Flute,” basing it upon modifications to the spacing of holes in the simple system, and making the extravagant claim that “Clinton’s Flute combines all the facilities of all the modern flutes, and avoids their defects” (Bigio 2011, 99). By all accounts, this instrument was a horrible failure. Despite his output of a large volume of anti-Boehm and especially anti-Carte polemics during his efforts to market his Equisonant flute, Clinton himself began production of Boehm flutes as soon as the Rudall, Rose, & Carte patent expired in 1862. For its part, the firm of Rudall, Rose, & Carte offered Clinton flutes for interested patrons, producing at least thirteen such flutes by 1889, of which our Flute D1 is an example. (Compare the figures cited above for Boehm’s and Carte’s models.)

Flute D3 represents a more successful alternative to the Boehm system in nineteenth-century London. This instrument is the work of Abel Siccama (c. 1810–65), a Dutch teacher of languages and amateur flautist who worked in London. In an 1846 treatise entitled Observations on Correctness of Tune Applied to the Flute, Siccama outlined his own ideas for flute design, rooted, like Clinton’s Equisonant flute, in a modification of the simple system. Siccama’s ideal flute appears to have been almost the exact opposite of Boehm’s design: whereas Boehm applied his ingenuity to the production of an instrument with many mechanically advanced keys and an entirely new fingering system, Siccama’s goal was to produce a flute with as few keys as possible. Siccama developed two models, dubbed the “Chromatic flute” (1841 patent) and “Diatonic flute” (1842 patent). The former employed only one key, but it also possessed ten tone holes operated by the fingers without the aid of keys—a design flaw that rendered the instrument extremely awkward to hold and play. More successful was the Diatonic flute (D3), displayed here. The instrument retains traditional fingering, but like Boehm, Siccama was concerned with the appropriate spacing of the instrument’s holes for proper intonation. In this Diatonic design, Siccama achieves such a spacing by means of keys operated by long levers. The Siccama Diatonic flute was the preferred instrument of the famous English flautist Joseph Richardson, who formerly had employed a Nicholson flute made by Thomas Prowse.

Flute D4 is an earlier example of a flute that was destined not to succeed in London. This instrument bears the stamp of Louis Drouet (1792–1873), the virtuoso mentioned above (in “Masculinity and the British Sound Ideal”), who briefly entered into a business partnership with the London flute-maker Cornelius Ward. However, just as the initial enthusiasm with which Drouet was received as a performer in London seems to have been short-lived, his career as a maker there appears to have been unsustainable. Ardal Powell describes Drouet’s flute-making career as “a brief venture” (Powell 2002, 137). One reason for Drouet’s lack of success may be that his instruments simply did not conform to the London sound ideal defined largely by the playing of Charles Nicholson. Indeed, some British reviews critical of Drouet’s performances complain specifically about his instrument, claiming that Drouet played a flute incapable of producing a full sound throughout its range. While it is unclear whether Drouet performed on an instrument of his own making while in London, the reviewers’ responses to Drouet’s playing suggest a discrepancy in musical taste between the performer and his audience that almost certainly was reflected in Drouet’s flutes, too. This discrepancy likely contributed to the short span of his London flute-making career. One locus of disagreement in taste may have been the material from which Drouet chose to make his flutes. Richard Shepherd Rockstro, himself a prominent maker in the later nineteenth century, reports that Drouet preferred ivory as a material for the construction of flutes, an observation supported by the specimen displayed here. Rockstro also observes that ivory “gives a particularly hard thin tone, without the powerful resonance so much admired” in England (Rockstro 1967, 143).

In mainland Europe, the Boehm flute met with less success than it did in England, in part because of the difference in sound ideal exemplified by the Nicholson-Drouet comparison. In France, a number of players embraced the Boehm flute in either its 1832 or its 1847 iteration but generally preferred the modified instruments of such firms as Buffet and Godfroy, which tweaked Boehm’s design in favor of a French timbral palate and thus moved somewhat away from Boehm’s original intent of imitating Nicholson’s strength of tone. Moreover, some prominent French flautists continued to prefer simple-system flutes. For example, Jean-Louis Tulou (see “Masculinity and the British Sound Ideal”) developed his own modification of the simple system known as the “Tulou system.” Flute E1, displayed here, is an example of such an instrument marketed by Buffet-Crampon. Tulou’s design employs the rod-axels that characterized Boehm’s flutes, but it also features small tone holes that represent a marked contrast to Boehm’s preferences.

stamp on flute
Detail of stamp on Flute E3.

In Germany and Austria, the Boehm flute met with intense resistance. There, traditional flutes were preferred by players, conductors, and composers. The tone of the Boehm flute was considered by many musicians in this part of Europe to be too loud and too uncharacteristic of the traditional flute for use in an orchestra. Only in Boehm’s native Munich did the Boehm flute predominate—much to the chagrin of Richard Wagner, who worked there for a substantial portion of his career. Indeed, Wagner persuaded some of the flautists he worked with in Munich to switch from the cylindrical flute to more traditional instruments. Such instruments, made according to the simple system but with such updates as added keys, larger tone holes, modified bore, and tuning slides, were supplied most notably by the firm of H. F. Meyer of Hanover. Flute E2 is an example of such an instrument, whereas Flute E3 exemplifies the cheaper imitation “Nach Meyer” models made by other firms for export. Building upon these Meyer designs, German makers in the late nineteenth century would also develop what came to be known as the Reformenflöte, still based upon modifications to the simple system whose origins lay in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Slowly, however, the Boehm flute did gain some acceptance. Richard Strauss was one of the first significant Austro-German composers to embrace it fully.

As our investigation of flutes in the Duke University Musical Instrument Collections demonstrates, the 1847 Boehm flute was not simply accepted immediately and without dispute as “the” next stage in the development of the flute. Rather, Boehm’s instrument was born into an environment thronging with competing designs that proliferated during of the “Flute Mania” of the early nineteenth century. This environment had its origins in the social and economic changes that occurred in Europe in the late eighteenth century. These changes, and the culture of amateur flute-playing and -listening that ensued, led to a proliferation of different designs, such as those of Flutes A1A2, and A3, that built upon the one-key instruments pioneered by French makers in the seventeenth century. The innovations of the virtuoso Charles Nicholson influenced the construction of these “old-system” flutes, as seen in the Clementi instruments displayed here (Flutes C1C2, and C3). Himself influenced by Nicholson’s signature strength of tone, Theobald Boehm designed new models of flute first in 1832 and then, following his acoustical studies, in 1847. The latter of these two designs became popular almost immediately in England, where it was manufactured exclusively by the firm of Rudall, Rose & Carte until 1862. Boehm’s designs—modified to suit French tastes—also gained a significant following in France, where a similar agreement allowed for the manufacture of the instrument exclusively by Clair Godfroy aîné (Flute D2). However, despite this success, Boehm’s flute did not attain anything like universal acceptance among flautists until much later. In England, the Boehm flute coexisted with other successful designs such as those of Richard Carte (Flutes B1B2, and B3) and Abel Siccama (Flute D3), as well as other attempts not destined for lasting success, such as Clinton’s Equisonant flute (Flute D1) and the ivory instruments of Drouet (Flute D4). In mainland Europe, where different sound ideals prevailed, Boehm’s instrument competed largely with modifications of the simple-system flute, such as those made by Tulou (Flute E1), Meyer (Flute E2), and Meyer’s imitators (Flute E3). Such competition among different makes of flute continued well into the twentieth century. Only since about 1970 can one speak of the Boehm flute as “the” flute of choice for European musicians.


Works Consulted

Bate, Philip. The Flute: A Study of its History, Development, and Construction. London: Ernest Benn, 1969.

Baines, Anthony. Woodwind Instruments and their History. New York: Norton, 1962.

Bigio, Robert. Rudall, Rose & Carte: The Art of the Flute in Britain. London: Tony Bingham, 2011.

Boehm, Theobald. The Flute and Flute-Playing. Translated by Dayton C. Miller. New York: McGinnis & Marx, 1960.

Bowers, Jane. “New Light on the Development of the Transverse Flute Between About 1650 and About 1770.” Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 3 (1977): 5–56.

Carte, Richard. Sketch of the Successive Improvements Made in the Flute. In Readings in the History of the Flute, edited by Robert Bigio, 207–35. London: Tony Bingham, 2006.

Chang, Lidia. “‘The Don Giovanni of Wind Instruments’: Flute-Playing, Masculinity, and English Nationalism in the Georgian Era.” Paper presented at the Galpin Society and American Musical Instrument Society joint Conference on Musical Instruments, Edinburgh, June 2017.

Clinton, John. A Theoretical and Practical Essay on the Boehm Flute. London: R. Cocks & Co., 1843.….

———. A Treatise Upon the Mechanical and General Principles of the Flute. In Readings in the History of the Flute, edited by Robert Bigio, 183–204. London: Tony Bingham, 2006.

Eagle, David William. A Constant Passion and a Constant Pursuit: A Social History of Flute-Playing in England from 1850 to 1851. PhD Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1977. ProQuest (7809653).

The Harmonicon. Part 2. London: Samuel Leigh, 1830.

Heyde, Herbert. “Makers’ Marks on Wind Instruments. Translated by William Waterhouse. In William Waterhouse, The New Langwill Index: A Dictionary of Musical Wind-Instrument Makers and Inventors, xii–xxviii. London: Tony Bingham, 1993.

Montagu, Jeremy. The Flute. Princes Risborough, UK: Shire Publications, 1990.

Nelson, Douglas R. The Life and Works of Lamar Stringfield. PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 1971. ProQuest (302533210).

Powell, Ardal. The Flute. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Powell, Ardal and David Lasocki. “Bach and the Flute: The Players, the Instruments, the Music.” Early Music 23 (February 1995): 9–29.

Rockstro, R. S. A Treatise on the Construction, the History, and the Practice of the Flute. London: Musica Rara, 1967.

Spitzer, John and Neal Zaslaw. The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 16501815. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Toff, Nancy. The Development of the Modern Flute. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Vorhees, J. L. The Classification of Flute Fingering Systems of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Buren, The Netherlands: F. Knuf, 1980.

Waterhouse, William. The New Langwill Index: A Dictionary of Musical Wind-Instrument Makers and Inventors. London: Tony Bingham, 1993.

Waters, Simon. “Charles Nicholson and the London Flute Market in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The Galpin Society Journal 64 (March 2011): 67–78.

Welch, Christopher. History of the Boehm Flute. New York: McGinnis & Marx, 1961.

Professor Roseen Giles – Curator of the Duke University Musical Instrument Collections (DUMIC)

Roman Testroet – DUMIC assistant

Jeremy Sexton – Exhibit curator and DUMIC 2018–19 teaching assistant

John Santoianni – Ethel Sieck Carrabina Curator of Organs and Harpsichords

Elizabeth Thompson – Duke Music publicist