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.

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