Masculinity and the British Sound Ideal

Nicholson’s powerful tone seems to have appealed strongly to his British contemporaries, who associated it both with his personal manliness and with their shared nationality. Indeed, Lidia Chang has argued that Nicholson’s “masculine” tone became a focus of nationalist sentiments in early nineteenth-century Britain (Chang 2017). In Samuel Leigh’s 1830 Harmonicon, one writer states that “I can neither think nor speak of the flute without beholding in my mind’s eye the manly figure of my friend Nicholson” (P. 280). Reviews of solo flute performances constantly pitted this “manly figure” and his tone against foreign flautists, frequently praising Nicholson at the foreigners’ expense. For example, the French flautist Jean-Louis Tulou and the Dutch-born flautist Louis Drouet both performed in England during the Nicholson era. Both men were highly esteemed on the continent: Tulou was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Drouet was a friend and respected musical partner of Felix Mendelssohn, and both Tulou and Drouet had received favorable reviews for their performances in Paris. Both met with lukewarm receptions in Britain, however. As one reviewer noted in 1821 in the Quarterly Musical Magazine, “The expectation which [Tulou’s reputation in his own country]… raised in a public already accustomed to the brilliancy and clear articulation of Drouet, and the masculine power and expression of Nicholson, was not easily satisfied, and Tulou, although a very elegant and finished performer, was treated with an indifference which his talents by no means deserved” (Rockstro 1967, 588). Not even Drouet, whom the reviewer mentions as having initially impressed London audiences with his technical brilliance, could escape criticism in comparison to Nicholson’s tone. Another Quarterly Musical Review writer praised Drouet’s technical fireworks in 1823 but complained that his “intonation was perfect, but there was no volume of tone, and the absence of the richer tones of the flute rendered him unable to play an adagio [one of Nicholson’s specialties] with anything like the effect which such a movement requires…” (Rockstro 1967, 600). A comment in the June 17, 1829 edition of The Athenaeum and Literary Chronicle summarizes the general sentiment of British critics in the early nineteenth century: “It is gratifying to the national pride, to reflect that the best performer on his peculiar instrument… is an Englishman!” Tulou, in turn, was one of several continental Europeans to criticize Nicholson’s tone. Interestingly, one of Tulou’s objections is that Nicholson’s playing sounds too much like that of an oboe—exactly the sound Nicholson describes as his ideal. It would seem that British national taste in flute playing differed significantly from that of continental Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century.