*This is the third part of a three part series on the history of the modern flute. To view Part 2, click here.
The Nineteenth Century
The dawn of the 1800s revealed still more flute transformations. Parisian Claude Laurent designed a glass flute in 1806 that had a purer tone than its wooden counterparts. His new creation weathered humid conditions more easily, reducing the number of leaks that normally occurred. A modified technique of mounting keys used to accommodate the glass medium became the norm among flutes made of wood after the discovery revealed less lateral play in the keys and increased durability.
Two years later, Reverent Frederick Nolan achieved a more even intonation of the flute scale by fashioning open-standing keys and rings to close open keys and regular holes with the same finger. This invention had the added benefit of enabling the flutist to depress only the ring without covering the hole, and thereby closing the connected open key. Many other flute innovators created varying renditions of the flute mechanism adding anywhere up to seventeen keys. Many of these models were played only by the flutist who commissioned the creation never prospering in the general flute-playing public.
Though the push for more accurately pitched chromatic key work and desire for a larger range was intensifying in early to mid-nineteenth century symphonic compositions, many problems still existed in the makeup of the flute. One issue in particular was the lack of projection the wooden flute provided in the growing orchestra of the Romantic period. This was a problem due to the fact that composers began to use the flute as a soloistic voice in the orchestra rather than merely reinforcement for the string sections. Charles Nicholson (1795-1837), an English virtuoso flutist, attempted to use a flute with larger tone holes to remedy this concern, catching the attention of a young flute maker by the name of Theobald Boehm (1794-1881).
The Boehm Flute
Boehm was a 19th century German flute maker, inventor, composer, and flutist. Beginning flute lessons at the age of 16, he quickly outgrew his instructor and went on to become one of the most accomplished flutists of his time, often performing works he had composed. Boehm initially only manufactured and performed on the traditional “German” flutes. These systems were conical bored wooden flutes with anywhere between one and eight keys. While performing several concerts in Europe, the flute maker became quite dissatisfied with his sound and power of projection compared to another flutist who had an instrument with larger tone holes. Consequently, Boehm swiftly returned to his workshop to begin a twenty-year process of redesigning the flute.
Changes to the Boehm System included adding key pillar mounts and rod-axels that transformed the fingering system, a re-spacing and re-sizing of tone holes to more effectively accommodate acoustics, open venting keys to allow for more resonance, adjusting the conical shape of the flute bore to improve the otherwise flattened pitch, and constructing the instrument of silver rather than wood. The new system was not initially accepted in the mainstream flute community though he began performing with it in Munich in the early 1830s due to the reluctance to adopt a new fingering system. Popularity slowly grew, however, and Boehm’s new flute became the standard in England, France, and the United States by the 1850s. By the end of the century, the remainder of Western Europe had come around.
In the years leading up to 1848, Boehm re-worked many of his initial modifications and sold the patent to Godfroy l’aine in France and Rudall & Rose in England. According to researchers Bates and Bohm, “Boehm’s silver flutes were awarded gold and silver medals at the exhibitions in Leipzig (1850), London (1851) and Paris (1855). Though there have been minor tweaks in the key mechanism since then, the overall make-up of the flute remains unchanged even today, over one hundred fifty years later.
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