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Boehm, Nicholson and the English flute style

Irish flute


One of the most celebrated flautists of the early nineteenth century in England was Charles Nicholson (1795-1837), who was renowned for his big sound and bravura style. He played and endorsed flutes with big sounds made possible by large tone holes and large embouchure holes, and the head pieces were lined with metal. He marketed his design of instrument through other producers, such as Clementi & Co., Astor, and Potter, who inscribed them 'C. Nicholson's Improved'.


The inspiration for Böhm's modifications to his flute design came after a concert tour in England, which received good reviews but left him unsatisfied with his instrument.

In a letter to Mr. Broadwood, dated August, 1871, Boehm writes: "I did as well as any continental flutist 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."

Up to this time his [Böhm's] efforts had been directed to the improvements of the eight-keyed flute, but whilst he was in London he reluctantly decided to abandon the old fingering.

What induced him thus to change his views? He shall tell us himself:—

"In this latter city," he says, "I was struck with the volume of the tone of Nicholson, who was then in the full vigour of his talent. This power was the result of the extraordinary size of the holes of his flute, but it required his marvellous skill and his excellent embouchure to mask the want of accuracy of intonation and equality of tone resulting from the position of the holes, which was incorrect and repugnant to the elementary principles of acoustics "

"The father of the late justly celebrated Nicholson gave greater power to some of the lower tones of the instrument by increasing the size of some of the apertures to a most unreasonable extent. We shall shortly see that this process necessarily sharpens the tones of the lower octave more than those of the upper octaves, thereby throwing a still greater inequality into the scales of the instrument and creating the necessity for a greater action and practice of the embouchure.

"It was here that Nicholson greatly excelled; but the instrument was rendered less manageable for all those who did not possess great command of the embouchure, because the means of correcting the defective intonation of the flute are not supplied by the instrument, but are expected from the performer, by a certain alteration of the action and position of the lips and direction of the jet of breath."—Ward.


Apparently Nicholson, who had very large hands, had even larger holes on his own flute than those which are found on the flutes that were manufactured under his name.

Every one was struck by the purity of Böhm's flute in all the scales, and particular interest was taken in him and his flute by Messrs. Rudall and Rose, the largest and oldest firm for manufacturing wind instruments in London; George Rudall himself being an excellent flute-player. Amongst other flutes, those of Nicholson were also made by the said firm. Through Rudall, Böhm made the acquaintance of the amiable Charles Nicholson and his flute. The Nicholson flute was the ordinary one; but the tall and vigorous Englishman, led by a true instinct, had the holes so increased in size as to suit his large and powerful fingers. Nicholson was the greatest English flute-player—his tone surpassed in fulness and force that of all other flautists of his time, and that is a quality which responds well to the character of the English people. The English love in all musical instruments a full, powerful tone; in contrast to the French, as may be seen in the pianos of the two nations.


The characteristic hard attack of Irish flute-playing is said to derive from the English school of classical flute-playing in the early 19th century. And the 19th century flutes used as models are mostly by English makers.

In one respect, however, it [the conical bore] is inferior: for, in passing rapidly from the higher to the lower part of the instrument, the performer cannot attack, or articulate, the low notes with so much force and firmness.

It has been stated that the son plein, a quality of tone resembling that of the clarionet, which can be produced in the lowest octave of the flute, is peculiar to the cylindrical bore. This reedy timbre, however, can be brought out with quite as much, if not more intensely on the conical flute: it depends, not on the bore, but on the size of the holes and the strength of the lip of the performer. Nicholson, who could elict every variety of tone which the flute is capable of producing, is said to have forced it out in a way never before heard, and hence it was christened the "Nicholsonian effect". It is much cultivated by English flute-players, and those who have strong lips are often very proud of being able to "thrash" the flute, as they term it, and so make it heard. Most of the continental flautists, however, look upon its use, except to a very limited extent, as an indication of bad style, akin to the questionable taste of some contralto singers, who, finding themselves gifted with the faculty of emitting their low notes with great power, never lose an opportunity of forcing them on the ear of the listener.

None other than Mr. C. Nicholson has written "… that the lips must first be closed, and a little drawn back, preserving as much as possible their natural position free from distortion; place the mouth-hole of the flute to the centre of the upper part of the under lip, but not so high as to prevent the lip from covering at least one third or half the mouth-hole".

Boehm flute


Today, if there can be said to be an International Style of flute playing, it is an outgrowth of the French style...

The pure, silvery tone of the modern French school implies the use of the silver flute, and indeed, the silver flute became popular in France before anywhere else. The tone produced by the silver flute is light and limpid and an appropriate top voice to the light-textured French woodwind choir. It responds well to the light, front-of-the-mouth attack and to pianissimo, particularly in the upper register and over wide intervals. The silver flute permits a looser embouchure than does wood, which allows the player to make the nuances of timbre and pitch that are the hallmarks of the French style.

Another typically French preference—indeed a French invention—is the open-hole flute, familiarly and logically known as the French model. It was first introduced on the Boehm flute by Clair Godfroy, Boehm's French licensee and the predecessor of Louis Lot. Gaubert was the first major player to adopt the open-hole flute, and its popularity became contagious.

The French school found a second home in the United States in the early part of this century, when a whole generation of Gaubert students emigrated to the New World: the brothers André and Daniel Maquarre, principal flutists in the Boston and Philadelphia orchestras, respectively; René Rateau, solo flute of the Chicago Symphony; Georges Barrère, first flute of the New York Symphony Orchestra; and Georges Laurent, principal with the Boston Symphony. These men brought with them to the U.S. the tonal ideals of the French school, learned firsthand at the Paris Conservatoire from Taffanel, Hennebains, and Gaubert—the concepts of tonal homogeneity (of which Moyse later became the standard-bearer), of the famous "sensitive" timbral control, and of vibrato. And they brought their silver flutes with open holes, which became so popular that by about 1917 the Wm. S. Haynes Company had ceased making wooden flutes altogether.

Nicholson flute

In England, the tradition has been quite different. It may be traced most clearly to Charles Nicholson (1795-1837), whose powerful tone inspired Boehm's redesign of the flute. Said one of Nicholson's students, W. N. James, his tone was "not only clear, metallic and brilliant, but possesses a volume that is almost incredible." Nicholson's self-confessed goal was to make his tone "as reedy as possible, embodying the round mellowness of the clarinet." He did so on a seven-key old-system wooden flute.

Ignace Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Un morceau de Schumann, 1864The English, in fact, remained partial to the wooden flute well into the twentieth century; even today, a few British players use wooden instruments. The wooden flute creates a denser, more overtly powerful sound than does silver; the tone of such nineteenth century French virtuosi as Tulou and Drouet seemed weak to the English. The bore, embouchure, and tone holes of the typical English wooden flute were also much larger than on comparable French models.

As with the French, the typical English tone ideal correlates with the vowel sounds of the language. Compare the English pronunication of the flute with the French la flûte: The mouth is more open and relaxed, the sound looser. The English flute sound requires more air pressure in blowing and a harder attack, a tighter embouchure, often with the flute pressed rather hard against the lips. The result, typically, is a very, very rich sound, reedy, like Nicholson's in the lowest register. Trevor Wye, one of the finest flutists in Britain today, suggests that the traditional English flute tone is like the typical English weather forecast: "Heavy rain with occasional showers and thick fog with mist patches."...

The French style has, however, penetrated England as well as America... The modern breed of French virtuosi—chief among them Louis Fleury (1878-1926), Phillippe Gaubert (1879-1941), and Rene Le Roy (born 1898)—toured England in the early twentieth century, and were well received by the public, though the professional flutists in England did not begin their Francophile conversion until the mid-1930s.

It was at that time that the young Geoffrey Gilbert, then principal flutist of the London Philharmonic, switched to a metal flute—a stainless steel Rudall Carte instrument with a gold head. Gilbert had become convinced that traditional British flute playing was frowned upon in international circles; producer Fred Gaisberg told him that the Gramophone Company refused to record English flutists. When Gilbert heard Marcel Moyse and René Le Roy, he made the difficult decision to change his style in midcareer. He soon began studying with Le Roy, who converted him to the silver flute (he got Gilbert a Louis Lot); to light, front-of-the-mouth articulation; and to the French concepts of tonal coloring. In the next generation, Gilbert's own student James Galway went to Paris for further instruction from Crunelle, Rampal, and Moyse.

German, Russian, and eastern European traditions are much the same as the English, although the typical sound tends to be duller and thicker. It is almost entirely senza vibrato. In Vienna, the Boehm flute achieved acceptance only in the early twentieth century. As in Germany, it was slow to catch on; when Boehm introduced the instrument, the conservative Franz Doppler was first flutist of the Imperial Opera and professor at the Vienna Conservatory, and his loyalty to the old-system flute was contagious. When Gustav Mahler hired Dutch flute virtuoso Ary van Leeuwen in 1903 to be first flutist of the Vienna Opera, van Leeuwen became the first musician to bring a silver flute to Austria.



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