Carte’s Claim to Priority as an English-born Player of the Boehm Flute

In 1832, Theobald Boehm had introduced his ground-breaking ring-keyed conical flute design to challenge the established 8-key model.  This instrument was the first design to successfully combine the concepts of open keys and the placement of the tone-holes at their acoustically-correct locations rather than where the fingers could reach them.

The instrument had been slow to achieve widespread acceptance, although it had achieved a measure of success in France in the late 1830’s.  It was not until the early 1840’s, however, that players in England began to take much notice of the new design.  Richard Carte was one of the few prominent players who adopted the instrument in England at this time and subsequently promoted its adoption by others.

During a letter exchange in the London periodical “Musical World” in 1845 regarding the Boehm flute (among other matters), Carte made the specific claim that he had actually been “the first English player to exhibit the new flute as a public performer”.  This very specific claim appeared in a letter dated March 24th, 1845.

The problem with this claim as stated was that it was completely untrue!  During the course of a previous letter exchange in the same periodical, a letter dated November 7th, 1843 from the flute maker Cornelius Ward had appeared in print. This letter very clearly and openly established that the English-born flautist and flute-maker William Card (1788 – 1861), a noted orchestral flautist in his own right, had actually preceded Carte by some years as a performer upon the Böhm flute, having adopted it in 1839 and played it for several years prior to developing his own hybrid model based in part upon the Böhm design.

Given his own high standing in London flute-playing circles, Carte must surely have been acquainted with Card.  Even if he were not, it is simply not credible that Carte could have been unaware of the letter from Ward mentioned in the previous paragraph – he clearly read the periodical in which they appeared, since in 1845 he responded twice to letters by others invoking his name.

But it is perhaps just possible (however unlikely) that Carte was genuinely unaware of Card’s prior claim as of March 1845.  However, he was soon set straight by the publication of a letter from Card himself dated April 28th, 1845 in the “Musical World”.  This letter was written as a direct response to Carte’s earlier letter, among others.  In this letter, Card confirmed Ward’s earlier account in every particular, giving full details which could be checked.  This appeared to put the issue to rest once and for all.

It is therefore quite remarkable to find Carte once again making the same claim in 1851!!  This time, he included a statement in his “Sketch on the Successive Improvements Made in the Flute” published in that year, which read in part: 

Having myself taken up the Boehm flute warmly, upon its first introduction into this country, and having been the first native professor to perform upon it in public.. ……

It is extremely difficult to account for Carte’s readiness to make this clearly false statement in 1851 after the earlier publication of the evidence of Ward and Card to the contrary.  We might perhaps give Carte the benefit of the doubt in March 1845, but it is impossible to do so in 1851 given that the above statement directly contradicted Card’s very clear and well-corroborated 1845 claim to priority as an English-born player.  Since Card had published his 1845 rebuttal during a letter exchange in which Carte was an active participant, it is impossible to believe that as of 1851 Carte could have remained unaware of the existence and the strength of Card’s claim. 

The reasons for Carte’s extraordinary lapse from the truth must remain conjectural.   It is sufficient to note that his claims were equally untrue on both occasions.


Researched and prepared by Adrian Duncan.


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  Created 25 December 2006