It was Charles Nicholson who broke away from the
"German Flute" as made in London by the likes of Potter,
Astor, Monzani et al, and introduced the "Improved Flute", and
with it, a new era - the golden days of the cone flute that stretched
from around 1816 to 1850 and beyond. So it's particularly
interesting to see what Old Leather Lungs, or Iron Lip (to use two of
his popular descriptions) played himself. Or at least had
presented to him!
The Nicholson's Improved flute was made by Prowse for
sale by Clementi, and interestingly at least two were made by Prowse
specifically for presentation to Nicholson. We know this because
both carry presentation messages, engraved on their lip plates.
The two flutes are lodged in the Dayton C Miller
collection in Washington (DCM 1265, no serial number given) and the Royal
College of Music collection in London (RCM 214, Prowse No 2898). They are very similar, suggesting that they
were indeed made for the great man.
seven keys - Nicholson disliked the long F
ivory embouchure inserts, an preference Nicholson
stated in his tutor
silver lip plates
heads thinned in the embouchure area
dots set in each side of every joint, to facilitate
lining up the parts
a large indentation for the lowest joint of L1
a large excavation for the right thumb, to permit a
both feature salt-spoon keys
and pewter plugs on C and C#.
There are some differences:
Both flutes carry inscriptions, engraved on their lip
The DCM flute's is relatively simple:
The RCM flute more poignant:
This was Nicholson's Flute
From his Playing hence mute
And the Embouchure through
Which Charlie last blew.
We can perhaps safely draw the
inference that Charlie was held in considerable affection and was not a
man given to false airs.
A puzzling matter
One might expect that the flute
"through which Charlie last blew" would be the later, indeed the
last of Nicholson's instruments, yet it is a Clementi. After
Clementi sold his business, Prowse went out on his own, still making
flutes stamped C. Nicholson's Improved. The DCM instrument is a
Prowse, and therefore later than the Clementi, yet it is the Clementi
which bears the terminal message.
A possible explanation is that
Prowse made the later instrument for Nicholson as an asset which could be
realised to help relieve his penury. A presentation instrument to
such a figure would fetch much more than a plain vanilla one. One
can imagine that it might even have been auctioned or raffled at a
"benefit" concert, which were popular in London, in the absence
of any more formal method of providing support to musicians in hard
times. It may be that more such presentation instruments will
surface in time.
Here are the two instruments, first
the DCM Prowse instrument, and then the RCM Clementi.
And the Alignment?
At first glance, you could be excused for wondering why
I aligned the holes on these flutes so badly before taking the images
above. But indeed, I lined the sections up carefully using the
alignment dots provided. The fact that both flutes have such dots
and that they are so idiosyncratically placed gives credence to the
notion that both flutes were actually made for Nicholson, and to his
Taking the holes of the right hand section as our datum,
the head turned in quite significantly, indeed
in line with common practice of the time, the "edge" being
lined up with the centreline of the finger holes, and
the right-hand section turned 45 degrees forward (not
back as some payers are tempted to do!) of the left hand
Yes, 45 degrees, I measured it carefully. You can
experiment with Nicholson's hold by rotating the right-hand section of
your flute so that the holes end up halfway between the vertical and
horizontal. You will find it somewhat unusual, requiring the right
elbow to be held higher than normal. It does however permit greater
flexibility of the right hand fingers, as they and the wrist are
straighter than in the normal grasp.
Now suddenly something else becomes clear. Many
Nicholson flutes were made without the Long F key - Nicholson wasn't
personally fond of it. But those that do have the long F pose a
mystery - why does the touch bend upwards, rather than downwards like on
most other flutes of the period? Nicholson's grasp explains
all. If you rotate the right had section forward, as the alignment
dots shows Nicholson does, the long F touch has to bend upwards if it is
to be at all accessible.
The long F key on the image above is bent, possibly by accidentally
clashing with the long C key when rotated, or conceivably for the comfort
of a past owner. You can imagine that if straight, it would fall in
the usual position, on the lower cheek of the G# block. But if the
right hand section were rotated forward during playing, both the upwards
turn of the touch and the curve of the bend would help keep the touch
Thanks to the Curators of the Dayton C Miller Collection and the Royal
College of Music for permission to examine these instruments and take
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