Robert Sidney Pratten, the man.



We're going to be looking at the series of flutes stamped R.S. Pratten's Perfected, so it seems appropriate to start with what we know of the man himself, Robert Sidney Pratten.  Fortunately, his friend Richard Shepherd Rockstro included a fullsome biography in his book, The Flute, published in London in 1890.  

Now, as you might have become aware in reading articles on this web page, we have our doubts about Rockstro's trustworthiness.  You certainly wouldn't want to rely on him for a biography of Boehm, or an account of Siccama's flute.  Hopefully though, because he regarded himself as Pratten's friend, we can expect at least a sympathetic account.

935. PRATTEN (ROBERT SIDNEY), one of the most distinguished amongst flute-players, was born at Bristol on January 23rd, 1824. Brought up, as he was, in a thoroughly musical family, he became a musician almost from infancy, without receiving any regular instruction, and it is related that his first and only lesson on the flute was given to him, when he was but seven years old, by his elder brother Frederick, afterwards a celebrated double-bass player. Chiefly by his own unaided exertions Robert Sidney not only acquired some knowledge of harmony, and of singing, but also became skilled in the practice of the flute, the pianoforte and the tenor. The last-named instrument he played left-handed; he held the flute in the usual manner. In his twelfth year he began to play solos on the flute at concerts in Bath and Bristol; while still a boy he obtained a place in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Dublin, and, after travelling over a great part of the United Kingdom, in January 1845, he settled in London, where he was engaged as" first flute" at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, two years before the Italian opera was located there.

In the following month Pratten made his first appearance in London as a solo-player, at a "Monster Concert" given by Allcroft at Covent Garden Theatre. The piece he selected was Charles Nicholson's Twelfth Fantasia (Air from " Nina"). His performance created a most favourable impression, and the critics of the musical press bestowed high enconiums on the young artist, commenting especially on his full tone and expressive style. The mantle of Nicholson was said to have fallen on his shoulders; Richardson was mentioned in terms of unfavourable comparison, and the Pictorial Times even went so far as to say that Pratten's style  " fortunately" differed from that of the established favourite. From this time he was a celebrity, being not only famous as a flute-player, but popular as a man.

Not content with being merely a practical musician, and feeling that he possessed talent for composition, Pratten wisely began, shortly after his arrival in London, to take regular lessons in harmony and counterpoint from Charles Lucas, the noted violoncellist. He mastered these difficult branches of musical knowledge in so short a time, that he fairly astonished his instructor, but, as a matter of fact, a naturally quick perception, combined with an exceptionally true ear, always rendered everything connected with music easier to him than to most persons.

During his provincial tours, he had been fortunate enough to gain the friendship of Sir Warwick Hele Tonkin: that generous Baronet and his Lady, being about to travel on the Continent, proposed to take the young musician with them, in order to give him an opportunity of seeing the world, and at the same time extending his reputation by playing solos in some of the principal cities of Europe. The tour was begun early in August 1846, and was not ended until June in the following year. Unvarying success attended Pratten throughout; he received complimentary letters from a host of distinguished musicians, and the continental journals overwhelmed him with praise. Many of these letters and newspaper criticisms, kindly entrusted to me by his widow, Madame Sidney Pratten, are lying before me as I write; they all breathe the same spirit of admiration for the talent of the English Flute-player, and almost at random I select the following notice from Galignalli's Messenger:

" Paris, May 10th, 1847, Mr. Pratten has arrived in Paris on his return to London from Vienna, where he had the honour of performing before the Emperor. At one of the concerts at the Imperial Theatre his success was so great that he was called for three times to receive the plaudits of the audience. All the Vienna journals speak of him as superior to any flutist hitherto heard in Germany."

Soon after his return to England, Pratten - who had until then played on an eight-keyed flute by Rudall and Rose, adopted Siccama's flute (see §§646 to 652). It really mattered little what flute he used.  For such was his amazing command of the instrument, and so accurate was his ear, that he could have played with perfect intonation and a fine tone on almost any kind of flute. 

[Rockstro's unabiding loathing of Siccama becomes dominant here. He has, in the sections nominated, brutally assassinated Siccama and his flute, while his good friend Pratten had praised it fulsomely in two separate testimonials published by Siccama.  All evidence available to us suggests that Siccama's flute was the only available instrument at the time which combined good intonation and the power needed by English performers]. 

On the retirement of Richardson from Jullien's orchestra, Pratten took his place, and was long one of the chief attractions of the Promenade Concerts; in 1851 he succeeded Ribas at the Italian opera, and soon afterwards he was engaged at the concerts of the Philharmonic and Sacred Harmonic Societies, becoming in fact the leading flute-player of England.

An account of Pratten's improvements in the flute with the old fingering is given in §§671-2. I find an entry in my diary, March 29th, 1852, stating that he showed me an eight-keyed flute made under his direction, and exceedingly good of its kind, though it had the usual unequal finger-holes. I think this was his earliest effort at improvement, and I know that he did not use Siccama's flute after that time.

[This seems valuable.  It indicates that Pratten's first efforts were to revise the Siccama flute back to an 8-key, and that that happened in or around early 1852.]

Owing to a deeply-rooted aversion to extra keys, Pratten would not allow the shake-key for c"# - d"# to be placed on his flute, though he eventually adopted that for c"#-d. This objection of his gave rise to an amusing incident: at a rehearsal for a concert, in St. James's Hall, an overture of the late Sir Julius Benedict, containing the shake: c"#-d"# in a prominent position, was conducted by the composer. I pointed out the shake to Pratten asking him chaffingly, what he was going to do? He only replied by a sly wink, and when the time came he shook his c"#-d key very quickly, looking at me with a most comical expression. Benedict, who, it is almost needless to say, had not a quick ear, was delighted, and exclaimed: "Mr. Bratten, dat is de feerst dime I hafe heerd dat shague made broberly." It was too much for the equanimity of the orchestra; their respect for the conductor's position gave way in a peal of Homeric laughter. 

It should be observed that the shake in question was very rarely written at that time, and was generally regarded as being impossible to perform neatly.

On July 10th, 1853, a society, which at my suggestion was called "The Orchestral Union," was started by Alfred Mellon, afterwards celebrated as a conductor, and my valued friend Alfred Nicholson the noted hautboy-player [Oboist]. As a matter of course Pratten was invited to join this society, and I, only too glad to be in such good company, undertook the parts of piccolo and second flute. Then began the close friendship between Pratten and myself which lasted uninterruptedly until his death. The Orchestral Union was exceedingly successful in procuring kudos for its members, especially for its conductor, though in a pecuniary sense it was a very decided failure.  At one of the concerts of this society, held at the Hanover Square Rooms on May 13th, 1854, I heard, for the first time, Pratten play his Concert-Stück with the orchestra. His performance of this fine composition was simply superb. It was about this time that he began to discontinue writing variations, and unless specially requested to do so, he did not even play them. In his later compositions, as well as in the above-mentioned Concert-Stück, he adopted, with the happiest results, the device of employing passages in florid counterpoint, in lieu of the variations which had become nauseous to him, for the display of his great execution. His still popular fantasia on an air from Niedermayer's "Marie Stuart " is, however, a. splendid example of variations, and the introduction to this piece is exceedingly fine, but the Concert-Stück is by far the best of his works.

936. Amongst the numerous compositions of Pratten the following may be cited:
FOR FLUTE AND PIANO: Concert Stück; "Marie Stuart," Fantasia on an air from the opera of that name by Niedermayer (The above works were originally composed for flute and orchestra) ; Two Romances; Valse brillante ; Mazurka elegante; Morceau de Salon, Andante and Rondo (a la polka); Fantasias on the following Operas: Gounod's "Faust"; Auber's " Domino Noir" ; Flotow's " Marta" ; Benedict's "Lily of Killarney."  Variations on the airs, "Coming thro' the Rye" and "Jock 0' Hazeldean' ; Idem on Baker's" Happy days of yore "; Fantaisie sur la Cavatine de Pacini, "I'll soave e bel contento"; Fantasia on ancient English melodies; A. set of four Fantasias on English, Scotch, Irish and American Airs. "L'Esperance," Fantaisie sur un motif de l'opera "L'Eclair," de Halevy, Leipsic.-For FI.UTE SOLO: Studies for the "Siccama Flute" ; Scales and. Exercises for Pratten's "perfected Flute."

937. Of all the admirable features of Pratten's flute-playing, his invariably accurate intonation was the most remarkable, and yet his tone was scarcely less so, for while it always retained the desirable flute character, its power was wonderful, especially in the lowest notes. I have heard him produce these in the orchestra while the brass instruments were playing fortissimo, and he could hold his own against them all, although, incredible as it may seem, without even an approach to coarseness of quality. It was, however, not only in its exceptional vigour that his tone excelled that of any of his contemporaries or successors, but it was so thoroughly under his command that he was able to produce the most surprising and charming effects of crescendo and decrescendo. The general admiration elicited by his fine and original style has been already mentioned, but, like most other professional men, he was obliged to play whatever was set down for him and it might perhaps be said that in striving to impart artistic effect to music of an inferior order, he occasionally gave way to a little pardonable eccentricity. In the performance of really good music he may, however, be pronounced to have been without fault, and he certainly did much to ennoble his instrument.

As regards the personal character of my excellent friend, I need only say that he was one of the most high-minded, generous, amiable and warm-hearted of men.

On September 27th, 1854, Robert Sidney Pratten was married to Miss Catharina ]osepha Pelzer, the celebrated guitariste, who, like her husband, had been a youthful prodigy, having begun to make a name as a soloist when only nine years of age. The married life of these gifted artists was one of unusual happiness and prosperity. At the summit of their respective branches of musical art; thoroughly appreciated by the public and the profession; admired and courted by all who had the good fortune to know them, and devotedly attached to each other, their lot was certainly an enviable one.

Madame Sidney Pratten, to whose kindness I am indebted for many of the foregoing particulars, continues to follow her profession, and still maintains her old pre-eminence, but on November 22nd, I867, her good and clever husband became seriously ill during a performance of Elijah at Exeter Hall. Although scarcely able to sit upright, he played the delicate obligato to "O rest in the Lord" as perfectly as ever, but he could do no more, and was obliged to be assisted to leave the orchestra. That was the last time that I heard him play. He died at Ramsgate on February 10th, 1868.

Quando illum inveniemus parem?
[When will we see the like again?]

[We can probably assume from "Madame Sidney Pratten", that Pratten made use of his second given name.  This is further supported by a reference in a Boosey & Sons catalogue, circa 1860, to "Mr. R. Sidney Pratten".]

Richard Shepherd Rockstro, piccolo (left) with Robert Sidney Pratten, flute.

[The flute illustrated in Pratten's hands is clearly one of the later instruments, cylindrical in bore, fully keyed and with a Boehm-style foot arrangement.]


The biography is taken from "A Treatise on The Flute", RS Rockstro, London 1890.

The image of Rockstro and Pratten is from the Dayton C Miller Collection, Library of Congress, Washington.

Back to McGee-Flutes Home Page