The Siccama Flute Story

The 19th century abounds in names we can remember well - Rudall, Rose, Pratten and Boehm to pick a few.  Siccama is a name we probably don't remember.  This page may help us revalue his work. 

Abel Siccama was born in the Netherlands around 1810.  The 1840's finds him as a classics scholar and a professor of languages in London.  More important to our story, he was also a keen amateur flute player and an enthusiast for the instrument.

To understand the London flute experience at that time we may need a little revision.  The century opened with small-hole eight-key flutes rather reminiscent of baroque one-key flutes but with extra keys added.  A little later, Nicholson changes things forever by bringing in large holes, substantially improving tone and intonation.  Boehm, visiting London, is blown away by Nicholson's mighty tone, recognises he could never match it and reacts by bringing out his 1832 model - a conical flute with relatively complex key-work and holes placed where acoustics demands rather than where fingers can reach.  While immediate acceptance of the new instrument was negligible, others started thinking about alternative futures for the flute...

Siccama was among these.  He patented four flute designs, three of which apparently amounted to nothing.  The fourth, his "Diatonic" flute, was invented in 1842.  He offered it to Rudall & Rose, but they declined, probably because they were licensed to manufacture Boehm's instrument.  Siccama established his own works in 1846, employing John Hudson to make the Diatonic, which became known simply as the Siccama flute. 

At left:  Siccama's flute, with key-work by Hudson. 
No 321.  From the author's research collection.

The principles of Siccama's flute

Siccama clearly realised that the A and E notes were the weakest on the old 8-key flute and repositioned them so they could be considerably enlarged.  This required adding the two keys for the third finger of each hand, as no human hand could comfortably reach the holes in their ideal positions.  But he went further.  Because the gaps between the second and third fingers were now spanned by keys, he has able to move the other holes to acoustically superior positions.  The result was a remarkable improvement in intonation and tone quality of almost all the notes on the flute.

The feel of the flute

Siccama's flute feels very good.  The stretch on both hands presents no difficulties - indeed it is not dramatically greater than the modern Boehm flute's.  The action on the Siccama keys (third finger both hands) is very fast and direct.  All the keys fall comfortably under the fingers - note, in the picture above, that the Siccama keys are a little offset to left and right, and that the G# is a very long key, positioned high on the body so that its action is free and predominately downward.  Long F is set a little further around, so that it may be accessed by swinging the fourth finger outwards rather than having to reach further down the flute.


Performance is first rate.  The flute speaks with a vibrant and tightly focused tone over the whole range, and the improvement of the E and A notes is quite clear.  Intonation is vastly improved over flutes from the 2nd Generation (Nicholson, Rudall & Rose etc) with no significant tendency to flat footedness.  Some flatness of the third D is noticeable, and F# and C# notes still benefit from use of the C and F keys.

Reaction to Siccama's flute

Reaction to the instrument seems to have been favourable and to have remained favourable over a surprisingly long time, especially considering that Boehm's cylindrical model was released in the next year.  The evidence is fairly clear.  The instrument was immediately taken up by leading professional players such as Richardson and Pratten.  Other manufacturers took it up - among them Mahillon, Chappel, Boosey, Whitaker and Hawkes - and even Rudall Carte & Co came back to it, where Rudall & Rose had not.  Indeed the only dissenting voice seems to be Rockstro's.  He savagely and unreasonably deprecates both man and instrument in his influential "Treatise on the Flute", 1890.  Indeed, his treatment of Siccama is very similar to his treatments of Clinton and Boehm and it seems that professional jealousy is the only logical explanation.
The last laugh is clearly Siccama's - many thousands of his flutes were made over the fifty remaining years of the century and into the next, while Rockstro's own model quickly faded into obscurity.  More than that, it appears almost certain that the Siccama was the inspiration for the R.S. Pratten's Perfected, a flute which sold very well at the time, and has since become a legend among Irish music players.

A message from beyond the grave

As you may have seen from my article "19th Century Flute Tuning", I believe early 19th century London-made flutes were intended to be played at low pitch rather than high pitch (A 452) (although they could also reach high pitch if needed).  My evidence to date has been deduced from acoustic study of the instruments - I have not found any contemporary reference supporting the theory.  If I am right, it meant that the flutes would need to be played with their slides well extended.  Look closely at the upper right hand corner of the flute case below ....

The small turned wooden button at upper right is the storage place for a silver sleeve.  The 8mm (5/8") sleeve has precisely the same dimensions as the flute's inner tuning slide and fits perfectly inside the barrel's outer slide.  When the flute is assembled without the sleeve, it can reach a pitch of about A=455.  The intonation however is quite wretched.  With the sleeve, the maximum pitch is about 446 Hz.  Intonation is still pretty suspect, but distinctly better.  Determination of ideal pitch will have to await detailed analysis, but early indications are that it is closer to old low pitch, c 430 or perhaps 435.  None-the-less, the purpose of the sleeve is clear - its job is to take up some of the gap created when the flute is tuned low.  And that tells us that tuning low was not only possible, not only legitimate, but expected.  Expected enough to provide the sleeve and the handsome little turned button upon which to store it.  

Thank you, Mr. S.

Work in Progress

I'm currently gathering data on 6 Siccama flutes, with the assistance (no doubt much against his will) of the late Mr Rockstro, US restorer Dave Migoya, and Michael Lea, Musical Instruments Curator of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.  Three of these flutes were made by Siccama's, the other's by Chappel, Boosey and Hawkes.  The aims are:
  • to show the development of the instrument during and after Siccama's time
  • to learn what we can about the relationship between Siccama's flute and the Pratten's Perfected
  • to learn what else we can about pitch in the mid to late 19th century
  • to determine when the very substantial improvements between the post-Nicholson period and the post-Boehm period were first evidenced.
Again, if you can help in this quest with data, thoughts or just questions, feel free to get in contact.

A word on behalf of Mr Hudson

John Hudson is a shadowy figure in mid 19th century London flute making.  We know he worked for Siccama, but we don't know how much he contributed to the design of the Siccama flute.  We know he set up by himself after leaving Siccama - this was probably the period 1853-57.  We know he was involved with RS Pratten in the revision of the Siccama 10-key flute back to the design to be known as Pratten's Perfected and that he first made and marketed those flutes.  We know he was snapped up by the new Boosey and Co to continue that work and more.  We'd like to know more about Hudson - if you see anything that will help cast light on this intriguing character, please let us know.
In the meantime, Hudson's work will have to stand as his reference.  The Siccama A-key on the right is an example of his characteristic workmanship.  The key-cup has a threaded shaft which screws into the knob at the end of the key-shaft.  Note too the sensuous curves on the G# lever behind.  

I hope you've enjoyed this brief look at the work of Siccama and Hudson. You'll find more about Siccama on my home page.   Vancouver-based researcher Adrian Duncan and I are investigating Siccama further and will be bringing you more soon.  

I'm now supplying Siccama style flutes; to find out more, take my Flutes for Irish Music tour, particularly focusing on the section on keys.

Special thanks to www.music-treasures.com, not only for sourcing the flute pictured, but providing the images of it.

Back to McGee Flutes home page

Created: 24 August 2001