The life and work of John Clinton, cont.

Clinton’s Appreciation of Boehm’s 1832 Flute

Theobald Boehm’s original 1832 ring-keyed conical-bored flute was first presented to the London musical scene in 1833 and again in 1834-35 by Boehm himself, but it was not until 1843, when Rudall & Rose took up the manufacture of the improved version featuring modifications by Buffet, Coche and Dorus, that it achieved any real recognition in England.  Clinton appears to have been one of the first prominent London players to take up the new instrument (Richard Carte was another).  Indeed, in his later 1851 publication  “A  Treatise  upon  the  Mechanism  and  General  Principles  of  the Flute” (3),  Clinton actually claims to have become aware of the advantages of the 1832 Boehm as early as 1841 and to have found it to be “so superior to the old eight-keyed instrument” that he took it up for his own playing shortly thereafter. It appears that Clinton’s major reason for this opinion was the improved intonation and dynamic balance between notes which were achieved through Boehm’s more rational placement and sizing of the various holes.

In the 1851 “Treatise” (op. cit.), Clinton states that at the time of his adoption of the 1832 ring-keyed Boehm flute he “was influenced solely as a flute-player ; up to this period I had given no particular attention to the principles of construction in a flute”. It is clear from this that Clinton’s interest in flute research and manufacture evolved over time as he became more aware (and presumably more enthusiastic) regarding the potential for improvement of his chosen instrument which Boehm had clearly demonstrated.  Before Boehm, flautists had more or less accepted the very evident limitations of their instrument – now Boehm had shown that this state of affairs need not necessarily continue.  Need we wonder that Clinton and his colleagues were excited about the prospect of a “perfect” flute which Boehm had so tantalisingly dangled before them??

In any event, Clinton clearly became a “true believer”, spending the next four years indefatigably promoting the improved 1832 Boehm design, writing strongly-supportive letters in 1843 to the publication “Musical World” and publishing the first English-language tutor(4) for the Boehm flute in the same year.  This was a hastily and probably prematurely-written work which he greatly bettered in 1846 with his second tutor(5) for the same instrument.

It has in fact been suggested by Rockstro (op. cit.) among others that Clinton’s excess of zeal and possibly premature initial publication may have done more harm than good to the Boehm cause.  However, Clinton himself seems to have remained in no doubt at all that he was personally responsible for the initial success of the Boehm flute in England.  Both in his 1851 “Treatise” (op. cit.) and in the Introduction to his 1860 “Code of Instructions for the Fingering of the Equisonant Flute” (6), Clinton specifically claims to have personally “introduced the Boehm flute” to the public, and in the “Code of Instructions” he alludes to  some of the difficulties that he faced in doing so.  Others appear to have held the view that some of these difficulties may have been of Clinton’s own making!  An excess of zeal and self-assurance has certainly been known to raise hackles and impede progress!!

It is of passing interest to note at this point that in a treatise published in 1851 (7), Richard Carte also claimed priority in introducing the 1832 ring-keyed Boehm flute to the English audience.  However, the wording of Carte’s claim bears careful consideration.  Carte appears to have been a punctilious user of the English language, and the direct quote from the relevant passage states that he claimed to be “the first native (our italics) professor to perform upon it (the Boehm flute) in public”.  One is forced to wonder whether or not the Irish-born Clinton would have been seen as a native of England??  In the context of the times, it seems unlikely and in literal terms he certainly was not.  So the question of priority is not clarified by this passage, nor does it matter greatly at this remove in time.

In point of fact, it appears that both Carte and Clinton were preceded by the London flautists Cornelius Ward and Signor Folz, who are reported (8) to have adopted the improved Boehm flute in 1839 for their own playing.  Indeed, Ward (who was himself a manufacturer) seems to deserve the credit for making the first Boehm flutes to be produced in England, although he soon went his own way in developing his own flute designs.  However, neither Ward nor Folz appear to have achieved much in terms of popularising the Boehm flute.  It was only when Rudall & Rose made high-quality English-made examples readily available to the public starting in 1843 that the instrument gained any prominence.  Clinton’s advocacy coincided with this event.

Notwithstanding his enthusiastic adoption of the instrument, it is clear that Clinton soon recognised a number of areas in which further improvement was possible, in common with many of his contemporaries. As late as 1860 in the “Code of Instructions” (op. cit.) Clinton is still found repeating his view that while the ring-keyed 1832 Boehm was “much superior to the ordinary (8-key) flute, it admitted of still greater improvements”. Boehm himself recognised this, of course, and there is no reason to suppose that Clinton’s views regarding the acoustical deficiencies of Boehm’s 1832 flute would have differed greatly from those of Boehm.  Where they parted company (as events proved) was in their respective approaches to resolving these deficiencies.

What were the residual defects of the 1832 Boehm in Clinton’s mind?  Based on the 1851 “Treatise” (op. cit.), the main perceived defects were the necessary change in fingering which it required and the need for extensive use of awkward cross-fingerings even in the lower register as well as in the third octave.  Clinton also had problems with the overall tone (which he ascribed to the use of the open-key as opposed to the closed-key system) as well as notable tonal and pitch deficiencies in the lower four notes and the third octave.  Note that the cylinder bore had yet to enter the scene, so this was not raised as an objection to the 1832 Boehm - Clinton’s strictures against the cylindrical bore were of course aimed at the subsequent 1847 Boehm instrument and reveal him as a staunch advocate of the conical bore.

In the same document, Clinton also bewails the cost and upkeep requirements of the Boehm flute caused by the mechanical complexity of the instrument.  He appears to have been very concerned about keeping the flute accessible to the general public in economic terms and in maintaining some degree of standardisation of fingering. This is surely a praiseworthy point of view for any advocate of the flute. A substantial section of the 1851 “Treatise” dwells upon this point.

In this regard, and following an objective appraisal of the situation as it was then, we may have some sympathy with Clinton’s views. It is difficult for us to remember at this remove in time how truly confusing the state of the flute as an instrumental entity actually was at this time. There were at least half-a-dozen competing systems, each with its own fingering charts and its own set of vociferous adherents.  Imagine the plight of the prospective newcomer to the instrument who had to commit to a given system, to say nothing of the professors who might be called upon to teach such a bewildering array of different systems!!.

Clinton was obviously very concerned about the adverse effect on the popularity of the flute which could result from the constant changes of fingering systems which were current at this time. His comment in the 1851 “Treatise” (op. cit.) about there being “more new flutes than flute-players” is particularly revealing! His views are completely understandable when we consider that he made a good part of his living teaching new students of the instrument. Anything that discouraged new players from taking up the flute or increased the challenge of teaching the instrument would obviously run counter to his vested interests.  The present authors plan in the future to undertake an in-depth comparative study of competing flute developments at this point in time in order to document the state of flux (perhaps unparalleled by any other instrument at any time) which prevailed during this period.  We feel that this factor has gone largely under-appreciated up to this point.

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