The life and work of John Clinton, cont.

Clinton’s First Flute Design

As noted earlier, Rockstro (op. cit.) has categorised Clinton as “a man of extraordinary but often mis-directed energy”, and at this point Clinton appears to have acted in a manner entirely consistent with at least the first aspect of this interpretation of his character.  While continuing with his teaching, performing  and composition, he somehow also found the time and energy to throw himself passionately into a frenzy of development work with the clear intention of creating his own design that would combine what he considered to be the better points of the Boehm flute and the old 8-key conical-bored instrument. The “extraordinary energy” is clearly demonstrated - how mis-directed his efforts may have been in terms of what he was trying to achieve we shall see when we come to consider the results of his work.

Since he did not have his own manufacturing facilities at this time, had never made a flute himself up to this point (as far as is known) and had no established design with which to lever the necessary capital, Clinton was forced to collaborate.  Since Rudall & Rose were now tied in with Boehm, Clinton had to look elsewhere for manufacturing facilities to which he could gain access. In 1848, he entered into an agreement with the respected and well-established London maker Henry Potter of 2 Bridge Street, Westminster (not to be confused with his famous but unrelated namesake William Henry Potter), to produce his experimental designs.  This relationship was to continue on and off for the next  6 years. For information on flute-maker Henry Potter.

It is important at this point to recall our earlier note to the effect that Clinton was embarking upon his adventure at a time when the development of the flute was at a major watershed.  Both the conical-bore and cylindrical-bore instruments were now in the field, with an amazing variety of different fingering systems. Perhaps at no time before or since have there been so many different designers and manufacturers experimenting with new designs, each convinced that theirs was the new “world beater”.  One can almost hear contemporary flute-players saying, “Oh, no!!  Not another new flute!!?!  Which key did they change this time??”. 

Clinton was keenly aware of this perception, as his various writings show. So he would have wanted to produce an instrument which would demonstrate beyond argument that a return to the old fingering standard was possible without abandoning the ground gained by Boehm in terms of power and regulation of the instrument.  Both Clinton and Potter had reputations to protect, and it is clear on the evidence that they were prepared to delay the public release of any new design until they felt that it could make their point by successfully competing in performance terms with the other designs then in varying degrees of fashion (including the 1847 Boehm as well as designs by William Card, Richard Carte, Jean-Louis Tulou, Abel Siccama and Cornelius Ward). This is a significant point to remember when we come to examine the flute which is the central subject of this study. It also seems to show Clinton as a man who was able to exercise a measure of self-restraint when it counted and who had a remarkable gift for perseverance.  Both admirable traits, surely. 

Clinton wasted no time, and took out his first patent in 1848. This included a system that allowed c’’ to be fingered according to the “old” method, as well as an arrangement using a single longitudinal bar in place of the three right-hand ring keys. This device has been summarily dismissed both by Rockstro (op. cit., Article 657) and Bate (op. cit.), but an objective assessment reveals that in fact it almost certainly had merit.  Firstly, it would have been easier and cheaper to make and maintain  than three separate ring keys, a point which appears to have supported one of Clinton’s key objectives. Secondly, it would offer distinct aerodynamic advantages over ring keys.  The hole chimney would need to be no deeper than the body wall, and there would be no ring key to impede airflow.

It is clearly implicit that flutes must have been built by Potter to this specification, but it is equally clear that they failed to meet Clinton’s expectations, since the absence of surviving examples implies that few if any were released to the public. This in itself implies some measure of self-restraint and a capacity for self-criticism (in private at least) unexpected in a man of Clinton’s reported character. He was clearly able to evaluate the results of his own ideas quite objectively and step away from them if they fell short, as witness the significant changes in approach evident between the 1848 patent instrument and the 1851 design which is the subject of this study.

Number 342 of the Dayton Miller Collection reportedly conforms to the 1848 patent, and was tentatively dated  c. 1850 by Professor Miller.  However, the provenance of this date seems far from clear since the flute is reportedly marked for “Clinton & Co.”, an entity which did not exist prior to 1855.  An examination of this flute would be of the greatest interest, and we plan to undertake this in the near future. 

One interesting line of speculation opens up at this point.  As far as we know, Clinton continued his performing activities in addition to his teaching and design work.  What instrument would he have been playing pending the development of his own design?  Not the 1847 Boehm, surely – we may reasonably infer that he would have stuck with the improved 1832 Boehm which he had been using for the previous 5 years or more for his own performances.

However, he would also have to protect his teaching position at the Academy.  It is clear that the 1847 Boehm gained ground quite rapidly following its introduction, and became something of a standard among younger players, especially  after its triumph at the 1851 Exhibition.  It is difficult to see how Clinton could have retained his post at the Academy until 1855 (as he did) without familiarising himself with the 1847 Boehm to the extent that he could teach it to the younger aspiring flautists who were then beginning to adopt it (unlike many of the older players).  Indeed, the French player Jules Demersseman (1833-1866) is known to have been refused a teaching post at the Conservatoire in Paris entirely due to his adherence to the “old” flute.  After 1851, if not earlier, Clinton would hardly have been immune to similar pressures.

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