The life and work of John Clinton, cont.

The 1851 Instrument considered

Co-author Terry McGee has undertaken a full restoration and acoustical analysis of the 1851 Potter-built Clinton System flute, and his full report on the instrument is available for perusal elsewhere on this web-site. For the purposes of this paper on Clinton himself, it is not necessary to repeat this study here.  All that is important is to summarise the main findings and then extract from those findings such information as may be relevant to our evaluation of John Clinton and his work.

As far as we have been able to determine, this flute is very rare indeed.  We have been unable to find another example anywhere in the major collections of the world, and no owner of another example has so far come forward despite our requests for further information via the Web. We feel very fortunate indeed to have had the luck to find this instrument in the first place and then to get it back up to full playing efficiency for analysis.

The apparent lack of other extant examples suggests that very few of these flutes entered circulation. The significance of the number 50 associated with the maker’s mark is unclear.  Is it a serial number, signifying that at least 50 of this model were made? If so, one might reasonably expect to find at least a few other surviving examples. Or does it mean that a total of 50 development instruments of all types had been made by Potter for Clinton up to and including this flute??  In other words, is this flute number 50 in a line of development?? Again, if so one would expect to find that a few others in the series had survived.  It is interesting to note that Potter did not apparently place serial numbers on his own flutes, so the number on this flute is an anomaly for Potter and surely must have some special significance relating to Clinton’s involvement.

Alternatively, does the number signify the year of manufacture or design (1850)??  In effect, a model number?? After all, the Exhibition opened on May 1st, 1851 and it is reasonable to suppose that any flute which was to be entered in that event would almost certainly have had to have been constructed in late 1850 and allowed time for breaking-in and seasoning. In fact, it is more likely than not that this would be the case – the Exhibition did not happen overnight, and entries were invited starting in mid-1850.  To determine that they had an instrument worth entering, Potter and Clinton would surely have had to make and test their entry model in 1850 sometime.  Certainly, the design would have had to be completed in 1850. So perhaps that is what the number 50 means.  If another example could be located, we would have greater certainty on this point.

Regardless, Terry’s work has made it very clear that this flute does credit both to its designer and its manufacturer. Terry classifies it as “a very fine flute indeed” from the standpoint of a player of the conical-bored version of the instrument.  It is very clear that the instrument has merit and that its “favourable mention” from the 1851 Jury was well-deserved.  

The Clinton 1851 instrument shown here with a Rudall & Rose Patent Head.

In fact, the favourable note taken of this flute by the Jury, regardless of any award, should have tipped us off at the outset that this would be an instrument of some merit. After all, the credentials of the Jury have been laid out above, and one would imagine that they would not be an easy group to please! And indeed, it is worth noting that eminent figures such as Rudall & Rose, Abel Siccama, and Cornelius Ward failed to draw even a favourable mention from this group for their designs (although Ward did receive an award for several other instruments). The implication should have been clear all along that Clinton had produced something of value.  We feel privileged to have had the opportunity to vindicate him after all these years as a result of the fortuitous re-discovery of his 1851 instrument.

What is particularly revealing in terms of this study of Clinton is the very methodical, focused and often elegant design approach which is evident in overcoming each and every one of the well-recognised defects of the 8-key flute while retaining the 8-key’s tonal qualities and simplicity of fingering.  Terry has listed these defects and Clinton’s approach to dealing with them in the accompanying analysis.  It is clear that Clinton knew exactly what he had to overcome and was able to develop very rational approaches to dealing with these problems.

A review of Clinton’s 1851 “Treatise” (op. cit.) is extremely revealing in this context. In that document, Clinton describes the design of the new flute in terms of the various departures which it exhibits from previous practice together with the problems that these departures were intended to solve.  Terry completed his restoration and evaluation of the flute prior to the authors obtaining a copy of the 1851 “Treatise”.  In every key respect, the results of Terry’s evaluation of problems and solutions coincided with Clinton’s own evaluation of his new design.  In other words, the designer and the subsequent researcher agree completely and quite independently.  This encourages the authors to believe that the approach which they have adopted to this type of historical research has some validity.

It is quite evident from Terry’s analysis that this flute represents a very successful attempt to further develop the old 8-key conical-bored flute in terms of intonation, power and dynamic balance between notes while retaining the essential character of the older  instrument.  If this may be taken as any guide to what Clinton’s “ideal flute” might be, than it becomes very clear by extrapolation why he did not favour the 1847 Boehm.  It seems beyond doubt that at this period at least he was an advocate of retaining the tonal qualities and fingering simplicity of the conical-bored 8-key wooden flute while attempting to resolve some of its attendant acoustical problems. A view shared by Celtic musicians the world over today!  In this, his 1851 design must surely be judged a success by any standard and his efforts to develop it far from “misdirected”.

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