The life and work of John Clinton, cont.

The Implications of Clinton’s Rejection of the 1847 Boehm Flute

The quotation noted above that Boehm was “as far as ever from removing the defects, or of perfecting the (1832) instrument” has been the subject of a great deal of comment over the years to the effect that Clinton is speaking here about an instrument which he had very recently been praising to the skies!!  This factor has been seized upon by previous writers as evidence of eccentricity or inconsistency in Clinton’s view of the world.

In actual fact, this interpretation does not stand up at all to objective consideration. In the quoted passage, Clinton was not speaking about the instrument that he had recently been praising to the skies – that was the 1832 ring-keyed Boehm.  He is speaking here about the 1847 Boehm - an entirely different instrument. So there is absolutely nothing inconsistent in the quoted statement.

Others have seized upon the reference to “defects” in the 1832 Boehm which he had been praising so highly as evidence of inconsistency on Clinton’s part.  In fact, there is again no evidence of any inconsistency in this regard either. The truth appears to be that Clinton was objective enough to recognise and publicly endorse the ring-keyed 1832 Boehm flute as a great advance over the old 8-key instrument (a view which he continually expressed even in his later writings) while retaining a clear view of potential areas of improvement. But he was thinking from the outset in terms of improvements to the conical-bored flute (of which the 1832 Boehm was an example) in terms of correction of the residual acoustical deficiencies and a return to the simpler “old standard” system of fingering. Neither his writings nor his actions display any wavering from these views at any time between 1843 and 1862.  As noted above, Clinton appears on his own showing in the 1851 “Treatise” (op. cit.) to have been quite taken aback to find that  Boehm had adopted the cylinder bore in his 1847 flute and had also continued to develop his more complex fingering system rather than return to the simpler “old” system of fingering.  Obviously he had not been kept “in the loop”!

So in summary, Clinton appears from the outset to have seen the 1832 Boehm flute as a great step forward and a highly valid starting point for a program of further development with the objective of correcting the residual acoustical deficiencies and simplifying the fingering back towards the “old” standard. All that happened in 1847 was that a direct trial of Boehm’s new flute convinced Clinton that Boehm’s more recent development work subsequent to the 1845 meeting between the two men had taken the original 1832 instrument in a direction which did not correspond in any way to Clinton’s own preferences (from which he had not wavered). Viewed in this light, there is nothing illogical or inconsistent whatsoever in Clinton’s 1847 “abandonment” of the Boehm flute – in fact, it was not an abandonment at all.  He still saw the 1832 Boehm as the appropriate starting-point for further development – it was simply the fact that Boehm’s own 1847 evolution did not achieve the desired results as far as Clinton was concerned,  and he was not afraid to say so even though it appears to have cost him a potential manufacturing opportunity. .

Basically, Clinton appears on this showing to have been an advocate of development and a seeker after perfection who knew exactly where he wanted to go and who could recognise (and eagerly take) positive steps along the way from whatever source while acknowledging that there were more steps yet to be taken, by himself or in collaboration with others. He appears to have known exactly what he wanted to achieve in terms of results and was willing at this point in time to collaborate with others rather than seek all the credit for himself.  It appears to be the results achieved that counted most heavily with him.

Certainly, the implication of Clinton’s own statements is that it was the results of Boehm’s work in 1846-47 that brought about Clinton’s disillusionment. Apart from the implied fact that few if any of Clinton’s ideas appeared in the new flute, the most obvious culprits in setting Clinton on the road to independent development appear to be the dramatic tonal differences associated with Boehm’s cylindrical bore allied to his “parabolic” head design, as well as the drastically revised fingering required. Certainly, in both his 1851 “Treatise”  (op. cit) and his 1860 “Code of Instructions” (op. cit), Clinton repeats his “official” reasons for his position on this matter as being largely connected with the tonal differences between the new flute and the old conical-bore designs as well as what Clinton conceived to be an unwarrantable increase in fingering difficulties and cost of production. 

Here we are beginning to see a very important factor in Clinton’s approach to flute development – he appears to have been a staunch and unwavering advocate of the tonal qualities of the conical-bored wooden flute, as well as an upholder of a more simplistic and standardised approach to fingering.  Viewed objectively, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to show that Clinton ever departed from  these principles at any time between 1843 and 1862, when he finally  jumped onto the Boehm bandwagon.  Even at that point, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that his personal opinions had wavered – it actually seems far more likely that he was forced to change for economic reasons on the basis of prevailing musical fashion. 

Regardless, in holding these views, Clinton is revealed as a person with whom every player of the “modern” Celtic and historic flute must surely stand shoulder to shoulder.  We may reasonably infer that in 1845 Clinton would have based his advice to Boehm on the assumption that the conical bore of the 1832 flute (which Clinton liked so much) would be retained, albeit with  certain improvements to the mechanism and hole configuration. In other words, a further development of the 1832 Boehm design. History shows that Boehm went directly against this advice (if it was indeed given) and came up with an entirely new design concept. If this supposition is correct, we can easily see why Clinton would have found the new cylindrical-bored Boehm quite unsatisfactory.  

Regardless of how it came about, the granting of the English manufacturing rights for the new Boehm flute of 1847 to Rudall & Rose rather than Clinton must have come as a major blow to Clinton given his self-admitted expectations that the 1847 Boehm would become his launch vehicle as a major manufacturer. In one fell swoop he had gone from being a manufacturer-in-waiting with a new world-beating design in the works to just another flautist with some ideas which as yet lacked substance. Parted from  Boehm both on the technical and business fronts, Clinton found himself isolated. It is however very clear that his manufacturing ambitions remained undimmed despite his failure to come to terms with Boehm.

In fact, Clinton’s actions following upon both the earlier rejection of his ideas by the English manufacturers and subsequently by Boehm himself are highly illuminating as regards his character.  He was definitely not the man to take rejection lying down!  In fact, each successive rejection appears to have simply added fuel to the fire of his determination to show the world that  his rejected ideas were sound.  In 1847 he was finally forced to come to terms with the inescapable realisation that if his ideas for further development were to take practical shape, he would have to make it happen for himself.

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