The life and work of John Clinton
pursuit of music or any other intensely creative activity as an
avocation tends to throw up a disproportionately high percentage of
individuals who may variously (and in some cases charitably) be
described as outrageous, opinionated, egotistical, arrogant,
unpredictable, wayward or just plain eccentric. In the writers’
opinion, the manifestation of at least some of these traits in varying
degrees and combinations is probably inseparable from the overwhelming
drive to excel, to demonstrate individuality and to receive just
recognition that rules the lives of most creative artists of note.
Indeed, it is probably these very traits that drive them to the
heights that they achieve, and a creative artist lacking a share of such
tendencies would likely not amount to very much.
The somewhat restricted world of the flute certainly
has thrown up its share of eccentrics and enigmas, and none more
enigmatic than the once-celebrated Victorian-era flautist and inventor
John Clinton. At various points in his career, this energetic individual
engaged in the full gamut of flute-related activities ranging from
student, theatre musician,
concert performer, advocate, teacher, professor, composer, designer and
finally manufacturer. In other words, Clinton really “did it all”!
Few people have entered so wholeheartedly
and energetically into such a wide range of flute-related
activities, and Clinton’s efforts have been the subject of a great
deal of commentary over the years, much of it negative.
Despite this, far less is known about Clinton the man than would
be supposed with a person of his erstwhile stature. And
there has been little or no attempt made previously to evaluate
Clinton’s work in an objective fashion.
Most scholars appear to have found Clinton to be a
somewhat difficult person
to characterise in any rational sense, and he has not fared well in the
courtroom of musicological history.
Phillip Bate (1) describes him as “a strangely
ambivalent personality, whose motivations may be of more interest to the
psychologist than to the simple historian”. Richard S. Rockstro (2)
describes him in his standard work on the flute as “a man of
extraordinary but often misdirected energy” and is less than
complimentary about his playing capabilities.
Certainly, some of his commonly-reported actions appear on the
surface to be illogical or ill-conceived and require some explanation.
In our view, any person who achieved what Clinton
undoubtedly did accomplish during his somewhat curtailed
lifetime (he died at age 54) simply must
have had considerable personal resources in terms both of energy and
ability upon which to draw. We
have therefore decided to approach our study of Clinton and his work in
a totally objective manner which accommodates the idea that he may have
been at bottom a rational and capable individual, albeit with the
sizeable ego that goes with the territory that Clinton occupied.
Some of his decisions appear on the surface to have cost him
dearly, and we feel that there must accordingly have been reasons
which seemed persuasive to him at least for the things that he did and
the choices that he made. Our
approach to Clinton allows for the possibility that he may well have
been a person of considerable ability to go along with his other
personal foibles, rather than the changeable and almost schizophrenic
individual that he is often portrayed as.
Our Approach to the Study
failing that the authors have noted in many earlier works on the
history of the flute is that previous writers have often allowed themselves
to be unduly influenced by the comments and opinions of their
predecessors. In our view, this
approach is strewn with pitfalls, since it fails to filter out any
personal prejudices which the earlier writers may have held or any
interpretive errors which they may have made. There has generally been
very little reference to actual hands-on experience with the instruments
being described – for the most part, opinions on the comparative
performance capabilities of the instruments have been largely based on
earlier literature. Finally, there has been insufficient attention paid
to the broader context in which the various developments were being
authors have agreed that our joint research will be based as far as
possible on a direct re-evaluation of playable surviving instruments
using scientifically-reproducible standardised testing methods as well
as relying as far as practicable on original sources for our documentary
evidence. In this way, we
hope to be able to test the validity of claims made by the designers in
the original literature as well as previously-published later opinions
regarding the instruments under examination.
The use of standardised testing methods should allow us to make
valid direct comparisons between the various designs. We also intend to
place considerable importance upon setting the events and instruments
which we are describing in
their appropriate broader context. The present study represents our
initial application of this
had the good fortune to stumble across a hitherto un-catalogued example
of a rare 1851 Clinton flute made for him by Henry Potter, the authors
decided to undertake a functional restoration and evaluation with the
objective of testing some of the assertions made about Clinton and his
work by others, notably Rockstro. In addition, we hoped to gain some
insight into Clinton’s own musical sensibilities through an assessment
of his development work in the context of its time based as far as
possible upon Clinton’s own writings and designs. In the latter
context, we have returned to the original documents rather than relying
(as others appear to have done all too often) upon the assessments of
earlier Clinton commentators.
undertaking such a study, we must first examine what is already known
about our subject using the most direct evidence available and then
proceed to determine whether the new material at hand (in this case a
previously-unstudied flute) can shed any additional light upon the
matter. We will begin by
summarising what is recorded about Clinton’s life and works, both pro
and con, referring where appropriate to his original writings.
We will then offer our own interpretation of certain facts as
they are recorded, placing our instrument within its historical context
as far as possible. Finally, we will present an objective assessment of
the instrument itself, drawing such inferences as we legitimately may
about Clinton’s own musical sensibilities and innovative abilities as
well as the validity of the opinions of his work expressed by others.