The life and work of John Clinton


The 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

One 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 pursued.

The 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 approach.   

Having 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.

In 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.

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