The life and work of John Clinton, cont.
Rockstro’s View of Clinton
As we went through this exercise, we found ourselves
in something of a dilemma. One of the primary sources of information about the early
development of the flute has long been Richard S. Rockstro’s famous
book “The Flute” (op. cit.).
Like many other researchers before us, we went to this reference
repeatedly looking for assistance in forming a picture of John Clinton
and the world in which he lived and worked.
But as we went through all the available evidence, we found
ourselves questioning more and more of Rockstro’s comments on this
Where he is dealing with straightforward facts such
as physical descriptions, direct quotes, dates, etc., Rockstro appears
to be reasonably reliable, and we have used him as a reference in regard
to some such matters. But
as soon as his comments enter the realm of personal opinion, they appear
to lose all objectivity and become totally swamped by Rockstro’s
personal prejudices. Many
of his opinions in relation to our study simply do not stand up to
Of course, we should have been well prepared for
prejudices towards Boehm are well known, and Christopher Welch (op.
cit.) has comprehensively demolished most of Rockstro’s strictures
against Boehm. So why would
we expect Rockstro’s expressed views on other individuals to be
necessarily any less tainted than they clearly were in Boehm’s case?? The Boehm controversy has revealed a lack of objectivity in
Rockstro’s opinions which is highly unlikely to confine itself to one
The problem is that Rockstro has been an
“oracle” on flute history for so long that it smacks of heresy to
question him (except with regard to Boehm, where even Rockstro’s
staunchest supporters have been grudgingly forced to give ground).
In this light, what follows is our attempt to
examine Rockstro’s evaluation of John Clinton and his work to see just
how well our findings support Rockstro’s statements. Let’s look at a
few representative examples taken from Article 927 of Rockstro’s book:
can hardly be said to have been a first-rate flute-player”
This statement is made with respect to a musician
who for 13 years held the position of Flute Teacher at the Royal Academy
(the premier such appointment in the country at the time) and who
enjoyed a very successful performing career, including a high-profile
season as principal flute at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1847 in addition
to becoming a member of the
Philharmonic Society. Viewed
in this light, Rockstro’s statement is hardly credible.
tone was coarse and his intonation false”
Here we have some direct evidence in the form of
Clinton’s 1851 flute. As
will be seen from the accompanying analysis, the intonation and tone of
this instrument are exceptionally good by the standards of the day –
Terry describes the results in terms of intonation as “fabulous” for
the era. And we can find
nothing to complain about in terms of the tone. Hardly the product of a
designer with a tin ear!! We
are prepared to state categorically that a person with a poor sense of
intonation (no electronic tuners back then!) could not have produced this flute. Again, Rockstro’s comment does not
We should have been prepared for this in advance
given that Rockstro also dismissed Boehm’s designs as being faulty in
terms of intonation and actually chastised the 1851 Jury in this
context. In fact, as
surviving examples show, these flutes perform very well, albeit with a
distinctly different tone due to the bore and head configuration.
other respects, he was a good musician”
An incredible statement!! Here we have a man who, if we believe Rockstro, was a
second-rate flute player with a tin ear and lousy tone!!
In what other respects could
he have been a good musician??!? Perhaps he played a mean tuning
fork??!? This statement is
so inconsistent as to defy belief!
was a man of extraordinary, if often misdirected, energy”
It would appear that the record bears out at least
the first part of this statement by Rockstro, which is after all a
misdirected?? Hardly, on
the basis of the flute under examination.
It is quite clear that Clinton knew exactly
what he wanted to do – to update the 8-key conical-bored wooden flute
in a manner that preserved its character and fingering while overcoming
its acknowledged defects. In
this he seems to have been extremely successful.
The term “misdirected” hardly seems to apply here.
One can accept that Clinton was fighting a rear-guard action
(which was ultimately unsuccessful, by his own tacit admission), but the
fact remains that he could set himself an objective and then work
diligently and logically to achieve it.
Whatever his motives, this is not the approach of a dilettante.
There is a strong sense of purpose at work.
literary productions have not added much to his reputation”
In fact, Clinton’s 1846 instruction manual for the
1832 Boehm is still widely regarded as an excellent work for that
instrument – even Rockstro grudgingly describes it in passing as “a
really good work”. A
similar standard is maintained in the 1860 Equisonant instructions,
although that document has escaped modern notice due to the short life
of the Equisonant flute. In addition, the 1851 “Treatise” is a
clearly-developed argument in support of Clinton’s new direction –
its merits have gone unappreciated solely because the flute of which it
speaks never achieved mainstream status. So we have to leave this
comment by saying that Rockstro’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s
not borne out by an objective review of the documents in question!
And at least Rockstro does give Clinton some credit for his
In summary, we find it necessary to dismiss most of
what Rockstro has to say about Clinton, in much the same way that his
comments about Boehm have been largely overturned in modern times.
We have alluded earlier to Rockstro’s clearly unfounded attack
upon the Jury of the 1851 Exhibition. Further evidence of Rockstro’s
unreliability may be found in the research paper on 19th
Century Pitch found elsewhere in this web-site.
Rockstro was a fervent supporter of high pitch (A=452 or
higher) and was adamant that high pitch had been in general vogue in
England since the 1840’s. Our
research suggests that the true situation was considerably more complex.
view, it is high time that flute researchers of all stamps begin to
question the veracity of Rockstro’s statements of opinion in any and
all instances where external evidence can be gathered, as in this and
other cases. Icons are all
very well, but they become a liability in the search for truth as soon
as their veracity is disproved in even a few areas.
Rockstro has been disproved in a number of areas now, and his
status as an “oracle” on matters of opinion must in future be called
into serious question. We
leave this as a challenge to other researchers.