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 subject. 

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 objective scrutiny.

Of course, we should have been well prepared for this.  Rockstro’s 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 particular subject.

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:

“Clinton 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.

“His 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 bear scrutiny.

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.

“In 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!

“He 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 compliment.  But 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.

“His 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 compositional skills.

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.

 In our 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.

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