C. Nicholson's Improved - the turning point


We hear often how Nicholson was responsible for the enlargement of holes of the 8-key flute, how his iron lip brought forward the strongest imaginable tone, and of the influence he had on Boehm which resulted in the creation of the Boehm flute.  Let's see if we can get beyond these rather bald statements.

Firstly, let's go back to the source, and pick up the story from the man's own writing.  They are taken from his 1836 publication: A School for the Flute.  I have taken liberties with the layout - the original consists of one densely packed paragraph!


I feel it unnecessary to enlarge much on the subject of the very great improvements that have been made in the manufacture of flutes within the last twenty years - it is a subject which has uniformly engaged my attention, and which I have used every effort to promote; and although my endeavours have met with strong opposition from various makers, I ought perhaps to feel proud that my suggestions and improvements are now freely copied.  

On my first arrival in London, the flutes manufactured by Monzani (patronised and recommended by Mr. Saust, and in general use by amateurs at that period), Milhouse (patronised and recommended by Mr. Ashe) and those of Potter, were then the most in repute, and certainly great credit will ever attach to the first named, for the neatness and excellent workmanship of his flutes.  These however, as well as those of Milhouse, had to me many objections.  The bore being very large, and without a metal tube, the upper notes were produced with great difficulty, and the lower ones did not possess that that brilliancy of tone for which I have been an advocate.  For this reason, I at that time preferred those of Potter.

I cannot be charged with not giving Monzani's flutes a fair trial; for at the early period of my professional career, I had one of his most expensive instruments presented to me, and was so much pleased with its appearance, &c., that I played upon it for upwards of twelve months; after which I again resumed my Potter, and subsequently one of Astor's, the favourite maker for my father, who devoted much time and pains in the successful improvement of the instrument by enlarging the holes, &c.

With this flute, I came to London, and although my public performances met with a gratifying reception, yet my flute was not approved of, inasmuch as it required a total alteration in the system of fingering; and it was generally asserted, that I was the only person who could play in tune on a flute with large holes.

Messrs. Clementi and Co. were the first who undertook to manufacture flutes under my superintendence, and I had great difficulty in overcoming the prejudices of their workmen: the increasing demand, however, for their flutes satisfied them that amateurs began to think for themselves; and increased my confidence in the system that I had adopted.

The result is, that flutes with large holes are now recommended and played upon by the first professors and amateurs in this country; and I have little doubt, that at no very distant period, they will be universally adopted.  Their advantages are many:

  1. The tone is infinitely more powerful, still possessing the capability of being subdued to the utmost delicacy of those with small holes (a great desideratum, when it is recollected that powerful expression depends on power of tone, for it is only its contrast that produces it).

  2. The upper octave can be fingered (with a trifling difference) as the first and second.

  3. Where a glide is intended, its effect is improved because the scope is greater from the size of the hole.

  4. The vibrations are more obvious from the decided improvement in the tone.

It is absurd to call this merely an orchestral flute, when it is well known that for this department of the instrument, the utmost delicacy is required.  It has also been stated that a different system of fingering is requisite; this is not the fact.  One note only requires it, and that note is the upper F#, and then only when the note is to be strongly articulated or sustained.

Again, it has been said that flutes of this description are more difficult to play in tune; this I positively deny, as playing in tune depends solely on the mouth-hole, and not on the holes of the second and third joints; this has been explained in the article on tone.  But flutes with large holes are sad tell-tales to bad fingering, from the purity of their tone; hence the hesitation in their adoption by those who have been badly taught, and have not perseverance enough to eradicate bad habits.  Hundreds of these flutes have been placed in the hands of amateurs and professors; and I know of no instance (where they have had a fair trial) that a flute with small holes has been again adopted in preference.

In conclusion I would say that the best flutes are those made of cocoa-wood or ebony, but those of cocoa I prefer, as the grain is closer, and the tone consequently more resonant.

The music of the present period requires a flute with seven keys, and many (particularly those who have been in the habit of using it) will find in some passages an advantage in the eighth or long F key.  More than this number will only render the instrument complicated, particularly those attached to the bottom joint, to produce the lower B and Bb: these add additional weight to that end of the instrument; therefore, the difficulty of keeping the top joint steady and firmly fixed to the lips, is very much increased.  

The elastic plugs to all (except the lower C keys), and double springs, are great improvements; and I consider an ivory mouth-hole infinitely better than wood, it being a much harder substance, and the grain is not so easily influenced by moisture; its surface is consequently clear, and less liable to become round at the edge, which is highly objectionable. The metal tube is in my opinion indispensable, as it gives great freedom and clearness of tone generally, with the advantage of altering the pitch, where necessity requires it, nearly half a note.

It's clear from the above that Nicholson's father, also Charles Nicholson, was the first to fiddle with the size of finger holes, improving the performance of the Astor flute which Nicholson the Younger brought with him to London.  Given what young Nicholson said about the reaction to the modified Astor we can assume the modifications were substantial and significant.

With this flute, I came to London, and although my public performances met with a gratifying reception, yet my flute was not approved of, inasmuch as it required a total alteration in the system of fingering; and it was generally asserted, that I was the only person who could play in tune on a flute with large holes.

So it is really Charles Nicholson the Elder we have to thank for daring to break away from all that had gone before.  Nicholson the Younger carried on the development work in London, with Thomas Prowse, who made flutes for Clementi and Co to sell.  Between them, the two Nicholsons changed the course of flute history.

The magnitude of the change in hole size is easily visible in comparing the two flutes below.  The former is a William Henry Potter, the type of flute Nicholson the Younger preferred until his father did the job on the Astor.  The second is a Thomas Prowse C. Nicholson's Improved, No 3904.  Both flutes are from the McGee Flutes Research Collection.

Also noticeable in the lower flute are two of Nicholson's trademark improvements, the reduced diameter around the embouchure and the flattened area above the right-hand finger holes.  Interesting also that the touch on the long F key (a key Nicholson himself was not in favour of) bends up towards us rather than down as is usual.

Now, previous writers have generally focused on increase in volume as the aim and outcome of the Nicholson improvements.  While that was certainly important, at least equally important was the improvement in tuning throughout the body of the flute, and the general improvement to the responsiveness of the instrument.  

To examine the effect on tuning, look at the graph below.  It illustrates the general deviations from ideal tuning for the body notes for three flutes - the Potter as Nicholson used to prefer, the C Nicholson's improved and the yet-to-be-invented Pratten's Perfected.

It's easy to see that, at the pitch Nicholson would have been playing (probably 430Hz), the errors are about 5 times reduced.  This was indeed an "improved" flute.

Now there is another area of flute performance, which is a little harder for us to grasp, as it is often confused with the simpler issue of volume.  The issue is responsiveness - the amount of sound produced for the amount of energy applied.  Perhaps this is what Nicholson is alluding to in his fourth claim:

The vibrations are more obvious from the decided improvement in the tone. 

At the time of writing, we do not have a means of quantifying responsiveness, although work is progressing in this area.  Nonetheless, we do know some of the things that contribute to it.  One is reduction of aerodynamic impediment, which the bigger holes assist, but alone not enough to explain the change.  The other is improved inter-octave tuning, for which Nicholson provides a clue in his second claim:

The upper octave can be fingered (with a trifling difference) as the first and second.

Certainly, one of the big improvements of the Nicholson era flutes is not just that they can play louder, but that they do play louder for the same amount of effort.  This is due to the improved venting, producing less aerodynamic loss and permitting better efficiency in the interaction between the jet and the resonant air column.

So, summarising Nicholson's improvements, his flute was dramatically:

  • louder

  • better tuned

  • more efficient

than its predecessors.  It still had faults, particularly in the matter of the very flat foot notes.  Improvement was with us, perfection was still some tens of years away.


Charles Nicholson the Younger died in the year after publishing his School for the Flute.  He died in abject poverty, at the age of 42.  Clementi, who had benefited so much from Nicholson's patronage, supported him through his terminal illness.

Nicholson's legacy was not confined to his native England.  His School for the Flute was also published in New York by William Hall & Son, who footnote the section above:

NB.  The publishers of this work would beg to say they are extensively engaged in manufacturing flutes after Nicholsons pattern and would recommend purchacers [sic] to call and examine them.

And the last word to Theobold Boehm, in his letter to Mr. Broadwood, August 1871:

I did as well as any continental flutist could have done, in London, in 1831, but I could not match Nicholson in power of tone, whereupon I set to work to remodel my flute.  Had I not heard him, probably the Boehm flute would never have been made.

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