by Alan Weiss
Many flutists have been finding value in playing and understanding traversos and simple system flutes for 18th and early 19th century compositions. Playing these instruments adds insight to period style and performance practices. The same should be said of 19th and 20th century early Böhm system flutes.
Flute playing and flute -making have evolved since the invention of the modern Böhm cylindrical flute in 1847. Theobold Böhm improved upon his original 1832 ring key conical system to vastly improve tone, volume, and intonation. The 1847 model essentially remains today.
Flutist, engineer, scientist, and inventor Theobold Böhm realized the need to improve upon the mechanical, tonal, and pitch limitations of simple system flutes. Composers were writing more difficult music and orchestras required more depth of sound and flexibility. From the moment Böhm heard the acclaimed flutist Charles Nicholson performing in England, he discovered that a flute played with more volume and improved intonation was due to enlarged toneholes and embouchure. Böhm spent a number of years perfecting and adapting his ideas.
The fore-runner of our modern cylindrical flutes began with Vincent Godfroy and his son-in-law Louis Lot. They purchased the exclusive patent from Böhm which lasted from 1847-1862. In 1855 Lot branched out to his own company perfecting the “Stradivari” of flutes. The Böhm cylindrical flute became extremely popular first in France, and later in other parts of Europe and eventually America.
What is the definition of a great flute? One that complements a flutist’s personal style and voice. Great flute playing should always be judged by the qualities of sound and interpretation of musical styles. 19th and most of 20th century flutes were judged more on their tonal capabilities rather than how loud and fast one could play upon them. The early Böhm metal flutes actually emulated wood timbres.
It is quite interesting to try antique flutes made of different materials. Gold flutes only became popular the past 30 years, as before that the flute of choice for professionals was silver. In the early 20th century and last half of the 19th century, silver-plated professional flutes were also an option. The Paris Conservatory ordered silver-plated Lot and Lebret flutes for their students.
The silver-plating was a very thick layer. There are many still in existence. My own Louis Lot silver- plated flute is as new, yet created 143 years ago! To our knowledge Louis Lot only made one flute of 18K gold (formerly owned by Jean-Pierre Rampal) and another wood flute with gold mechanism (made for a Russian prince, its whereabouts unknown…).
I am greatly influenced by the French School style of playing as well as its basic approach to musical performance and practice techniques. Most of my teachers studied in direct lineage to Philippe Gaubert and Paul Taffanel. I also had the opportunity to take a private lesson and master class from Marcel Moyse. When choosing my own modern flutes, they have never been “off the rack”. Rather, they have been customized to my liking of the traditional French style. I began my career with a wonderful old Powell which had the most remarkable tone. I have always selected my flutes and headjoints for this quality. My modern gold flute was designed with a footjoint cluster with the 19th century teardrop shaped D# key as well an an enlarged C# spatula. It was made with thinner yet stronger forgings as opposed to castings. This gives the mechanism more responsiveness to touch and is actual superior to many contemporary pinless systems.
Vintage flutes are generally lighter in weight than modern flutes. The heaviest ones are in wood. My grenadilla Louis Lot from the 1890’s has a reedy, gold-like timbre and though heavier than metal flutes in its day, is much lighter than today’s gold flutes.
A delicate sweet dolce sound projects better than many modern flutes and is far more attractive to the listener. Do not confuse volume with projection as they are quite different characteristics. Thinner harder tubes and lower risers generally have more resonance, depth of sound, and response. A vintage flute will complement the individual voice of a flutist whereas modern flutes tend to control the player.
One issue with antique flutes is intonation. Pitch was not standardized until 1930 so flutes will range from A=435-452 Hz . My favorites are the French flutes specifically Louis Lot. Mine are pitched at A=438 HZ so they are quite workable.
It is quite interesting to perform a period piece such on a vintage flute. The old flutes vibrate and ring especially when you spin the air with less vibrato. Here you will find me playing Syrinx on the famous all-platinum flute made for Georges Barrère:
You will find that many of the finest playing antique flutes cost much less than new modern flutes. The ones pitched at A=440Hz are an excellent option to replace student and step-up flutes. Why purchase a student quality flute when you can get one handmade of professional quality!
The most desirable French brands are Louis Lot, Godfroy, and Rive, and for American flutes the old Powell and golden age Haynes. I highly recommend that flutists consider a vintage flute as an addition to their modern instrument arsenal. The greatest flutists throughout history played upon these works of art. Consider that many of those flutists who lived into the modern era rarely switched from their traditional flutes to modern. Discover the life of old flutes for yourself!
Alan Weiss is an acclaimed flutist with extensive international experience as a performer in major orchestras and ensembles, as a collaborator in chamber music with many of the world’s outstanding flutists, as a former teacher at a major university, and flute historian. He is currently the co-owner of VintageFluteShop.com. Please visit www.alanweissflute.com and www.VintageFluteShop.com