The Inventor of the Bb thumb lever on the Böhm flute: Theobald Böhm or Giulio Briccialdi?

by Ludwig Böhm

***We continue the publication of a series of articles by Ludwig Böhm from“Commemorative Writing on the occasion of Theobald Böhm’s 200th Birthday, Munich 1994”, gradually approaching the celebration of Theobald Böhm’s 230th birthday in 2024.

The year 2021 marks the 140th anniversary from the death of two outstanding flutists and innovators. On this occasion, I would like to make some remarks about the relationship between Theobald Böhm (1794–1881) and Giulio Briccialdi (1818–1881). Besides, I want to inform about the modification of the Bb thumb lever by Briccialdi and correct the widely-held error that Briccialdi is the inventor of the Bb thumb lever. This lever is of great importance, because the modification of the Bb thumb lever by Giulio Briccialdi with the help of Rudall & Rose in London in 1849 is the second essential modification of the original Böhm system. The first essential modification took place in Paris in 1837 by Louis Dorus, who with the help of Louis Lot attached a closed G sharp key instead of the open G sharp key on the Böhm flute. The original Böhm system is found today mainly in Russia and is called there “German system”.

According to the ledger of the flute workshop of Theobald Böhm, Briccialdi received on 15 September 1847 the cylindrical flute no. 1 “of brass and gold-plated with ring-keys of German silver; as a gift”. This flute is located today in Washington in the Library of Congress, Miller Collection no. 652. Theobald Böhm writes in his letter to W. Schlemming of 24 July 1850 that in 1847, Briccialdi studied the metal flute with him and that it took three months. Altogether, Briccialdi was more than four months in Munich. In the same year, he dedicated to Theobald his „Fantasia su due arie dell’opera «Macbeth» di Verdi”, opus 47, for flute and piano.

According to Richard S. Rockstro: “A Treatise on the Construction, the History and the Practice of the Flute”. USA 2nd edition 1924, p. 376 (1st edition London 1890), Giulio Briccialdi in May/June 1849 charged Rudall & Rose to attach a Bb thumb lever on a cocus wood Böhm flute made by Godfroy. Since that time, the invention of the Bb thumb lever is attributed to Briccialdi in nearly all the flute literature.

In 1960, Karl Ventzke discovered that Theobald Böhm and not Giulio Briccialdi is the true inventor of the Bb thumb lever. When he got a copy of Theobald’s workshop ledger from the Dayton C. Miller Collection in the Library of Congress in Washington, he found for the flute no. 24, which was made in February 1849, the description: “A flute of German silver with a lever for Bb”. This flute, which since 1981 is located in the Munich Municipal Museum, was sold to Great Britain and Giulio Briccialdi, who most probably had seen this flute in London, charged Rudall & Rose in May/June 1849 to attach a Bb thumb lever on a flute made by Godfroy. The Bb thumb lever of Briccialdi differs essentially from the Bb thumb lever of Theobald Böhm. Now it is no longer vertical, but longitudinal and it is no more under, but above the C key. This form is found today on nearly all flutes. Theobald calls this form as illogical as the closed G sharp key. The different forms of the Bb thumb lever are shown on the photos below.

Karl Ventzke published his discovery in his article “Who invented the Bb thumb key on the Boehm flute?” In: Instrumentenbau-Zeitschrift, December 1960, p. 66–67. Also, Manfred Hermann Schmid writes in his catalogue of the exhibition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Theobald Böhm’s death in the Munich Municipal Museum “The Revolution of the Flute”, 1981, p. 109, that Theobald and not Briccialdi is the true inventor of the Bb thumb lever. The same information is also found in my “Commemorative Writing on the Occasoion of the 200th Birthday of Theobald Böhm”, 1994, p. 24. It would be desirable that this discovery will become more generally known than it is today.


1. C thumb key above the Bb thumb lever on the cylindrical flute no. 24 by Theobald Böhm with the axis on the outside. The flute no. 24, made in February 1849, is the first cylindrical flute, on which a Bb thumb lever was attached.

Flute in: Munich, Municipal Museum Collection Music 81-1

2. C thumb lever under the Bb thumb lever on a cylindrical flute by Theobald Böhm with the system Godfroy (probably no. 77). This form of the thumb lever was invented in May/June 1849 in London by Giulio Briccialdi.

Flute in: Stuttgart, Württembergisches Landesmuseum (Museum of the country Wurttemberg)

3. C thumb key over the Bb thumb key on a cylindrical flute by Theobald Böhm with the 1854 system

Flute in: Frankfurt on Main, private collection 85068

4. C thumb key over the Bb thumb lever and an additional octave key on a cylindrical flute by Böhm & Mendler

Flute in: Berlin, private collection

Ludwig Böhm
Address: Asamstrasse 6, 82166 Gräfelfing, Germany, tel. 0049-89-875367

Ludwig Böhm was born in Munich, where he studied English, French and Spanish at the University and was a teacher from 1981 to 1983. Inspired by a great exhibition in the Munich Municipal Museum in 1981 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the death of his great-great-grandfather Theobald Böhm (flautist, composer, flute-maker, inventor of the Böhm flute, Munich 1794–1881), he dedicated his life from that time on to keeping the memory of Theobald alive. As a result of more than 30 years of research, he published in 2012 all 88 compositions and arrangements of Theobald together with Dr. Raymond Meylan and in 2013 20 books and 4 translations from and about him. He travelled to flute festivals in Japan, Australia, USA, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Luxembourg, Slovenia, China, Great Britain, Iceland, Thailand, Portugal, Chile, Poland and Armenia and presented a slide lecture about Theobald. He is the President of the Theobald Böhm Archive, founded in 1980, of the Theobald Böhm Society, founded in 1990 and of the Theobald Böhm Foundation, founded in 2014. In 2006, 2011 and 2016, he organized in Munich the 1st, 2nd and 3rd International Theobald Böhm Competition for Flute and Alto Flute.

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