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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.
- On the Trail of my Great-great-grandfather Theobald Böhm, Flautist, Composer, Flute Maker, 1794–1881
- History of Theobald Böhm and correct spelling
- Theobald Böhm as a flutist
- Theobald Böhm as a composer
- Theobald Böhm’s comment on the open G sharp key
- The Inventor of the Bb thumb lever on the Böhm flute: Theobald Böhm or Giulio Briccialdi?
In 1981, 5 letters of Theobald Böhm to Wilhelm Popp appeared in Sweden by the aid of my research ad in a music journal, which are today in the Munich Municipal Archives, Estate Theobald Böhm I. In his letter of 5th February 1865, Theobald Böhm discussed in detail the open and closed G sharp key (original in German). The paper enclosed with that letter contains the short version of Theobald Böhm’s article on the G sharp key. Soon after, he wrote a little more detailed version which still exists as rough copy (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich) and fair copy (Library of Congress, Washington) and which he himself translated into English (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich) and into French (Stadtarchiv, Munich). Nothing was published, but the matter was treated once more in his book “The Flute and Flute-Playing in acoustical, technical and artistic Aspects”, Munich 1871, translated and annotated by Dayton C. Miller, Cleveland 1922, p. 62–71.
1) Letter from Theobald Böhm to Wilhelm Popp
Munich, 5th February 1865
You were right to recommend a flute from me and not from Lot in Paris, because my completely logical key system was only made worse in acoustical and mechanical respect by the first flautist Dorus in Paris who made a so-called improvement by a closed G sharp key. After long consideration, I have made a simple open G sharp key, because all keys of my flute from E1 upwards correspond to the natural movement of the fingers as they are closed and opened by the fingers. Dorus thought to make the new flute more accessible to players on the old flute by making a closed G sharp key as they were accustomed, but he didn’t consider that he thus got more disadvantages than advantages.
Lot had made this for him combining the G sharp key with the A key. So you get G by pressing down the ring finger of the left hand, as on the old flute, and to get G sharp you have to press up the G sharp key with the little finger, as on the old flute. However the consequence was, that both tones, G and G sharp, are pro-duced as on the old flute, whereas in my system, the G is made by closing the G sharp key with the little fin-ger and the G sharp is made by lifting this finger. I made it so after long consideration and everybody, who thinks the matter over, has to agree with me.
Dorus himself had to confess that he had made a foolish mistake when I explained the matter to him and I also made a foolish mistake for Dorus’ sake, because I didn’t immediately at this time explain publicly the inappropriateness of the closed G sharp. As Dorus was already the first flautist in Paris, of course all his pu-pils adopted the flute as he played it. But many accustomed themselves later to the open G sharp and even De Vroye told me, when I explained the matter to him last year, that he was sorry not to be able to make an-other change, because he would of course have to study thoroughly once more for some time. But as De Vroye now doubtlessly intends to sell flutes with closed G sharp in Germany, because he gets more commis-sion from Lot than from me, I’ll most probably explain the matter publicly in the near future. Up to now, I haven’t considered it worth while, because in Germany, England, Russia and almost everywhere with the exception of France, all flute players only play according to my system. On the paper enclosed, you will find an explanation of the advantages and disadvantages and you will doubtlessly accept the correctness of my explanations.
2) Article by Theobald Böhm (version in Washington): Remarks on the alteration made in Paris on the key-system of the so-called “Boehm Flute”.
The requirements of a good flute are first the acoustic perfection in tone and tuning, ease in playing and simplicity of the key-mechanism. Whether and in how far these requirements can be better obtained by an open or closed G sharp key is a question which will be certainly of interest for all who play or want to learn to play the Boehm flute.
1. The acoustics of the instrument
By the combination of a closed G sharp key with the open A key, the ninth or A hole can never be opened alone and as the eighth or G sharp hole is placed too far down on the flute to be able to serve the high E3 as sound hole, the development of this tone is disturbed in so far that its embouchure is less sure and delicate than on my flutes with open G sharp key. The difference can be seen at once in staccato pianissimo and in slurring deep tones with E3, for example G sharp2 and A2 with E3.
2. The ease in playing
The playing is made more difficult by the combination of keys described above for two reasons. As the key, which has to close the G sharp key airtight, needs a strong spring, the consequence is that in comparison with the open G sharp key, the third finger of the left hand needs more than the double force in order to overcome not only the spring of the A key but also the strong key of the G sharp key. Therefore, playing is not only made more difficult, but also beautiful trills on G sharp with A, A flat with B and D sharp3 with E3 become nearly impossible without great muscular strength and much practice.
Besides, the little finger of the left hand has always to do movements which are contrary to those of the fingers of the right hand, whenever G sharp or A flat changes with notes which are played with the finger of the right hand; nobody will deny that the same movements made simultaneously by the fingers of both hands are easier to be made than contrary movements, and that consequently the playing is made more difficult by the closed G sharp key.
It may be objected here that the G sharp or A flat and consequently also the little finger of the left hand are not used at all in several keys. This is true, indeed! – But as a good flute player has to be able today to play in all keys well and correctly, and as the G sharp or A flat is used in 16 keys among 24, the little finger of the left hand has to be trained as well as all the others.
3. Simplicity of the key mechanism
The difficulty to keep the key mechanism in order is increased by frequent use according to its complexity. The two combinations in my key system, that is the key combination with F sharp and B flat, are therefore only justified by the impossibility to close 11 holes with 9 fingers. But as the little finger of the left hand is only designated for the treatment of the G sharp key, there was no necessity, to make a third complicated key combination, which is in every respect only detrimental with regard to acoustics, ease in playing and simplicity of key mechanism. Even the objection “that the study of the new flute is made easier by the closed G sharp key for players of the old flute” is based only on deception, because a thorough study of the new flute cannot be made without long continued slow practice. And the experience with my pupils, who changed without prejudice from the old to the new flute, has proved often enough that the treatment of the open G sharp key with all the others is not only learned simultaneously but also quite imperceptibly. Even for older flute players some weeks of diligent practice are enough to regain the former execution in playing and several excellent artists, who changed from closed to open G sharp key on my advice, soon were convinced by the many and great advantages of the latter and thanked me for that. The fact that there are in Paris and other places great artists on flutes with closed G sharp key only proves that difficulties can be overcome by talent and diligence; this alone doesn’t prove that these artists would not have achieved an even greater execution with less trouble with the open G sharp key.
Before I conceived my key system, I had myself examined, tried and thoroughly thought over all parts of the key mechanism for a long period, because it was my intention to choose the best everywhere. And there-fore, I would still today observe every rational critic of my system with pleasure and I would gladly execute suggestions of real improvements.
Theobald Böhm quotes in his letter two reasons, why he didn’t take position against the closed G sharp key earlier. First, he highly esteemed Louis Dorus, successor of Jean Louis Tulou at the Paris Conservatory, who adopted the Böhm flute already in 1837 as one of the first and who in 1838 changed from open to closed G sharp by the aid of Louis Lot (Welch, Christopher: History of the Boehm Flute. London 3rd ed. 1896, p. 58). Theobald Böhm dedicated him his opus 24 in 1845, the French translation of his book “On the Construction of Flutes and the latest Improvements” in 1848, and his opus 35 in 1857, and in his letter to his pupil Sebastian Ott from 3rd February 1869, he called him the first flautist of the world (In: Library of Congress, Washington, Miller Collection).
Secondly, he didn’t consider it necessary to comment publicly on the closed G sharp key, because with the exception of France, almost everywhere people played open G sharp. This was also true for America. On 29th November 1854, Böhm’s silver flute no. 85 was sent to the flautist Philipp Ernst in New York (Böhm, Theobald: Workshop Ledger. Munich 1847–1859, 1876–1879. In: Library of Congress, Washington, Miller Collection), and in 1864, Martin Heindl (Boston Symphony Orchestra) came to America and achieved great triumphs with Böhm’s silver flute no. 19. Theobald Böhm writes in his letter from ? May 1870 to his friend Walter S. Broadwood: “Since my former pupil Heindl travelled through the United States, I have had more orders than I can fulfill from America; and though I offered to procure flutes from my friend Lot, at Paris, people prefer to wait for those made by myself.” (In: Böhm, Theobald: On the Construction of Flutes and the latest Improvements. Munich 1847, ed. Walter S. Broadwood, London 1882, p. 58).
Nearly all flutes from the workshop of Theobald Böhm (1828–1839), Böhm & Greve (1839–1846), Theobald Böhm (1847–1861) and Böhm & Mendler (1862–1888) have open G sharp key. Only in very few cases, if expressively desired by the customer, Theobald Böhm made a closed G sharp key, reluctantly and against his conviction. According to his workshop ledger, from 1847–1859, he made 128 flutes with open and only 2 flutes (no. 3 and 22) with closed G sharp. Nearly all later flutes have open G sharp, too.
Today, most flautists play closed G sharp key with the exception of the Russia (Solum, John: Notes on a Recital Tour to the Soviet Union. In: Newsletter of the National Flute Association, New York January 1984, p. 24–25; Wye, Trevor: The Flute, the Hammer and the Sickle. In: Pan, London March 1985, p. 19), but there is a number of eminent flute players who play the Böhm flute in its original form with open G sharp key such as for example William Bennett, London and Denis Bouriakov, New York.
Boehm, Th. / Miller, D. C., The Flute and Flute Playing, 1922, p. 71
Böhm, Ludwig: Theobald Böhms Stellungnahme zur geschlossenen Gis-Klappe
Japan Flutists Association, Tokyo 20 February 1984, p. 17–19
Das Musikinstrument, Frankfurt am Main April 1984, p. 54–57
Fomrhi Quarterly, Oxford April 1984, p. 44–47
The Washington Flute Scene, Washington Juni/July 1984, p. 3–6
Glareana, Zürich July 1984, p. 16–19
Tibia, Celle October 1984, p. 206–209
The Flutist Quarterly, New York November 1984, p. 8–9
Flöte aktuell, Frankfurt am Main February 1987, p. 22 (shortened)
Newsletter of the Australian Flute Association, Sydney February 1987, p. 5–6; May 1987, p. 6–7; August 1987, p. 6–7
South Australian Flute News, Adelaide February 1987, p. 22–25
The Flute, Sydney November 1987, p. 12–14
Pan, London December 1987, p. 19–22
Huilisti, Tampere December 1989, p. 14–19
Journal Traversières, Lyon March 1990, p. 16–19
New Zealand Flute Society News, Christchurch September 1990, p. 29–34
Böhm, Ludwig: Festschrift zum 200. Geburtstag von Theobald Böhm. Munich 1994, p. 38–40
South Australian Flute News, Adelaide July 1994, p. 20–22
The Flute, Sydney November 1994, p. 42–44
Traversières Magazine, Paris January 2007, p. 58–60
Fluit, Amsterdam January 2007, p. 31–37
Japan Flutists Association, Tokyo June 2011, p. 37–41
Cooper, Albert: Gadget Page [Open or closed G sharp flute?]. In: Pan, Dezember 1983, p. 6
Giannini, Tula: An Old Key for a New Flute. The Boehm Flute with closed G sharp: Historical Perspectives. In: The Flutist Quarterly, New York October 1984, p. 15–20
Hünteler, Konrad: Die geschlossene Gis-Klappe. In: Busch-Salmen, G. / Krause-Pichler, A.: Handbuch Querflöte. Instrument, Lehrwerke, Aufführungspraxis, Musik, Ausbildung, Beruf. Kassel 1999, p. 40–41
Lawrence, Eleanor: Re-evaluating the G sharp Key: An Introduction. In: The Flutist Quarterly, New York October 1984, p. 6–7, 10–12
Lawrence, E. / Schultz, P.: Facts and Figures on Open G sharp Flutes. In: The Flutist Quarterly, New York Oktober 1984, p. 23.
Minzloff, Oliver: In Commemoration of Theobald Boehm’s 190th Anniversary, April 9, 1794. Open G sharp? Gee Whiz! In: The Flutist Quarterly, New York October 1984, p. 21–22. Flöte aktuell, Frankfurt am Main February 1987, p. 19–22
Pailthorpe, Daniel: Why I play Open G sharp. In: Pan, London December 1997, p. 14–16
Sachs, Gerhard: Offenes gis – geschlossenes gis auf der Böhmflöte. Akustische Betrachtungen. In: Flöte aktuell, Frankfurt am Main February 1987, p. 19
Ventzke, Karl: Die Gis-Klappe bei der Boehmflöte. In: Instrumentenbau-Zeitschrift, Siegburg April 1960, p. 205–206
Vogt, Linda: Bygone Flute Systems and the Flutists who played them in Australia. In: Flute Australia, Sydney May 1996, p. 6–8
Wimberly, David: Letter to the Editor. In: The Flutist Quarterly, New York March 1985, p. 3.
Wimberly, David: Alexander Murray: Vision Quest. In: The Flutist Quarterly, New York June 1985, p. 48–51
The flautist Konrad Hünteler describes his change from the open to the closed G sharp key and he rejects the closed G sharp key decidedly.
According to Lawrence/Schultz, numerous flute makers such as for example Lamberson, Powell and Selmer, recognize the superiority of the open G sharp key, but they only make few flutes with open G sharp because of the small demand.
Dayton C. Miller writes in his commentary that after careful examination of all different forms of the G sharp key, he changed to the open G sharp key and he recommends to all beginners to start with it.
The flautist Oliver Minzloff, who lives in Basel, who also changed to the open G sharp key, reports of a test with eight flute beginners. The four, who began with the open G sharp key could already play well after six months, whereas the four, who began with the closed G sharp key, were still having difficulties even after one and a half years with the contrary movement of the G sharp finger. As further disadvantages of the closed G sharp key, he mentions that out of 40 tones, the little finger is only moved 5 times and therefore remains untrained (with open G sharp key, it is moved 22 times), that the E3 becomes too high and that the E-mechanism causes new problems.
The flute maker Gerhard Sachs particularly indicates the acoustical disadvantages of the closed G sharp key. Besides the detrimental E-mechanism, the chimney of the additional tone hole widens the tube and makes the tone deeper. By the additional G sharp hole, the D3 frequently becomes too high and the colour of the tone of the closed G sharp is different from the tones B, A or G.
David Wimberly reports in his letter to the editor that Jack Moore and he made about 80 flutes with open G sharp key, that they had sold them mostly in the United States and that numerous flautists had confirmed him that after a time of about three months of learning the new system, they experienced the open G sharp key as clearly more comfortable and more logical than the closed G sharp key. According to David Wimberly, the closed G sharp key is inferior acoustically to the open G sharp key in all three octaves. The pads and fastenings are less durable. Wimberly describes in his article the new model of the so-called “Murray flute”, which was made by him and Jack Moore in 1985, and which has, besides an open G sharp key and some more peculiarities also an open D sharp key.
The photos are from my “Verzeichnis der erhaltenen Flöten von Theobald Böhm“ / Catalogue of the still existing Flutes of Theobald Böhm“.
1 Closed G sharp key, conical flute of old construction of Theobald Böhm (Munich, Deutsches Museum 2009-150)
2 Open G sharp key, conical ring-keyed flute of Theobald Böhm (Frankfurt am Main, private collection 83125)
3 Open G sharp key, cylindrical flute no. 30 of Theobald Böhm (Munich, Deutsches Museum 2009-156)
4 Open G sharp key, cylindrical flute of Theobald Böhm, 1854 system (Frankfurt am Main, private collection 85068)
5 Open G sharp key, cylindrical flute of Böhm & Mendler, thinned wood with raised tone hole chimneys (Washington, Library of Congress, Miller 306)
6 Closed G sharp key, cylindrical flute of Böhm & Mendler, modified Dorus G sharp key without additional tone hole. The G sharp key is open in repose (Frankfurt am Main, private collection 86590)
7 Closed G sharp key, cylindrical flute of Böhm & Mendler, Böhm G sharp key without additional tone hole. The G sharp key is closed in repose. Macauley flute with gold plates (Washington, Library of Congress, Miller 161)
8 Closed G sharp key, cylindrical flute of Böhm & Mendler, with additional tone hole on the reverse side (Stuttgart, private collection)
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.
List of professional open G# players
Current list of 480 professional open G sharp players can be seen in the homepage www.theobald-boehm-archiv-und-wettbewerb.de under “Open G sharp Key”. If you are a professional open G sharp player, who have not yet contacted Ludwig Böhm, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the list.