From Theobald Boehm to T.W. Moore’s ‘Superflute’ By Robert Bigio
At first glance it might not look like it, but the flute we play today has changed very little from Theobald Boehm’s flute number 1, which he made in 1847. All the important features we are familiar with were in place in Boehm’s flute: the body section has a bore of 19.0mm; the headjoint tapers in much the same way as on flutes today; the toneholes are evenly-spaced; there is a mechanism to allow nine digits to cover thirteen holes; and the fingering system is unchanged after 160 years. This flute has an open G sharp, but apart from that almost any flute player today could make music on this flute without the slightest trouble. Boehm obtained a patent for his new flute in his native Bavaria in April 1847, and in July of that year he obtained a patent in France. A few weeks later he sold the French patent to the Paris makers Godfroy & Lot, and a few weeks after that a British patent for the invention was taken out by John Mitchell Rose of Rudall & Rose, ‘…being partly a communication from a foreigner residing abroad’. There is no surviving documentation, but it seems clear that Boehm sold the British rights to Rudall & Rose. Boehm’s first flute made to his new design, to which he gave the Roman numeral I, was sent to Richard Carte in London on 20 June 1847. Carte had been a student of George Rudall and was to join Rudall & Rose as a partner a few years later. On the same day Boehm sent his number II to Godfroy & Lot in Paris. These two flutes were meant as samples and patterns to be reproduced by the two firms which would produce the new flute on his behalf. These two sample flutes have disappeared, but Boehm’s own first production flute, given the Arabic numeral 1, was sent to the Italian virtuoso Giulio Briccialdi. This flute is now in the Dayton C. Miller Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington. Every Boehm-system flute in existence is based on this instrument. Boehm’s flute number 1 is made of gilded brass with nickel silver keys. The embouchure is made of boxwood. The holes are about as large as a player can manage to cover with the fingers. Within a few months Boehm was offering flutes with plateau keys in place of the rings, which would allow the toneholes to be even larger. Within a year or two the flute had settled into the design most of us know so well, with Rudall & Rose (later Rudall, Rose & Carte) and Godfroy & Lot producing the pointed-cup design that is so familiar to us. Many flutes made today are based on the key design of the great French maker Louis Lot. At the opposite end of the scale of design success to the Boehm flute of 1847 must be the instrument that was the lifetime’s work of a British man named Thomas William Moore. This gentleman determined that what flute players really need is a flute with a built-in piccolo. Mr. Moore’s instrument is a standard Boehm flute that shares an embouchure with a piccolo that is fitted upside down to the end of the headjoint. A series of rods transmit motion from the flute end of the instrument to the piccolo on the top, and a lever slides the stopper from one side of the embouchure to the other, to blow either the flute or the piccolo. Thomas William Moore left an unpublished account of his life and of his invention. In 1910, at the age of twelve, he took up the fife, followed by the six-keyed piccolo. When he left school he was sent to learn the trade of gunsmithing. He served in the First World War, after which he, and many others, found he had to take any work he could find. After playing the piccolo in a local amateur orchestra he decided to take up the flute in earnest. He bought an old eight-keyed flute, then acquired a Boehm. He wrote, ‘My mechanical background caused me to begin to think of the possibilities of a flute and piccolo combined in one instrument, which would give the flutist another octave, to demonstrate his command over, and avoid the necessity of changing instruments at short notice.’ Another advantage, he felt, was that some awkward high-register fingerings would be avoided by transferring to the piccolo side of the instrument. In 1928 he set about designing his new flute. By the time the Second World War had broken out in 1939 he had progressed to producing the head and body joints, without any holes in them, and a complete footjoint. ‘Even when the flying bombs were coming over London in 1943,’ he wrote, ‘I was still working on my superflute, and during the fuel crisis of 1947 when industry broke down through lack of power, I sat and shivered at my work.’ Eventually, about 1949, he completed his flute but was disappointed with it as it was overloaded with keywork and was very heavy. ‘Still,’ he wrote, ‘I had the satisfaction of knowing that I could produce more notes from my flute than anyone else could from theirs, and I felt I was opening up new ground.’ Mr. Moore finally patented his invention in 1950. ‘Although I would not suggest as some others have done,’ he wrote, ‘that here is the perfect flute, I think I might say that this is a distinct step forward. No doubt the march of time will see other inventions brought about, but I should be sorry to see the day, when the whole practice of instrument playing should disappear in a welter of electronic devices, and synthetic music.’ Thomas William Moore’s invention may not have been as successful as Boehm’s flute (indeed, it was not successful at all), but I maintain a very soft spot for this most dedicated gentleman. Theobald Boehm’s flute number 1 is in the Dayton C. Miller Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Thomas William Moore’s flute and piccolo combined is now in the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments at the Music Faculty of the University of Oxford. This piece combines articles published in Pan (now called Flute, the journal of the British Flute Society), in September 2007 and March 2008.
Boehm’s cylindrical flute number 1. Dayton C. Miller Collection, Library of Congress, Washington. 635mm. Photograph by Robert Bigio. Flute with built-in piccolo by T.W. Moore. Bate Collection, University of Oxford. 790mm. Photograph by Robert Bigio. Robert Bigio Flute maker
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