THE ROLE OF THE BOEHM FLUTE AND ITS ADOPTION BY THE
FRENCH FLUTE SCHOOL IN REVOLUTIONIZING MODERN FLUTE
Introduction: The Boehm Flute and the French Flute School
The modern flute that is played today by millions of amateurs and professionals alike has changed comparatively little since Theobald Boehm reinvented the instrument in the mid-nineteenth century. What has evolved as a consequence of Boehm‘s
contributions is the technical virtuosity and artistic expression applied to the instrument. The Boehm flute was so well contrived that modern-day performers, pedagogues and composers continue to find new ways to exploit its technical and expressive capabilities.
The first institution to fully embrace the Boehm flute was Paul Taffanel‘s flute
class at the Paris Conservatory around the turn of the twentieth century. The succession of Taffanel‘s students and their students along with the unique performance practices they perpetuated gave rise to the French School of flute playing. The French Flute School‘s revolutionary approach to pedagogy, aesthetics, and composition mirrors
significant changes in the flute itself. This correlation is a result of the French School‘s adoption of the Boehm flute.
The typical western transverse flute of the early nineteenth century is difficult to classify because the instrument was far from standardized. Jacques Hotteterre first
1constructed the one-keyed flute around 1660. The instrument was composed of three
sections and made of boxwood, ebony or ivory. By the 1750‘s, English flute makers had
added keys for G;, Bb and F and extended the range to low C# and C, making the flute
1 Nancy Toff, The Development of the Modern Flute, 16.
the first woodwind instrument to feature chromatic keywork. The century that followed was a period of intense mechanical invention. Michel Debost explains that, ―flutes
started looking like submachine guns, especially some of the English models, developed by Nicholson, and the Gordon flute, which had practically one accessory key for each
2accidental.‖ The rapidly evolving flute was not without flaws. Theobald Boehm, master flutist, goldsmith, and acoustician worked throughout his life to remedy these defects. Among Boehm‘s complaints were the poor intonation, limited range and uneven tonal
response of the nineteenth-century flute. At that time, the tone holes were bored at the points where they could be most readily reached by the fingers. In addition to the obvious detriment to intonation, the inaccurate positioning of tone holes caused inconsistent tone between neighboring notes. Another characteristic of the flute was a discrepancy in tone between the high and low registers, with a particularly meager tone in the low register. Though the addition of keys gave performers and composers greater chromatic possibilities, the essential problems of the instrument persisted.
It was on an instrument of this imperfect nature that Theobald Boehm began his study. Boehm, born in Munich in 1794, was the son of a goldsmith. Like his father, Boehm was a dexterous child, having acquired his knowledge of mechanics in part by studying the building of music boxes. A self-taught flutist, he had already forged his own copy of an August Grenser four-keyed flute by the time he began taking lessons from Johann Nepomuk Capeller, flutist of the Bavarian court orchestra. Both Boehm and his teacher were well aware of the deficiencies of the flute, and according to Boehm‘s
biographer, flutes models that Capeller produced utilized mechanism that Boehm had developed. In 1812, after two years of study with Capeller, Boehm took his first position
2 Debost, 84.
at the Isartor Theatre in Munich. He gave up his goldsmith‘s business to pursue a career as a musician, but his interest in instrument making continued.
By 1824, Boehm was already one of the most renowned flute makers of his time, although he was not legally recognized as such. He spent several years collecting flutes from all the top manufacturers, finding none without significant faults. Boehm applied for a license to become an instrument maker on May 8-10, 1829. Boehm had to give justification as to why his invention merited the royal license. For this he cited six improvements in his flute‘s design:
1. Purity of intonation
2. Evenness of tone
3. Facility of operation
4. Secure speaking of the highest as well as the lowest notes
5. Beautiful profile
36. Thoroughly neat and robust workmanship
The final two points are of a superficial nature but reflected the degree of thought and care Boehm put into his craft. The first four points are of supreme importance because they outlined the major innovations that would prove to significantly remedy the imperfections of the flute.
By 1831, Boehm was an established virtuoso flutist. While touring in London, he attended a performance by flutist Charles Nicholson. Nicholson played on a large-holed flute, made possible by the unusually large size of his hands. The resulting facility and power with which he played was unrivaled. Boehm remarks on the impression Nicholson‘s playing made upon him: ―I did as well as any continental flautist could have
done, in London, in 1831, but I could not match Nicholson in power of tone, wherefore I
3 Powell, 165.
set to work to remodel my flute. Had I not heard him, probably the Boehm flute would
4never have been made.‖ The perfected Boehm flute would go on to win gold and silver medals at exhibitions in Leipzig (1850), London (1851) and Paris (1855). In 1871 Boehm published his treatise Die Flöte und das Flötenspiel (The Flute and Flute-playing),
outlining acoustical, technical and artistic aspects of his new instrument. Boehm‘s
encounter with Nicholson marked a turning point not only in Boehm‘s career as a flute
maker, but also in the history of the modern flute.
The Boehm Flute
Boehm‘s first objective in creating his new flute model, with Nicholson as his
inspiration, was to make the tone holes as large as possible. Furthermore, he endeavored to place the tone holes in their acoustically correct positions. Boehm refused to yield to physical constraints, proclaiming, ―let us put the holes where they belong, according to
science and the tempered scale. If the fingers cannot reach them, let us use our brain to
5invent some system for controlling the opening and shutting of the tone holes.‖ In order
to pinpoint the acoustically correct locations of the tone holes, Boehm constructed a flute with moveable tone holes.
Out of Boehm‘s tone-hole adaptations arose the need for a second innovation –
key mechanism. Boehm‘s experiments yielded a chromatic instrument with fifteen holes, surpassing the human limitation of ten fingers. He devised a mechanism that could simultaneously close multiple keys with the action of one finger: ―In this way the very
troublesome sliding from keys and tone-holes which is required on the old flute is done
4 Philip Bate, The Flute: a Study of its History, Development and Construction, 117. 5 Böhm, VII.
6away with.‖ This eliminated the need to displace the hands, as is required on the violin or piano, and the flute lent itself to an increased level of virtuosity. The Boehm flute‘s
intuitive fingering system was favorable for beginners, who were able to learn scales and trill fingerings in a much shorter time than on the old flute. And while some experienced players refused to learn the new system, it only took an estimated two weeks to learn the
7new fingerings required to make the switch from the old flute to Boehm‘s system.
A third alteration in Boehm‘s flute was the cylindrical bore, a deviation from the
conical bore that had been the standard for the past 150 years. Christopher Denner, Joachim Quantz, and Johann George Tromlitz, legendary flutists, composers, and flute makers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all employed the conical bore
8despite its discordance with acoustic principles. Boehm remarked, ―I was never able to
understand why, of all wind instruments with tone-holes and conical bore, the flute alone should be blown at its wider end: it seems much more natural that, with a rising pitch and
9shorter length of air column, the diameter should become smaller.‖ Boehm‘s
experiments indicated that sound waves perform best in a cylindrical tube with a length thirty times its diameter, suggesting that a flute with a 600 mm length and a 20 mm diameter would produce perfect tone in two octaves. Boehm‘s design uses a slightly modified ratio for a headjoint that tapers in a parabolic curve from 19 mm to 17 mm: ―As
now required [in flute music] I decided for the sake of freedom in the upper tones, to reduce the diameter to 19 mm, notwithstanding that this injured to some extent the beauty
6 Bohm, 61. 7 Böhm, 59-62. 8 Böhm, 10. 9 Philip Bate, The Flute: a Study of its History, Development and Construction, 124.
10of the tones of the first and second octaves.‖ Boehm‘s decision would allow composers
to write for the flute into the third octave, a range that had previously remained unexplored due to the limitations of the conical bore.
Boehm‘s fourth modification, also arrived at through experimentation, is the
rectangular embouchure hole. At the time, the traditional shape of the embouchure hole was oval or round. In his treatise Die Flöte und das Flötenspiel, Boehm explains that, ―a
mouth-hole in shape like an elongated rectangle with rounded corners, presenting a long edge to the wide air stream, will allow more air to be effective than would a round or oval
11hole of equal size.‖ He also concluded that the embouchure hole should be as large as possible in order to facilitate a louder tone.
The Silver Flute
All of the aforementioned innovations contributed to improved technical facility, intonation, and tone in Boehm‘s new flutes. However, the most significant change that the flute underwent in the nineteenth century was the shift from a wood to a silver body. Flute makers began experimenting with metal tubes in the early nineteenth century. Boehm first introduced his silver flute in 1847. While flutists have yet to unanimously conclude which material is best, silver is and has been since Boehm‘s time the material of
choice where the French School prevails. In fact, the characteristic silvery tone that is
12synonymous with the French School virtually requires the employment of a silver flute.
The eagerness with which the French School adopted the silver bodied flute was not universal. In Germany, the Boehm flute‘s clear tone challenged longstanding
aesthetic preferences that defined ideal flute timbre. It was this clash of tonal
10 Böhm, 19. 11 Böhm, 24. 12 Nancy Toff, The Development of the Modern Flute, 102.
preferences that caused the Germans to be slow in embracing the silver Boehm flute. In 1844, Boehm wrote with frustration that, ―in Germany my flutes have been so little
appreciated that in 1844 their powerful and equal sound which is the consequence of its
13maker‘s ideal perfection was considered to be a defect.‖ The British also preferred the
reedy sound that the wood flute projected and continued to use wood well into the twentieth century.
Attributing a particular tone quality to the composition of the tube, either wood or metal, is not as sound a claim as one may think. The correlation between a material itself and tone quality has no scientific support. Boehm himself realized this, noting in Die
Flöte und das Flötenspiel that, ―undoubtedly the material of which a wind instrument is made sometimes affects the tone quality, but the manner in which this influence is
14exerted has not been explained.‖ Since Boehm‘s day, science has reasserted that if
15dense enough, the material of a resonating tube has no effect on its tone quality. This is
a difficult fact to grasp considering that flutists, flute makers and composers have perceived the undeniably distinct sound of the silver flute since its advent.
The difference in tone quality can instead be attributed to the physical properties that the material imposes on the construction of an instrument. There is a clear correlation between the ease of tone production and the lightness of a tube. On a silver tube a brighter and fuller tone can be produced and maintained longer and with less fatigue because the tube is only .28 mm thick and weighs 129 grams. The tube of a wood flute, when made as thin as possible, is 3.7 mm thick and has nearly double the weight at 227.5
13 ―En Allemagne seulement [mes flûtes] ont été si peu appréciées qu‘en 1844 leur son puissant et égal qui est la conséquence de l‘idéale perfection de la facture a été consideré comme un défaut.‖ Girard,
61. (Author‘s translation) 14 Böhm, 53. 15 Philip Bate, The Flute: a Study of its History, Development and Construction, 201.
16grams. A second factor in the construction of the silver flute is the formation of the tone hole. While the tone holes on wood flutes are simply drilled in, the tone holes of silver flutes protrude from the body to make up for the difference in wall thickness. In Boehm‘s Die Flöte und das Flötenspiel, the diameter of holes on silver flutes are listed as
13.5 mm but only 13 mm on wooden flutes.
In the late 1930‘s, Geoffrey Gilbert became the first British flutist to adopt the French model silver flute:
During the time Gilbert played principal flute in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, he began to
have serious doubts about the traditional English method of flute playing. . . . After hearing
several concerts and recording sessions of Moyse and le Roy, a lasting impression was made.
Gilbert became more unhappy about his playing; how were these flutists able to produce such
17warmth and expression in the sound?
Gilbert‘s recognition of the wealth of possibilities available in adopting the French style of playing on a silver Boehm flute is just one particular example of a larger trend occurring at the turn of the twentieth century. Paul Taffanel, flute professor at the Paris Conservatory and founder of the modern French Flute School, played with an unrivaled sensitivity and control of tone color. The perpetuation of the French style by Taffanel‘s
pupils, who introduced the French School to the world through tours and early recordings,
18had a significant role in popularizing the metal flute.
The French Flute School
The Paris Conservatory was established in 1795. The oldest music school in world, it is the school after which all other conservatories are modeled. One of the Conservatoire‘s innovations was a prescibed method of pedagogy, regulating both
16 Böhm, 53-54. 17 Floyd, 8. 18 Philip Bate, The Flute: a Study of its History, Development and Construction, 231.
curriculum and examinations. Instruction began between the ages of eight and thirteen, and students progressed through a comprehensive study that included performing, solfege,
19theory and music history. In 1797, Taffanel instituted a required public jury called the Concours de Prix. Performers demonstrating the highest level of artistry graduated with the distinction of the Première Prix. Those receiving Deuxième Prix were also granted
diplomas and had the option of continuing their study for an additional two years in hopes of attaining the coveted Première Prix. The Concours de Prix still serves as the
Conservatoire‘s exit examination today.
The French Flute School cannot be explicitly defined by its connection to the Paris Conservatory. Instead, the French style eludes definition and is arrived at only through a conglomeration of several elements. The continuing tradition of Conservatoire flute professors and their students is indeed one important facet. Central to this tradition is the method of training musicians that employs systematic pedagogy and examinations. On the other end of the spectrum lie the intangible characteristics of the French style of flute playing. One must examine both the concrete facts surrounding the Conservatoire tradition and the subtle musical nuances of the French style in order to arrive at an understanding of what the French Flute School entails. Each element within these two fields, the tangible and the intangible, fuses with an important component that epitomizes the French School—the technical and expressive possibilities of the Boehm flute. Flute Pedagogy at the Conservatoire
Boehm‘s new and improved flute was the result of a multitude of experiments in profile, material, body thickness, size of embouchure hole, and number, size and spacing of tone holes. The resulting instrument was superior in technical facility, intonation, and
expressive potential. These qualities were embraced by the Conservatoire professors, their students, and the composers who wrote for them. The drastic changes in the instrument itself are reflected in two central keystones of the Paris Conservatory—
pedagogy and examination. For Michel Debost, flute professor at the Conservatoire in the 1980‘s, ―the secret of the French School is a methodical approach to playing and
The Boehm flute was officially introduced at the Conservatoire in 1838. Jean-Louis Toulou, flute professor from 1829-1859, continued to play on a 12-keyed flute
21since he was ―bitterly opposed‖ to the Boehm system. Victor Coché (1831-1841), on
the other hand, followed with great interest the developments of Theobald Boehm and presented a paper elaborating on the defects of the 6- and 12-keyed flutes. Louis Dorus (1860-1868) also adopted the Boehm flute, and was the first professor to officially teach the Boehm system at the Conservatoire. One distinguished student in Dorus‘ flute class
at the Conservatoire was Paul Taffanel, who won Première Prix in 1860. Taffanel went
on to serve as flute professor from 1893-1908 and was the ―first major virtuoso to wholly
22embrace the Boehm system.‖ Toulou and Taffanel are just two of several
Conservatoire professors who wrote significant methods for the flute, joined by Henri Altès, Philippe Gaubert and Marcel Moyse. The are still considered essential in the training of a modern flutist
A precursor to the methods produced by the Conservatoire is the final section of Boehm‘s treatise Die Flöte und das Flötenspiel, which contains sections on the
development of tone, finger exercises, the method of practicing, and musical
20 Debost, 175. 21 Philip Bate and Edward Blakeman, ―Toulou, Jean-Louis.‖ 22 Moyse, 61.