Anonymous 6 key blackwood flute.

Francois Devienne, "6 Duos for Flutes Op.18"
First movement of Duet No.6.
Hinrichsen, N 4097

I've recently become seriously interested in late nineteenth and early twentieth century flutes. These instruments are not rare and are used a lot in Irish folk music. There are many variations but there are usually eight keys. The eight keyed flutes go down to middle C. Flutes with six or fewer keys usually only go down to low D. It is possible to play chromatically on flutes with small holes and only one key, for D#. (Typically, this is a 'baroque' flute.) If the flute has large holes very few of the notes out of the scale of D are playable without using the other keys. Large hole completely key less flutes are popular with folk musicians, who do not miss D# or F natural.

I have had to do a lot of research to work out how best to finger these flutes. The patterns are very different from the modern Boehm flute and one has to adopt a different approach. Their fingering is very dependent on context and on the characteristics of each particular flute. Fingering charts are not much help and I have found that the best way to approach the difficulties is through the works of the flautist composers of the period. While the music of Devienne, Koehler and Popp still features in modern books of studies it is there on account of its musicality not its technical relevance, except in the broadest flute playing terms. Besides being charming, these pieces gently probe the technical difficulties of fingering. By playing the pieces and assessing the options I have been able to develop a 'game plan' and become reasonably fluent.

The trigger for all this has been a pupil, and we play these pieces together. He is not yet quite able to hold his own with the reading and as he plays well by ear a recording seemed a good idea. Thanks to the computer I can be heard playing both parts and I thought that I would share the results with you.

There is a link from my flute pages on this site to a guide to playing classical music on these old flutes. It is very much 'work in progress' but unifying concepts are forming in my mind. Six hole flutes have been much maligned in books on musical history and I hope to do something to redress the balance.

The instrument I am playing is of black wood and has six finger holes and six keys. The crown and lower end of the bore are ornamented with a metal covering and I think the flute was made in Germany, near the start of the twentieth century. The lowest note is D. When I got this flute I had great difficulty in making it play in tune with itself. The tuning slide was very much longer than usual and the pitch was well below A=440. After a lot of thought and experimentation I had the tuning slide shortened by 15mm. This drastic step has been entirely successful and I can now play comfortably in tune at A=440 with the tuning slide extended by about 10mm. (It is usual to play this type of flute with the slide extended by about this amount.) As is normal with continental flutes, the finger holes are fairly small, similar to those of a treble recorder. Because of this I am able to regard the keys (other than the D# key) as optional. Notes played with a key are more resonant than those that are 'cross' or 'fork' fingered, but not always markedly so. Because the lowest note is D I can use much of the technique I have acquired playing the baroque flute. This is a real boon as the third octave notes on these early flutes are very dependent on the state of the D# key, in unexpected and illogical ways.

If you have a keen 'ear' you may notice that I am having trouble with the intonation of D natural. In the second octave it is a bit flat but the bottom D is very flat. After much head scratching as to why the D octave did not blow 'true' I realised that it was the influence of the first finger, always lifted for D, that was reducing the flatness of the second D. After some experimentation and consultation with Peter Worrell I asked him to work on this flute again and shorten the lower joint, from the lower end, by a sufficient amount for the second octave D not to change with the opening and closing of the first hole when the head was pulled out to my mark. As a result this flute is now about 6mm. shorter, has a ring rather than a ferule at the lower end and plays much more sweetly. Other harmonically related notes play 'true' and the D# key has less wayward influences in the third octave.

I have formed the opinion that many Victorian period musical dealers were rogues with similar ethics to the stereotypical used car salesman. Wind instruments tune to A. As it can be adjusted by extending the head, by definition, A is never wrong. Flute players will check the A (two fingers) against the harmonic of D (six fingers). Before I shortened the tuning slide this flute passed the test with a low pitched A, but every other note was off key. After I shortened the tuning slide it failed the A/D test but was otherwise not bad. Now that I have also shortened the foot everything works well. This flute was a standard pitch design tweaked and passed off as a low pitch model. I have others... a nicely made named Austrian 8 key flute marked 'LP' and given to me by a professional player over 50 years ago. She could do nothing with it (it had been given to her), and neither could I. It too had a very long tuning joint. The sound was very 'thick' and 'heavy' and the tuning impossibly poor at any pitch. I was reluctant to modify a named instrument but my success with the 6 key flute persuaded me. With the tuning joint shortened this 8 key flute now plays beautifully at standard pitch with 'vibrant' tone.

When I was at school the big music shop in town asked me if I could tell them what was wrong with a flute that they had for sale. It wasn't obvious, instead of a spring for each key that needed one this flute had two of the right hand keys working from a single spring. The fixing pillar was in the middle of the spring, but spring that had been fitted only extended on one side. The salesman thanked me when I showed this to him. He was not so pleased and expressed surprise when I commented that it was 'high pitch' and valueless (except as a collector's item). Some things do not change!

Pitch manipulation has occurred with Boehm flutes as well. In my collection I have a flute that plays A in tune, but all other notes are out of tune. This flute has a long head on a high pitch body. One of my pupils had an East German wooden Boehm flute, bought specially for him in the 1960's, new, from the most reputable London flute dealer, but he hated it. It was short... but only below F#! Scale passages had a nasty intonation bump as you played from the lower octave into the second octave. When compared with a good flute (Rudall Carte, the best!) the difference in the hole spacing was obvious.

Anon. 6 keyed flute.

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Anon. 6 keyed flute in case.

The flute in its case. A pistol case! Just the job.

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