8-keyed 'Nicholson Improved' flute (antique by Clementi & Co.)

I bought this flute, as I did the Noblet, from Tony Bingham, instrument dealer (and also publisher) "At the Sign of the Serpent" in London, England. It's been some time since I have been in London, or since I've been in touch with Mr. Bingham, so I don't really know if he still maintains a store there, but if he does it would certainly be worth a visit for anyone interested in old intruments... his shop was just an unbelievable treasure-trove of all sorts of items, from virginals to bassoons, and he himself was a most pleasant and interesting person to talk to. An appointment would probably be advisable, however, since I believe, even at that time, he travelled a lot, and his was not mainly a 'store front' business.

This flute is made of cocus-wood, and has 8 keys, the 6 found on the Potter and the Astor (b-flat, g-sharp, f-natural, d-sharp, low c-sharp and low c) plus an upper c-natural key, and a 'long f' key to allow the f key to be operated by the little finger of the left hand, thus getting around the problems involved in jumps, for example, from d'' to f'', where the short f key cannot readily be used. This is particularly necessary in the case of this flute, since its tone holes are so large that the fork fingering for f' and f'' simply will not work, and use of a key is mandatory. I must admit that I find the long f key on this flute extremely hard to use - my little finger really doesn't have the length and strength to manage it well. The keys are still pivoted in wooden bosses, but are of the 'salt spoon' variety - so called because, as you can see from the image above, the ends of the keys rather resemble little silver salt spoons. These keys were originally designed to be fitted with a soft leather pouch in the spoon, filled with some form of padding. The spoon keys on this flute have been fitted with modern woodwind pads of some sort (this was done before I got the intrument). The two lowest keys, the open-standing c and c#, use a metal plug arrangement similar to that employed on the Potter.

The flute is marked (extremely faintly, above the uppermost tone hole - I don't think you'll make it out at all in the illustration) "Clementi and Co, London, C. Nicholson, Improved". There is also a number, 1961 as best as I can make out, although it is very faint. This would be a serial number, with which these flutes were usually marked. The 'Clementi' here is Muzio Clementi, the composer and performer, who founded a musical instrument business in London. He would not have had anything directly to do with the manufacture of flutes such as this. According to Rockstro they were made for the Clementi company by Thomas Prowse Senior, and his son Thomas Prowse Junior continued to make them subsequently under his own mark into the 1860s. This flute would probably have been made sometime before 1831. The 'Nicholson' of the mark is Charles Nicholson, a well known flute virtuoso of the time. He was not, apparently, himself a maker, but he 'improved' the flute in specifying various alterations to the design. Instruments such as this one, based upon Nicholson's 'improvements' were apparently very popular, as witnessed by the relatively large number that survive, and for that matter by the rather high serial number of this example, which is not late. The rings of the joints are somewhat curious - they consist of ivory rings covered by thin metal bands held in place with pins. The head cap is wooden, with a metal band round it, and an ivory screw peg for adjusting the cork. There has been some cracking in the head and the barrel, which I have patched with Nu-skin as usual.

So... what did Nicholson's 'improvements' consist of? Much, of course, was adopted from earlier flutes, especially recent ones of English manufacture. The tuning slide, the screw cap for adjusting the cork, the metal-lined head, the extended 'c foot' with metal plug keys, and the functions of most of the rest of the keys are all held in common between this instrument and the Potter. Nor did Nicholson, so far as I know, claim to have originated the long f key or the key for the higher c naturals (played with the knuckle of the right index finger) which are the two additional keys on this model. Nicholson's specific 'improvements' seem to have consisted mainly of a desire for a larger embouchure, larger tone holes, and a larger bore. It is also possible that he felt the arrangement of fins and grooves on the head served a purpose in shaping the tone of the instrument, since all examples of 'Nicholson improved' flutes seem to have this feature, and it is hard to imagine it was purely decorative.

Altogether this is, for me at least, a very difficult flute to play. It requires a great deal of breath to support the tone with the enlarged holes and bore. The enlarged holes are difficult to cover securely, more especially so because the large wooden bosses for the keys get in the way and make finding a natural finger position awkward. Because of the changes in the tone holes, the flute is very dependendent upon the keys, and in some cases requires different fingerings from a standard 8-keyed flute. F natural must always be played with a key, since the fork fingering is useless. C naturals also only really play in tune with the key. The high D# absolutely requires the depressing of the G# key in addition to covering holes 1, 2, 3, 5 & 6 and depressing the D# key - a fingering that would produce too sharp a note on most flutes. I suppose on most keyed flutes I still tend to rely on fork fingerings for quick passing notes and ornaments, where they are more convenient... but you just can't get away with that sort of thing on this flute - you have to use the keys, and using the keys and at the same time getting the large tone holes properly covered is a real excercise in gymnastics for the fingers. On top of all this, you're also using more breath, and having to twist your breath flow about to keep notes in tune, since the larger tone holes seem to result in a great tendency for notes to bend and wander. One might suppose that things would be a little easier for someone with larger fingers - although then the problem of trying to fit around the large and obtrusive bosses would be exacerbated. Charles Nicholson himself did, apparently, have very large fingers, and prodigious lungs. His own personal flutes carry these attributes even further.

The objective of all this seems to have been dominantly to allow the production of a loud, brilliant tone. To be honest, I wouldn't even consider trying to play most of the 18th century flute repertoire on this instrument... apart from the difficulties of execution, the result does not appeal to me. When I pick up this flute, I generally turn to early 19th century 'salon' music, to which it seems well suited - something like Mauro Giuliani's Gran Duetto Concertante for flute and guitar seems to be made for such an instrument (although one does, perhaps, feel a little sorry for the guitarist...) I have some arrangements of Strauss and Schubert, and pieces by Diabelli and Hummel. And I have one piece by Nicholson himself - a set of variations on the tune most of us know as "Twinkle, twinkle little star", although he refers to it as "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman".

If you have any questions or comments, or related experiences you'd like to share, or whatever... email me at xorys@idirect.ca.

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