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  • Patrick Olwell

A Tale of Two Flutes

It's unusual for me to have two flutes on the bench that are almost exactly the same specifications but by two different makers so I thought I would take the opportunity of working on these two 19th-century instruments to describe some of the features to which I pay particular attention when doing research. The ivory-headed flute seen above is by William Hall and Son (1847-1858), and the all-wood one is by Firth and Son (1863-1867). What I found interesting about these two is that that they have the same size tone holes in the same locations and in other respects are very similar designs including the lengths of the pieces, bore measurements, and keys, which look identical. This isn't as strange as one might suppose if we consider that the two makers trained together with flute-maker Edward Riley (and in fact married both his daughters) in New York after the War of 1812. It is probable that the same person or company made keys for most of the New York flute makers during that period, as there is quite a bit of uniformity in key designs across different makers. In the case of Firth and Hall, either the two were using the same designs and measurements or a single shop made both flutes and one was simply marketed by the other (though references indicate that the men set up businesses with their sons to make flutes, not just operate a retail music store).


The size of the tone holes are small by modern standards, but large when compared to 18th century flutes or continental 19th c. instruments. My yardstick for comparing hole sizes is based on the #4 hole, which is 7.7 mm on these flutes (just under the 8.0 mm of the “small" or Rudall-Rose model that we make here at Olwell Flutes). The bores of these two instruments I would also consider to be comparatively narrow and is similar to the pre-Nicholson bore on English flutes like Potters or Willis, where the small end of the left-hand piece is about 14.0 and the small end of the right-hand section is approximately 12.0. This is very close to the most common bore on French and German flutes. Most Rudall-Rose flutes have a bore almost a full millimeter larger, with the break between right and left hand being about 15 mm and the bottom of the right hand at 13 mm.


I'm always taken with the sweetness of tone that these flutes have and a certain ease or efficiency of how they blow. Many people also comment that the American versions are easier to play in tune and closer to A=440, which I have generally found to be true. English flutes of the period had to be able to play at sharp pitch, as well as down to 430 or 435. It seems as if the Nicholson features like his peculiar tuning system and the thinner headjoint had not made such an impression on American players and makers.

Both of these flutes are similar to others I have seen made by this consortium of makers, that is, flutes labelled Firth, Hall, Pond and Co, Firth Pond, etc., that span the years from about 1820 to 1880. They look to have been made precisely and carefully but perhaps more hastily than the most elegant silver-mounted flutes from the period, especially those made in London by Rudall and Rose. On the Hall I see details that have been glossed-over and the finishing work is not perfect. Flutes made with more rigorous quality controls have a bore that is perfectly and smoothly reamed, and the action of the keys is more smoothly regulated. Here, there are no double springs or spring plates under the tips of the springs. It's interesting that both of these flutes have barrels with no cracks, indicating that this wood was more carefully cured and dried than that of many other instruments from this period, or perhaps that these flutes benefited from a more humid seaside climate at some point in their history.

Here, Matthew and I play both flutes on a tune called "Gallagher's Frolics."

-Patrick Olwell

(Matthew Olwell, ed. and photos)

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May 06, 2022

I have a keyless Firth Pond that I asked Patrick to tune up for me a few years ago. I have grown quite fond of it. Very easy to play once it’s well warmed.

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