Inside the Music | Making Instruments | Early Romantic | Classical

At the beginning of the nineteenth century flutes were made of a wide range of materials. Boxwood instruments were still being made, as they had been in the Baroque era. Increased contact with Africa meant that ebony was also used. Ivory continued to be favoured, but also cocus wood. Brass, silver and pewter were all used for keywork.

The Renaissance flute had been played using fingerholes only. French innovations meant that the Baroque flute began the eighteenth century with a single key and ended it with eight. There the story largely rested until the intervention of Theobald Boehm (1794–1881).

Trained as a jeweller and watchmaker, Boehm had juggled the multiple careers of goldsmith, flutemaker and flautist throughout his life. On a visit to London in 1831, he took an interest in the instrument being played by a flautist called Charles Nicholson; this instrument was remarkable both for its large fingerholes and for its fine tone. After studying Nicholson’s flute, Boehm concluded that the instrument had been hampered by attempting to place the holes within easy range of the flautist’s fingers. He opted for large playing holes, evenly spaced. Initially he left the bore conical in shape, but he later moved the instrument over to a cylindrical bore, while the playing holes were now so large that any attempt to play them directly was abandoned and each was fitted with a padded cover and keywork to operate it.

String Instrument Modifications

Around 1820 the composer Spohr invented the chin rest, and as a result the violin was played tucked in at the side of the chin, with the head held slightly forwards and to one side in the modern manner. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the violin’s fingerboard was extended, and the neck made slimmer and bent back at a slightly more pronounced angle. In addition, the bridge became a little higher and more arched. Inside, the bass bar, which provided longitudinal support to the belly, was strengthened to prevent it from collapsing under the strain of the higher tension which the stronger style of strings could now sustain, and the soundpost, which stands directly under the bridge, grew thicker.

In addition to modifications like those of the violin, the cello’s major change was to move away from being held resting on the player’s calves to being supported by a spike or tail-pin. This grips the floor to stop the instrument slipping; it can be adjusted in length to suit the performer and even tucked away inside the instrument. Whether extended or withdrawn, the spike is held in position by a screw.

Inside the Music | Links to the Past | Late Romantic | Classical


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