The double flageolet is usually regarded as being invented in around 1804 by the instrument maker William Bainbridge and composer and performer, John Parry. However, there are a number of references to earlier double flageolets in the literature and a smaller number of extant instruments which are interesting precursors to Bainbridge’s instruments.
Attempts at combining two woodwind instruments go back at least as far as the ancient Greek aulos and double flageolets of varying sorts have been known since at least the 17th Century. For example, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on 20th January 1667:
On my way both coming and going I did stop at Drumbleby’s, the pipe- maker, there to advise about the making of a flageolet to go low and soft; and he do shew me a way which do do, and also a fashion of having two pipes of the same note fastened together, so as I can play on one, and then echo it upon the other, which is mighty pretty.
However, none of these early instruments seemed to be aimed at playing in harmony. Instead, they were used for simple unison or on one pipe followed by another at different dynamics.
Little is known about John Mason who was active in London in the 1750s. The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments currently shows the only two flageolets known to be by him. The instruments are unique single-handed flageolets, clearly designed to be played as a pair.
Mason’s double flageolets are, in essence, a pair of simple English flageolets with seven holes on the front and one on the back. The highest hole on the front is covered with a push-to-open key; the four fingers of the hand cover four open holes (the last of which is offset so it can be covered by the shorter little finger); with the lowest two tone holes being closed by keys. The key for the sixth hole is unusal: it is very long and terminates about where the hole for the second finger would be located. Since it would only be used when the other fingers were already covering the other holes, it may have been operated by squeezing against the other flagolet. The lowest hole was probably closed by the joint of the little finger.
Mason’s flageolets are famous for being depicted in the large group portrait, The Sharp Family, painted in 1779 to 1781 by Johan Joseph Zoffany (1733-1810) and now located in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
On 17th March 1783, an advert was placed for a concert taking place on 19th March “for the benefit of James Clark, Music Master of the West Fencible Regiment”. The concert is described as the “first concert for Mr Clark’s benefit” and it is explained that he means to reside in Edinburgh after the Fencible Regiments are disbanded. Amongst the programme is listed an Overture, “duetto on two Flagellets” by Abel, played by Mr Clark.
Six months after the concert, Clark placed a further announcement on 6th December, advertising his services as a teacher of the clarinet, bassoon, French horn, hautboy and flute. After the main list he indicates he will “countenance teaching”, “likewise, the English Flute or Flagelet, on which he plays two at once, first and second”. Taken together, these adverts sugggest that Clark was playing in a similar style to Parry, 20 years later.
These two intriguing adverts are all I have been able to find about James Clark and his experiments with two English flageolets. We can only speculate as to whether this was a co-incidence with Parry and Clark independently coming up with the same idea; whether Parry met Clark at some stage and learnt the trick from him; or whether playing two flageolets at once was a reasonably common trick amongst bandmasters. Perhaps, some further adverts will eventually turn up showing more details.