The Double Flageolet

A photograph of a double flageolet by William Bainbridge.

Unlike the French and English flagoelets, the genesis of the double flageolet is well understood and can be attributed to the combined work of instrument maker William Bainbridge and composer and performer, John Parry.

Bainbridge’s Invention

Our knowledge of the double flagoelet’s invention comes from a passage in a 1830 article by John Parry, entitled “On Flageolets”

Parry explains how the double flageolet was invented in 1804 by him and William Bainbridge. Bainbridge had had a training as a wood turner and also worked at Covent Garden as a oboe, flute and flageolet player. Clearly the two of them were already collaborating since Parry indicates that the first development of the double flageolet was a performance he gave on two of Bainbridge’s English flageolets held together in a frame. Bainbridge then seems to have decided to develop a more permanent instrument and the double flageolet was shortly afterwards produced.

Whilst we cannot know of the exact relationship between Parry and Bainbridge, one might speculate that having a performer and a inventor working together was a great advantage to the instrument, since it produced something that was capable of being played, easily, as well as being technically proficient. The combination was notably lacking from competitors, such as Scott’s Delecta Harmonia.

Although we have no details of what the instruments were like which John Parry played fixed in the frame, it seems possible that the left-hand one was a normal English flageolet whilst the right-hand one was another normal flageolet which had had the top two holes filled with cork. Experimenting with two tin whistles by taping them together and then covering the top two holes of the right hand instrument with tape produces an instrument that is very similar to the double flageolet to play.

Playing in Harmony

Unlike almost all other double which wind instruments, going back to the ancient Greek aulos, the double flageolet had the advantage that it can be played in harmony. Most other double woodwind instruments either have two pipes which can be played together (in order to produce a more distinctive sound due to the beating effect that takes place when to slightly out of tune pipes play together) or have a single melody pipe and drone.

The reason why it is difficult to make an instrument which can play in harmony is simple enough: we only have five fingers on each hand and, for an instrument which overblows in the octave (such as a fipple flute), each pipe needs at least six holes to cover the seven notes of a Western scale. Equally, without having a keyboard like device on the instrument, it is hard to generate a fingering system which is intuitive enough that it can be easily learnt.

How the double flageolet works

The double flageolet solution to the problem of playing in a harmony is relatively simple. The instrument consists, at its heart, of two English flageolets. The left-hand pipe has very few modifications from a normal single flageolet. The right-hand pipe consists of a normal English flageolet with the top two holes (i.e.the holes to produce the notes B and A) activated by keys.

The player uses the first four fingers of his left hand on the left-hand pipe to play the top three holes (as per normal), adding his fourth finger to cover the F♯ hole when necessary. The right-hand is used to cover the remaining four holes on the right-hand pipe. This has the effect of having the right hand positioned a hole higher up it would be if positioned normally on an English flageolet.

Two chords from a fingering chart.

The advantage of this system is that when one uses the same number of fingers on each hand a third is produced in the key of the instrument. For example, with four fingers on each hand covering the tone holes, one gets the chord of D, F♯. Using one finger produces the chord G, B. This makes playing melodies much simpler than might otherwise be expected because one simply has to to play the lower note of the court and the right-hand flageolet, and use the same number of fingers on the left hand flageolet to get a third.

From Cconcept to Working Instrument

A photograph of an opened double flageolet showing its two windways.

Bainbridge developed the simple concept into a working instrument in a number of ways. First, he created a single headstock piece which contained the fipples for both tubes. This was fitted into a larger barrel and conical windway so that a single mouthpiece could sound both pipes. Each fipple was then further modified by the addition of a key which allows the airflow to be cut off to one or both of the pipes. This is primarily used to allow them to play solos on the left hand flageolet (and can explain why the left hand flageolet has six holes for normal, two-handed, play and is not cut off under the F♯ hole).

In addition to its four main tone holes which are covered by fingers, two keys are added to the right hand flageolet. One, on the front, allows the playing of a high B and one, one the back allows the playing of a high C. The high C key is half-filled with wood so that when the key is released it works like a pinched thumb-hole to aid the pipe overblowing to the higher octave.

The left hand flageolet is not greatly modified from a conventional English flageolet, but it is fitted with a key that allows the playing of a high D. As with many of Bainbridge’s English flageolets, the top tone hole (for the B) is half-filled, again to assist with overblowing.

These keys are useful because they assist in playing chords which fall over the break the instrument. For an example, the court B, D' can be played with the left-hand pipe playing the lower note (covering a single hole with the first finger) and the right-hand pipe overblowing and playing the higher note (covering all holes with four fingers). However, this chord can be unstable. It is therefore often easier to play it using the B key on the left hand flageolet and the D key on the right.

Other keys

Double flageolets are inevitably also fitted with keys for playing a low F♮ and a low D♯ which are common on most English flageolets. Most also have mechanisms for playing a low C♯, below the usual range of an English flageolet, as well.

It seems that Bainbridge continued to tinker with the design of the instrument throughout his life, as did his successors and competitors. Many instruments have additional unusual keys for playing other accidentals or higher nots. Some also, have additional mechanisms for extending the range of the right-hand pipe below a low D or C♯ to either a C♮ or B, by extending the length of the pipe and adding further keys.

Subsequent History

A close-up photograph of the pipes of a double flageolet showing the word “patent” engraved upon them.

Although the double flageolet was inevitably described by Bainbridge as a patent instrument, it appears that he never received a patent for it. Indeed, considering his lack of success in enforcing his patents for his improved English flageolet (as evidenced by the reported case Bainbridge v Wigley), one wonders if a patent would have done him any good!

Initially the double flageolet seems to have become very popular with many versions being made by competitors almost immediately, both in England and abroad. Most competitors’ versions were copies of Bainbridge’s instruments but some, such as that by Thomas Scott were variations on the same theme.

Bainbridge seems to have produced double flageolets in several sizes: the conventional instrument which is the same size as an English flageolet in D (which he called a “tenor”); one pitched a fourth higher, in G, (which was called an “octave”) and one a third lower, in B♭ (“voice”).

A line drawing of a sitting woman playing a double flageolet.

One of the double flageolet’s strengths was that it was regarded as an instrument suitable for women to play: something that was quite rare at the time for woodwind instruments.

The double flageolet was made throughout the rest of Bainbridge’s lifetime. After his death in 1831, his wife continued his workshop until 1835 when Henry Hastrick (presumably a former apprentice of Bainbridge since he was a witness to his Will) took over and continued to make double flageolets in his own name until his death in 1854. The other large-scale producer of double flageolets was John Simpson, who may have been an apprentice to Bainbridge, and made the instrument until about 1869.

After this period, the double flageolet production seems to have died out, apart from an occasional modern copy.

Music for the Double Flageolet

Although the double flageolet was by no means unsuccessful as an invented instrument, it is notable that there is a dearth of music written for it, despite later adverts by Harriet Bainbridge referring to the “some thousands of duets” which one could play on it.

The repertoire mostly comprises a number of smaller pieces written in tutors by Bainbridge, Simpson and their contemporaries. There is also a smaller amount of more sophisticated work written by John Parry who, it is clear, did his best to convince the public that the double flageolet was a serious music instrument which could be used in art music. Pieces by him, such as “The Parisian Divertimeno” are interesting and demanding.

Unfortunately, the difficulty that the flageolet seems to have suffered is that it fell halfway between being an essentially amateur instrument, such as the English flageolet, and being a professional one, such as the clarinet or oboe. Amateurs, no doubt, struggled to learn that the still complex fingering system and remember the different ways of playing each chord. On the other hand, professionals, who would be able to play the instrument successfully, would have been felt frustrated by its limited ability to play in different keys.

A further problem is that whilst the fingering system for the instrument is ingenious, the number of chords which could be comfortably played were somewhat limited. Therefore, any piece written for the instrument needed to be composed by someone who could understand what was playable and what was not: something which very few composers would be able to do.

Finally, whereas the English flageolet could play pieces written for most other melody instruments (e.g. violin, flute &c.), the double flageolet was only really able to play pieces written specifically for it, vastly reducing the range of works available.

Survival of Original Instruments

A postage stamp from Grenada showing a double flageolet and a portrait of J.S. Bach.

Despite the relatively short period of manufacturer of the double flageolet and the lack of music for it, surprising numbers of original instruments have survived. Almost any musical instrument museum will have one on display and many other, non-musical, museums will have one, too. It seems that, irrespective of its lack of long-term success as a musical instrument, the intriguing novelty of the double flageolet has ensured its survival in much greater numbers than might otherwise be expected. It is also, sometimes, anachronistically shown as an early instrument (like a shawm or viol) despite firmly being from the 19th Century.

The Triple Flageolet

A photograph of the rear of a triple flageolet by Henry Hasktrick.

The triple (or trio) flageolet was a development by Bainbridge from the 1820s onwards. As with the double flageolet, the idea may have come from John Parry, since at the first concert in 1803, he was said to have also played three flageolets fitted to frame.

The third pipe of the triple flageolet does not add the ability to play a third line of melody, but seems to have been designed to be a more conventional drone, somewhat in the manner of the Irish Uilleann Pipes or the Musette de cour. The remaining two pipes comprise an otherwise fairly conventional double flageolet. Indeed, an advert by Harriett Bainbridge, in the Morning Post on Christmas Date 1830 states that “persons having a Double Flageolet may have the bass joint added, and they can, by the book given, learn themselves to play trios in a quarter of an hour.” Regrettably, too few triple flageolets are now available to see if some where modified in this way.

The third pipe has five keys which are operated by the left-hand thumb. Four of these allow the third pipe to play the notes from D to A, essentially duplicating the functionality of the left-hand pipe, but in a considerably less dexterous way! The fifth key is a wind cutter key to allow the third pipe to be silenced. According to William Waterhouse, opening the keys in different combinations can produce many of the chromatic notes within its range.

Bainbridge seems to have accepted that the triple flageolet was a somewhat unwieldy instrument and attempted to rectify this by having the beak come out of the top of the instrument at an angle, allowing the instrument to be held vertically on a small stand. This would also give more flexibility to the thumbs, which cannot easily be used to support the instrument. Today, a more obvious solution to the problem of the weight of the instrument would be to use a sling.

Despite its ingenuity, the triple flageolet appears not to have been a popular instrument and very few examples of it survive. The only makers who appear to have produced the instrument are Bainbridge and his (eventual) successor: Henry Hastick.

Double Flute Flageolet

A line drawing of a standing man playing a double flute flageolet.

The double flute flageolet was developed by Bainbridge in 1819 as a combination of his English flute flageolet and the double flageolet. In function, it works in exactly the same way as the standard double flageolet: the right-hand pipe is a normal flute flageolet pipe and the left-hand one uses the four fingers to cover the four lowest holes.

As with the difference between the flute flageolet and the normal English flageolet, the differences between the two double instruments are primarily æsthetic. Rather than having a single head joint, into which both pipes are set, the flute flageolet has two separate headpieces joined together by an interconnecting part. The beak, like the flute flageolet, attaches to the side of the left-hand pipe. This means that the instrument can be played transversely, like a flute, rather than vertically, like a normal flageolet.

There is one innovation, however, unique to to flute flageolet: the wind cutter key for the left-hand pipe is not operated by the thumbs, but rather by a key which is designed to be activated by the lips!

Thomas Scott’s Double Flageolet: “Delecta Harmonia”

Whilst most of Bainbridge's competitors were happy to make copies of his double flageolet, the London maker Thomas Scott produced his own version of the instrument, in 1805.

Scott’s speed at producing the instrument meant that he was able, unlike Bainbridge, to patent it, and he subsequently sold his instrument as the “delecta harmonica”.

Compared to the Bainbridge double flageolet, the first and most obvious difference is that the two sounding pipes are carved out of the same piece of wood. The patent suggests that a complex mechanism was added to the fipple to allow the pipes to be tuned to one another (something which is simply achieved on the Bainbridge double flageolet by pulling one pipe in or out of the headstock).

The fingering system was considerably more complex than Bainbridge double flageolet. Whilst the left-hand operates in a similar way to that of the Bainbridge double flageolet, the right-hand pipe is played with a complex combination of the left-hand little finger, the right-hand thumb and the first four fingers of the right hand. The right hand thumb has a particularly hard task, being responsible for two keys and a tone hole.

Like the Bainbridge double flageolet, there is a wind cutter key to allow solo performance. It is also rather complex and unusual: it is activated by the right-hand little finger and travels up the inside of the instrument from the bottom to the top.

Very few of Scott’ instruments survive and it does not appear to have achieved the same level of popularity as the Bainbridge double flageolet.

Scott’s Patent

A.D. 1806, December 13.—N° 2995.
SCOTT, Thomas.— "A musical instrument called a flageollette English flute, or an instrument on the flageollette principle, so constructed as a single instrument that two parts of a musical composition can be played thereon at the same time by one person."

This "double" flageolet is divided by a longitudinal partition throughout its length. It has seven holes for the fingers to stop, and one for the thumb of the left hand. The lower holes on this instrument are double (or two small holes) for the purpose of making half tones correctly, and forming a regular scale without cross fingering. Directions for the fingering are given. There is an arrangement connected with the mouthpiece which enables the performer to stop off the wind from the second compartment. The scale for the other half of the instrument is given. "The "mode of tuning flageolettes hitherto to any certain pitch has "been by drawing out the joint, which puts the whole system "out of tune, as by that mode the instrument is lengthened, and "of course the scale becomes thereby affected." The double flageolet is tuned without affecting the scale by means of a cap sliding up and down so as to shade the lip from which the tone proceeds.

Double & Multiple French Flageolets

A number of makers produced somewhat simplier double and multiple French flageolets in the early 19th Century. They are discussed in more detail on the French flageolet page.

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  1. I have a Bainbridge double flageolet that is in working condition that I am interested in selling
    William Deiss, posted on: 1st December 2017 at 5.31 PM