The English flageolet is the younger and, perhaps, less sophisticated member of flageolet family. Compared to the French instrument, it is far less studied and has less music written exclusively for it. This is regrettable since it is a very interesting and attractive instrument: as easy to play as a tin whistle, yet as flexible as a flute.
The English flageolet combines two features which make it particularly easy to play.
The first is that it is constructed with the beak, conical windway and barrel of a classical French flageolet. This means that, rather than blowing directly into the instrument’s windway (as one does on a recorder or tin whistle), the player blows into an ivory beak, which connected indirectly to the mouthpiece proper of the instrument.
This arrangement has two advantages. First, it reduces the problem of condensation collecting in the windway (which can clog the instrument) since any condensation forms in the bottom of the barrel. Secondly, it is also, usually, regarded as helping a player with less good breath control by regulating the air flow into the instrument, somewhat like the bag of a bagpipe. Whether there is any truth in this theory is quite difficult to test in practice.
The second distinguishing feature of the English flageolet, and the one which distinguishes it from the French flageolet, is the fingering system. The English instrument utilises a conventional, six tone-hole, major scale arrangement, rather than the unique system the French flageolet.
The English flageolet’s six hole arrangement will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played the flute, recorder or saxophone: when all six holes are covered, the tonic note of a major scale is produced. This is usually D. By releasing one hole at a time, the notes of the major scale are then sounded.
The advantage this system, when compared to the French flageolet, is that it is very simple. It is quick to learn and allows easy playing of simple melodies in the tonic key of the instrument. However, there is also one major disadvantage: unlike the French flageolet, playing the keys of the then the tonic key instrument is extremely difficult since it is necessary to use quite elaborate cross-fingering in order to play accidentals.
The early history of the English is not well understood.
It is likely that the English flageolet was invented towards the end of the 18th Century. At this stage, the recorder (often called the English Flute or Common Flute) was falling out-of-fashion as the modern transverse flute was becoming more popular. This instrument was usually referred to as a German Flute.
At some stage, an instrument maker took a recorder body an inserted it into the beak, conical windway and barrel section of the French flageolets of the period creating a new type of flageolet. Whether the expression “English flageolet” became popular because this happened in England or because the instrument was a combination of an English flute and a flageolet is impossible to tell.
References and surviving instruments which date before the start of the 19th Century are very rare. Whilst this might suggest that the instrument was invented at the start of the 19th Century, when there is a proliferation of surviving instruments, the fact that 19th Century makers usually referred to their English flageolets as “improved” , without any reference to when or where the instrument was invented, implies that they were building on an establish design which might go back as early as 1750.
Early English flageolets were much closer in style to the recorder than later English flageolets. They usually had seven tone holes on the front, extending the range to a low C, and a thumb hole on the back. This, like the thumb hole on the recorder could be used to assist in the playing of notes around the break the instrument (e.g. the C, C♯, and D approximately an octave above the lowest note).
New models of English flageolets began to appear from around 1803, when the London instrument maker William Bainbridge was granted a number of patents for improvements to the existing English flageolet. As a consequence he started to describe his instruments as “Improved” and “Patent” Flageolets, descriptions which were soon copied by his competitors even if their instruments contained none of the improvements of Bainbridge’s.
On reading his Patents, it is apparent that most of the improvements Bainbridge made were mostly quite subtle. Changes were made to the bore and to the placement of the tone holes with the desire, in particular, of getting the difficult notes of F♮ and F♯ in tune. His instruments usually retained the thumb-hole on the back. Most instruments included the half-filling of the top tone-hole on the front of the instrument so that, when it was uncovered, it acted like a pinched thumb-hole and helped the instrument play in a higher octaves. Some had the tonic note changed from the six-fingered D to a three-fingered G, perhaps in an effort to make the C♮ easier to play.
Despite the apparently technical and subtle changes to the instrument, one early reviewer was extremely impressed by the new instrument:
“Mr. Bainbridge, of Holborn Hill, has invented a new species of Flageolet, which, in its performance, requires no pinching or half-covering for the upper notes. Among several other advantages over the common Flageolet, the present instrument possesses the important one of rendering the fingering, by its new apertures and keys, as methodical and as regular as that of the German flute. The compass is extensive, and the pitch and octave to the latter instrument. These are real improvements upon the common flageolet; we therefore give Mr. Bainbridge the credit due to his ingenuity; and only lament, that a blind fondness for his invention has led him to over-rate its effect, and to attribute to it powers that we are in the habit of allowing only to magic and supernatural agency.” Monthly Magazine and British Register, Volume 18, Issue 2, November 1st 1804.
Many of the other changes were visual. Between the tone holes he placed either one or small ivory studs, perhaps to help guide the player’s fingers. Each tone hole was labeled with the name of the note and a number, to help learning the instrument without a book. His instruments are also attractively made, invariably out of boxwood, with thick ivory decorative bands and silver keys.
Compared to be double flageolet, the Improved or Patent flageolet not appear to have been as wildly popular during Bainbridge’s lifetime. Most of his competitors switched to producing simpler instruments and his developments were not widely imitated. Improved or Patent flageolets also appear to have been less popular than double flageolets with collectors, with the result that far fewer of them appear to have survived.
It also appears, from collections of surviving instruments, that the Improved or Patent flageolet was most popular in the Great Britain and Ireland. American English flageolets tended to exhibit fewer of the features of the improved flageolets.
It is also worth noting that the English flagoelet did not ever appear to be very popular in Continental Europe. In France, the French flageolet predominated, whereas in German-speaking countries instruments such as the csakan were more common.
Although the earliest English flageolets, and Bainbridge’s Improved and Patent versions were reasonably elaborate instruments, most English flageolets followed a simpler specification.
These “Standard’ English flageolets had inevitably only had six tone-holes to be played by fingers. These were always on the front of the instrument. Most were pitched in D, with their lowest note an eight above middle C.
Throughout the 19th century English flageolets acquired an increasing number of keys. Indeed, it is rare to find one which was not made with at least one and they were often made with more, up to 6 keys in total.
A single key, when present, allows the playing of a low D♯, almost impossible to play otherwise. Further keys then allow (usually in this order) playing of an F♮, G♯, B♭ and C♮. The sixth key usually provides a second way of playing the F♮ (by being activated by the other hand).
In general, only the D♯ and F♮ keys offer a real benefit to the instrument because these notes are very hard to play otherwise.
Although most English flageolets were pitched in D, a smaller number of the instruments were made in G, a fourth higher. These were sometimes referred to as “octave” English flageolets. Other sizes, such as the B below the conventional D, were also produced but not in great quantities.
Whilst there is little documentation on this subject, it is likely that instruments other than those in D were treated as transposing instruments by most amateur performers since, for example, learning a fingering pattern in B would probably beyond the capabilities of most amateurs!
Compared to French flageolets made in the mid-19th Century, English flageolets were often more cheaply constructed. Whilst some were made from boxwood or African blackwood, many others were made from cheaper and softer woods.
Keys were also usually made out of cheaper metal and the bands which protects the joints are often simpler, thinner and less decorative. On some instruments, particularly those made in America, the joints are reinforced without any metal but simply by the flageolet having thicker wood.
The bores of most English flageolets are simple cones, without the bells found on French flageolets and the tone holes are often similarly sized which can cause some instruments to play badly out of tune.
Finally, most English flageolets do not have a separate barrel and comical when; they are combined into a single piece.
Performers of the English flageolets were invariably amateurs. The author, Robert Louis Stevenson is, perhaps, the most famous and is a good example of the typical amateur flageolet player who would play the instrument for diversion and entertainment rather than the intention of performing serious art music. In this regard, they were not unlike the English amateurs who played the French flageolet 200 years previously.
This type of amateur player was subject to some satire, most notable in the form of Dr Daly in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sorcerer”.
Very little music was written specifically for the English flageolet. Instead, most of the repertoire is contained within compilation of popular tunes and melodies written for the any treble instrument. Examples might include Bond’s “National Melodies” which was described as being written for the violin, flageolet or flute.
John Parry, the Welsh musician who worked with William Bainbridge, produced a small number of pieces specifically for the English flageolet which are perhaps the closest the instrument came to having a core repertoire. Curiously, the piece for the instrument by the most eminent composer is probably the short solo in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera “The Sorcerer”..
Another invention of William Bainbridge, the flute flageolet was a combination of English flageolet and transverse flute.
The concept was relatively simple: a larger flageolet than usual (most had a lowest note of middle C) was turned on its side and the ivory beak exited perpendicularly from the pipe of the instrument. This allowed the performer to play the instrument transversely, as through it were a conventional flute. The target market appears to have been those who wished to play flute but were unable to learn its much more complex embouchure. It is not clear how popular it was.
By the later 19th century, many English flageolets, were named with interchangeable heads so that they could be played either as a flageolet, or as a fife. It is not quite clear who the target market was that these instruments. Those who could master the embouchure of the fife might be expected to persevere with it and the transverse flute, rather than falling back to simpler flageolet mouthpiece. However, enough of these instruments survive with both heads to suggest that they were popular and bought with both. One possible explanation is that the English flageolet generally has a more gentle and softer tone than the fife, so might have been used indoors with the fife outside.
An advantage of these instruments is that they are usually made with tuning slide and which makes it easier to tune the instruments compared to flageolets without them.
Whist most English flageolet development was concentrated in England and other English-speaking countries (such as Ireland and America), a very similar instrument was developed in German-speaking Europe which became known as the Wiener Flageolett (the “Viennese Flageolet”).
A Wiener Flageolett has a distinctive fingering system which is unlike most other English flageolets or recorders. There seven holes on the front and one (the highest) on the back. The topmost hole on the front is usually very small (perhaps 1-2mm) so that it can be used to aid playing in the higher octaves. The remaining holes on the front are notably smaller than those on more conventional English instruments, with the exception of the fifth (for the E) which is substantially larger. The lowest tone-hole is offset, and usually produces a low C♯. Most Wiener Flageoletts had keys: between two and six. The result is an instrument that is similar in many regards to the recorder but has unique fingering across the “break” of the instrument between the lower and upper octaves.
Stylistically, Wiener Flageoletts look very similar to simple English flageolets, with the exception that they often had a large turban-like bulb on the top of the barrel.
Very little is known about the Wiener Flageolett’s history and development and it is rarely mentioned in literature. The few references to it which I have found are in compendiums of fingering charts where it is mentioned alongside the Csakan, Stockflöte and other similar instruments.
One historic tutor for the instrument, Schule für Flageolet, Czakan by Ernesto Köhler, published by Musikverlag Zimmermann, ZM80052, ISMN: 979-0-010-80052-3, is still in print, along with a fingering chart, Grifftabelle für Flageolet, Czakan, ZM90023, ISMN: 979-0-010-90023-0.