Who knows Theobald Böhm?
by Anja Weinberger
This question is very easy to answer: we flutists in particular know Theobald Böhm. He was a brilliant musician and is still considered one of the greatest inventors in the history of musical instrument making. But he was mainly concerned with woodwind instruments, and then again mainly with flutes. So that’s why we flutists in particular…
However, he has also influenced some things in the more general musical-artistic area, led a full and exciting life, so it might be interesting to get to know him better. Maybe this will be a more special article, but who knows – it might be interesting, right?
These few lines actually contain everything. Böhm was born into the flute euphoria that began with Quantz (1697 – 1773). However, the “new” instrument QUERFLUT, which quasi had to take up the fight for the musicians’ interest with the then widely used woodwind instruments oboe and recorder, had hardly come out of its infancy in its technical development. Some progress had been made in flute making, but was still far from a truly satisfactory solution. Böhm was just in time! He was an extremely precise craftsman, a tinkerer, a clear thinker and, in addition, an outstanding musician and a zealous composer. So it was a real luck for us flutists that this man was not let go of the “problem of the flute”. But read it yourself!
Even as a younger child he had shown an interest in music and played the then popular flageolet – an early woodwind instrument from the group of beaked flutes and quite closely related to the recorder. From 1810, quite late at the age of 16, Theobald took flute lessons with Johann Nepomuk Kapeller, who had been the principal flutist of the Munich court orchestra since 1798 and lived in the same house as the Böhm family. After only two years the teacher dismissed his probably very talented pupil from the lessons on the grounds that he could not teach him anything more. Already during this time he began to tinker, he tried to improve the teacher’s instruments and soon built some himself. Probably the most amazing invention from this early period was a golden mouth hole that could be moved on the instrument. Only a curious and unconventional thinking head could come up with such an idea. Hard to believe! Kapeller then recommended it to the newly built Royal Isartortheater, at that time under the still young Peter von Lindpaintner, where mainly musical antics were performed. King Max I. always wished for flute solos from the just 18-year-old flutist. During the day Böhm continued to work in his father’s business and he still had the time and desire to build instruments – it was not yet clear where all this would lead.
1820 was then an important year for him. Some time ago he had already begun taking composition lessons and now presented his Opus 1 – a flute concerto dedicated to Anton Bernhard Fürstenau, the leading virtuoso on the flute at the time. And: in October he married Anna Rohrleitner, with whom he will start a large family.
From then on his star as a flutist began to rise. For 6 years he gave guest performances in Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, Vienna, Zurich, London, Prague and Strasbourg, travelled to Italy and Switzerland. He quickly became one of the most famous and convincing virtuosos in Germany. He played in the same concerts as Paganini and the legendary coloratura soprano Angelica Catalani. On his travels he also met English flutists and flute makers, who also did not only marginally think about improving the instrument – England was already a particularly flute-loving country at that time. It was above all the stronger tone of the islanders that made Böhm think about drilling the tube from now on. But also the many problems in fingering individual tone combinations did not let him go.
So that was it, the revolution in instrument making. For the first time the construction of an instrument was based solely on physical principles, and for the first time a silver tube was used to build a woodwind instrument. Actually, the experienced goldsmith Böhm had only used the more relevant measurement data because of metal tubes, was more than surprised by the tonal results themselves.
For it has been agreed to group the wind instruments according to their sound production. With the so-called WOODWOODSTRUMENTS the sound is produced by a blowing edge or a reed. Woodwind instruments are therefore all flutes, oboes, clarinets, also saxophones and bassoons. BLECHBLASINSTRUMENTS require a funnel-shaped mouthpiece to produce the tone, with the help of which the player’s lips produce the characteristic sound. They include trumpets, trombones, horns, tubas, but also the zinc – a wooden instrument. If you listen to the sound of all instruments, you will find that the grouping is so useful.
And it was the same again: in Paris and London he and the new instrument were enthusiastically received. Berlioz explained that after Boehm had built his instrument, all the older flutes could only be used for the fair. In 1855 Boehm received the first of several gold medals at the World Exhibition in Paris. Meanwhile he had completely rethought the mechanics and achieved a much more precise intonation through physical calculations. In the period that followed, he built many such instruments, “inventing” the alto flute as a sideline. Today there are still about 300 flutes made by Boehm and his workshop. About half of them can be admired in museums all over the world.
The flutist Konrad Hünteler must be quoted here: The flute of the 1810s – before Boehm – was like “an old house, which had become so confusing in the course of a long time due to numerous extensions, oriels… and attics that nobody could find their way around the complicated arrangement of the corridors… and staircases. The shyness of a complete change of the handle system, where the finger technique has to be learned completely new, seems to have always prevailed. No one before Theobald Boehm dared to touch it fundamentally and invent a completely new flute.
The list of his compositions includes only 37 works with opus number and 54 arrangements without opus, many of them for alto flute. There are euphoric concert reviews and his compositions have also been printed in large numbers in France, Great Britain and the USA. What a pity that the alto flute, so beloved by Boehm himself, has found its way into literature and concert halls only to a very limited extent.
In 1860 he handed over his workshop for a second time and slowly retired from working life. He continued to handle the correspondence and also the final inspection. He also thought tirelessly about possible optimizations and played his instrument every day, preferably, as I said, on the alto flute. He felt very comfortable in the circle of his large family and had a good relationship with his seven sons and daughter.
In 1881 Theobald Boehm died at the age of 87 years in his parents’ house.
At the end of the 19th century the Bohemian mechanism was also applied to the six-hole flugelhorn pipes, which, together with the snare drum, had until then provided the typical sound of the infantry. The highest of all orchestral instruments was thus created – the piccolo flute or, in short, the piccolo.
A strange case is the bass flute. Strange because it should actually be called a tenor flute, if one strictly orients oneself to its position. It is exactly one octave lower than the “normal” flute in C.
And of course there are also lower instruments, e.g. the contrabass flute in C.
For some it may be astonishing that many modern flutists like to use wooden flutes again, which are offered by some well-known flute makers – of course with Boehm action.