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?
To begin with, here is a small excerpt from “Die Flöte und das Flötenspiel”, written in 1871 by Böhm himself, who was over 70 years old: “More than 60 years have now passed since I began to play my first, self-made flute. At that time I was a skilled gold-worker and also well versed in mechanical work. Soon I was able to make a few essential improvements to my flute; all my efforts to achieve equality of tone and purity of tuning were unsuccessful as long as the span of the fingers for drilling the tone holes remained decisive. … However, I could not reform the flute without sacrificing the playing skills I had acquired through twenty years of practice. Despite all my successes as an artist, the shortcomings of my instruments always remained perceptible to me, so I finally decided in 1832 to construct my ring key flute, on which I played the following year in London and Paris, where its advantages were immediately recognised by the first artists and the Academie des Sciences.”
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!
Theobald Böhm was born in Munich on April 9, 1794 as the oldest of 11 siblings and spent almost his entire life in the house of his birth at Altheimereck 15, which is in the middle of Munich, very central, not far from St. Michael’s, the Asamkirche, the Isartor, the Residenz and the theatre. He himself later always wrote his name “Boehm”, also on the instruments he built, because his many foreign customers and colleagues could not get along with the German umlaut “ö”.
Karl Friedrich Böhm, the father, was a goldsmith and so the boy joined the family workshop at the age of 13. Very quickly he became an excellent goldsmith and jeweller, and soon he became the most capable employee of the company. His works, most of which were created according to his own designs, were “excellently engraved, chased and enamelled and received general acclaim” (according to a contemporary source). His skill was widely known, whereupon he was even entrusted with the silver work on the skeletons of the Munich anatomy.
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.
Here is a first small intermezzo for those who are technically interested: the transverse flute was originally a wooden tube without keys, with an oval blowhole in the upper third and with holes for the fingers of both hands. A first key for the little finger of the outer hand was probably made by Hotteterre in France between 1660 and 1670. This alone increased the playability enormously. Quantz – flutist, composer and above all known as the teacher of Frederick the Great – then mounted the second key on the originally single key wooden transverse flute until his death in 1773, thus attempting to improve a first major problem of intonation technique.
That royal court orchestra was united with the Mannheim court orchestra in 1778 and was one of the best orchestras of the musical world at that time. The “Mannheim School” laid the foundation for what is today understood by an orchestra. And when the Mannheim court around Elector Karl Theodor moved, the focus of the orchestra shifted to Munich. Böhm was thus able to get to know the current repertoire at the pulse of time and experience travelling virtuosos such as Louis Spohr or Franz Liszt.
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.
This leads us to the second intermezzo: the holes of the flute were closed directly with the fingertips. This naturally leads to a dependence of the position and size of the holes on the size of the human hand. But this position does not necessarily correspond to the acoustically correct position. In short, the problem of flutists is the following: Firstly, with nine fingers (one thumb supports the instrument and therefore cannot be used) as many as possible 12 tone holes should be opened or closed in sequence to fill an octave (to explain this to readers who are not so well versed in music theory: an octave consists of 12 semitone steps, i.e. within the octave the musician must be able to lengthen or shorten the length of the vibrating column of air 12 times by opening or closing a key or hole). And secondly, in some places these tone holes are too far apart for the span of the fingers. This problem could be reduced in a first step by bridging long distances by means of lever connections, keys and not fingertips alone closing the holes and/or one finger taking over several tasks.
In 1828 Theobald Böhm opened his own flute workshop after he was simply not satisfied with the quality of the instruments made by other flute makers. At first he concentrated on technical aspects, less on tonal ones. He replaced wooden blocks with metal pillars for the storage of the now eight to nine keys and adopted the English idea of adding a tuning slide to the head. In return he was able to do without several middle sections of different lengths for different tunings, as was usual with the flutes of Quantz, for example. His instruments stood out due to the unusually careful craftsmanship of the materials wood, ivory and brass. Their elegance and accuracy were compared by contemporaries with astronomical instruments. The Bohemian flutes found enthusiastic buyers mainly in France and England. This was mainly because of their extraordinary precision, but also because of their much better playability. Boehm (as he had been writing since those days) still lacked the powerful sound that he had so admired among his English colleagues.
So maybe he needed a bit of distance, maybe he was annoyed by the low resonance in his own country, or maybe he wanted to delve even deeper into the industrialization and mechanization that kept the world at that time quite busy. In any case, he parted with his workshop in 1839 and handed it over to a colleague.
As in the years before, people in Böhm’s time liked to arrange or vary well-known melodies. Here the original song to the variation work heard above:
Together with his friend and physicist Carl Erich von Schafhäutl, he subsequently developed a patented process for the purer smelting of iron ore. He discovered a way to reuse the gases produced during smelting, invented a telescope connected to a map for fire-fighting and much more. Unfortunately, he permanently damaged his eyesight during one of the many experiments. But despite all this, the question of how the flute could be made to sound more voluminous continued to occupy him. And here it was extremely useful that the physicist Schafhäutl was able to instruct him in the principles of acoustics.
This brings us to the third small digression: the bore (that is the inside of the flute tube) of the early instruments was conical. All wind instruments (shawm, etc.) were blown at the thinner end, the flute at the thicker end for centuries, probably simply because at some point, for whatever reason, this was started that way. Quote Böhm: “I have never really been able to understand why … only the flute should be blown at its thick end, since (the) … with increasing pitch the shorter the air column sections become, the thinner they should be.” Exactly! If you look at the façade of an organ, you can immediately see that the longer organ pipes are thicker and the shorter ones thinner.
This tonal problem did not let him go. And so from 1844 onwards he devoted himself again to flute making in his own workshop with a new partner. In 1846 the time had come. For the first time a cylindrical metal tube was used as a flute body instead of the inverted conical wooden tube. This was not so easy, because chimneys had to be soldered on in order to close the holes of keys. Wood is much easier to handle when working with it. The very first notes were convincing and so today’s mostly silver flute, which is also called the Böhm flute, began its triumphal march.
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.
And here is the last digression: Is the Boehmflöte now even a woodwind instrument? Shouldn’t it then be counted as a brass instrument? No…
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.
In 1848 Boehm had to retire early as flutist of the Royal Bavarian Court Chapel because his damaged eyesight made it impossible to read many notes. He again taught with dedication – one speaks of 100 pupils – and performed as a soloist.
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.
In the meantime, the German-speaking flute world has of course also been convinced by Böhm’s ingenious reinvention of the transverse flute. In orchestras all over the world nowadays only the Boehm flute is played. In the following years his mechanics were also transferred to the clarinet. And this clarinet with Bohemian system is also played all over the world, except – you can probably guess – in Germany.
The flute world continues to turn, of course. In this little film you can see and hear the most important orchestral instruments of the flute family.
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.
Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009
Boehm, Theobald: Die Flöte und das Flötenspiel, Frankfurt/Main 1980 (Reprint)