The French Flageolet

A photograph of a selection of French flageolet resting on a case.

The French flageolet is the oldest member of the flageolet family. The date of its development is not known. Study into the earliest history of the instrument is hindered by the use of the word “flageolet” to refer, generically, to any small flute (indeed, this confusion led to the now disregarded theory that the instrument was invented by Sieur de Juvigny in Paris in 1581). It is clear, however, that the French flageolet was extant as an instrument separate from the recorder or transverse flute by the late 16th Century. It continued to be made, with various developments, until the early-20th Century when it came to be regarded as obsolete.

The designation of the instrument as “French” only arose around the start of the 19th Century when it became necessary to distinguish it from the English flageolet. The term reflected the reality of the time: most instruments were made in France and most players and composers were French.

Fingering: Defining Characteristic

The defining feature of a French flageolet is its unique arrangement of finger / tone holes and, consequentially, its unique fingering system. There are six holes in total: two on the back, for the thumbs, and four on the front. When the holes are released, one by one, they produce six notes of the Aeolian mode: A, B, C♮, D, E, G♮, and A. The two most unusual features of this scale are that:

  1. it misses out the sixth (the F♮ in the Aeolian mode); and
  2. playing the instrument with no finger holes covered produces a note an octave above the lowest one (i.e. an A) rather than a seventh (i.e. a G♮).
A line drawing of a French flageolet fingering chart.

To understand the reason for this arrangement, it is important to consider that any flute design is a compromise between ease of playing in different keys and ease of playing in the instrument’s dominant key. For example, a tin whistle in A is very easy to play in A major but almost impossible to play in B major. The French flageolet is much harder to play in A major than a tin whistle but, once one can play it in that key, playing in B major is fairly straight forward.

Playing the French flageolet

A section from the wood-block printed title page of The Pleasant Companion by Thomas Greeting, showing a man holding a flageolet.

The French flageolet is usually held with the left hand at the top, using the thumb and the first two fingers on the top three holes. The right hand is below and, again the uses the thumb and the first two fingers. The little finger is usually hooked under the instrument to support its weight.

Various other ways of holding are possible: on a keyless instrument, the hands can be swapped and Thomas Greeting, in his “Pleasant Companion”, suggests that one might use the thumb and first three fingers of the left hand and only the thumb and first finger of the right. Neither of these variants were ever popular.

An engraving of a man playing the flageolet, showing the position of his fingers.

Unlike many other instruments, playing a semi-tone below the “lowest” note of the instrument by half-covering the bell was regarded as a conventional technique which may explain the flared bell on many instruments.

By the time that keys were added to the French flageolet, having the left hand higher became the inevitable norm. The Boehm-system flageolet also forces the right hand to use the first and second fingers since the third finger is placed in a loop to support the instrument. It also has keys for a low G and G#, avoiding the need to half-cover the bell.

Different types of French flageolets

A number of different styles of French flageolet were made over the centuries such as:

The most important instruments, and the ones most frequently encountered, are the recorder-style French flageolets and the “classic” French flageolets.

Near-Universal Characteristics

Whichever “version” of the instrument is encountered, French flageolets tend to share the same characteristics. They are usually very small, high pitched instruments, with a lowest note of A, an ocatve-and-a-half above middle C, being the most usual.

Construction is not very different from flutes and recorders of the same period. The bore is usually an inverted cone, getting slightly narrower towards the bottom of the instrument. Small bells are very common, to allow the playing of notes up to a tone below the normal lowest note of the instrument.

The sounding part of the instrument is inevitably made in two pieces: the “body” of the instrument (i.e. the pipe containing the tone holes) fixes into a head piece containing the fipple. For instruments with windcaps there are usually then three further parts: a barrel (often bulbous); a cone-shaped windway and then an ivory, mother-of-pearl of horn beak.

Tone holes tend to be small and are often similarly sized. Only the lowest G and G# on the Boehm-system flageolet are so large that they need pads to properly cover them.

Many surviving instruments are nicely made, with good materials and detailing. Compared to English flageolets, the quality is generally much better. A few cheaper instruments do survive, however, particularly from the start of the 20th Century.

Recorder-style French flageolets

The earliest French flageolets, from the 15th and 16th Centuries were made in a similar way to recorders of the period and, apart from the arrangement of finger-holes, would not appear to be materially different when given a causal glance.

A sepia photograph showing a French flageolet by Charles Wells resting on some sheet music.

Music

It is very likely that some of the more notable Baroque composers wrote parts for these instruments; although determining what instrument was intended by any composer is a notoriously difficult exercise. Obvious examples might include the obbligato parts in the aria “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!” from Acis and Galatea by Handel or “Di due rai languir costante” from an unknown opera by Vivaldi where the instrument is specified. Considering that orchestration was not nearly as prescriptive in this period than it is now, it is also seems likely that, some of the early solo music for high recorders was played on the flageolet from time to time. Indeed, the French flageolet has sometimes been suggested as the “flauti d’echo” in Bach’s fourth Brandenburg concerto.

Amateur Peformers

Away from the professional sphere, perhaps the most famous player of this early-style French flageolet was the English diarist Samuel Pepys. He took lessons from the flageolet-master Thomas Greeting whose main work, “The Pleasant Companion”, survives in a number of libraries. Greeting’s tutor is unusual in that it is written in a tablature showing which holes of the instrument are to be covered rather than conventional notation, similar to lute or guitar tabs. He was clearly aiming an amateur clientèle, suggesting that one could carry the instrument around so that it could provide a “Pleasant Companion” in moments of boredom. Pepys’ diary shows that he did this.

A more extreme example of this was demonstrated by Greeting’s contemporary, Humphry Slater (c.1635 - 1727), who published works such as “The Genteel Companion” (for the Recorder). Slater’s obituary, published in the Ipswich Journal on 30 December 1727 as part of a London gossip column describes that he was “of merry Memory” and “desir’d that his Flagelet he had upwards of 40 Years might be bury’d in the Coffin with him” (!).

Later History

Despite the high-point of the recorder-style flageolet being in the late 17th and 18th Centuries, they were never entirely superseded by other models and, indeed, received a small revival in the 19th as the Collinet Flageolet.

Bird Flageolets

A photograph of a small metal bird flageolet on a wooden box, next to a fountain pen for scale.

An unconventional use of the early French flageolet was to train captive song-birds to sing. The most plausible explanation for why a flageolet was used rather than, for example, a recorder, was that at the very high pitches that were required, having the lower three holes alternating between the front and back of the instrument made it easier for bird breeders to play with less dexterous fingers.

By the 18th Century, some extremely small and very high pitched “bird flageolets” were made for these purposes. Whilst they tended to be made in a variety of different keys (no doubt because they were mostly played unaccompanied), the largest were, perhaps, the size of a garklein recorder (i.e. with a lowest note the C or D two octaves above middle C) and many were even smaller, pitched in F or G at least two-and-a-half octaves above middle C. Often, these flageolets were quite finely made, with very slender pipes made out of ivory. It seems likely that they were marketed to wealthy song-bird owners (as well as breeders).

The most notable work was called the “Bird Fancyer’s Delight”, published by John Walsh and William Hill; like the Pleasant Companion it includes pieces in tablature as well as conventional notation.

A line drawing of a bird flageolet showing its component parts.

Condensation

A side effect of the very small flageolet is that the condensation which builds up in the mouthpiece whilst playing became more serious and had a tendency to clog the instrument. A solution was found by placing the mouthpiece in a separate chamber (like the windcap of the Renaissance crumhorn or cornamuse) so that it was not blown directly by the player. The condensation formed in the chamber rather than the windway of the instrument, making it less likely to clog. It is sometimes suggested that this, like a windcap, helps normalise the breath provided to the instrument by an amateur who might not have good control, although it is hard to establish just how true this is. This innovation became accepted as a defining feature of all flageolets.

“Classical” 19th Century French Flageolets

A photograph of two French flageolets resting on some sheet music.

By the start of the 19th Century the French flageolet seems to have generally stabilised as an instrument made with its lowest note being A'', a major 16th above middle C. It also had the distinctive barrel, conical windway and beak of the later bird flageolets. Older instruments were sometimes made in boxwood but various dark hardwoods (e.g. granadilla etc.) seem to be more common through the 19th Century. The mounting and keys were usually German Silver or sometimes brass. The beaks were either made from horn (on the boxwood instruments); mother-of-pearl; or ivory.

A list of music published by Edmé Collinet suggests that some flageolets were also produced a tone lower, but it is unlikely that these were ever popular.

Keys

Classical French flageolets usually had keys. A key between the lowest hole and the bottom of the instrument is perhaps the most useful one as the only other way of playing the lowest B♭ is by half-covering the bottom hole (which is harder on a flageolet than, for example, a recorder since flageolets were never made with doubled holes). Up to three more keys were then added to facilitate playing other accidentals.

More unusually, classical French flageolets often had a number of keys operating between the highest tone hole and the instrument’s windway; most commonly two on the left and one on the right. These seem to have been usable for at least three different purposes:

  1. a speaker key (i.e. to facilitate playing in the higher octaves, in addition to pinching the thumb-holes);
  2. an accidental / trill key (i.e. to facilitate playing the note immediately above the one being conventionally fingered); and
  3. a piano key (by raising the pitch of the instrument to compensate the general lowering in tone that results from playing quietly).

Most historic fingering charts ignore them. The only one which I have been able to find which includes them designates the pair on the left as trill keys (for a semi-tone and tone) and the right as a “whistle” (i.e. speaker) key.

One book “Le Polycorde ou Nouveau Traite Théorique et Pratique de Musique”, published in 1872 by J. Frédéric Giraud, describes this type of six-key French flageolet as the “Systéme Bousquet” after the 19th Century flageolet player Narcisse Bousquet who may, therefore, have been involved in the development of this type of instrument.

Music

A photograph of the title page of piece of music by Bonnisseau with a flageolet resting upon it.

The 19th Century was the high point for the French flageolet in terms of repertoire with a number of (inevitably French) composers, such as Collinet; Bonnisseau and Bousquet producing a number of works for the instrument. The style is usually that of light music of the period with the flageolet parts often being virtuosically fast descants.

Although the performers were mostly French, virtuosi like Collinet toured with popular orchestras such as those conducted by Musard and Jullien, in England and America, exposing the instrument and the style of play to a wider audience.

Quadrilles

The only form of musical ensemble which embraced the French flageolet was the Quadrille band (sometimes resulting in the French flageolet being described as a “Quadrille flageolet”). The Quadrille was a selection of dances of French 18th Century origin which became popular in the 19th Century throughout Europe. The flageolet may have become and important member of the Quadrille band because of its high pitch which would piece through the noise of ball. As with the non-Quadrille music written for the instrument, the flageolet’s parts in a Quadrille tend to be descants above the melody.

Boehm-System Flageolet

A photograph of a Boehm-system French flageolets resting on some sheet music.

The Boehm-system flageolet was the most advanced French flageolet manufactured and is the closest the flageolet came to be developed into a modern orchestral instrument.

Inventor

Whilst most authors refer to this type of instrument as “Boehm-system”, it not clear who developed it. Although Theobald Boehm (1794-1881), the inventor of the Boehm-system, is a possibility since he may have played the flageolet in his early life, the system is perhaps too far removed from that of the Boehm-system flute to be his invention. A more likely candidate might be Jean-Louis Buffet (1813-1865) or his father, Auguste (1789-1864), since many surviving instruments were made by the Buffet-Crampon company and Auguste Buffet carried out much of the work on adapting the Boehm-system to the clarinet.

How it Works

The Boehm-system is usually thought of as aiming to do three things:

  1. Ensure that the tone holes for each note are in the acoustically optimal places and are at the acoustically optimal size.
  2. Improve the “venting” of the instrument by keeping all tone holes open below the lowest note that is being played.
  3. Simplify fingering by reducing the number of notes which have to be cross-fingered.

In order to achieve the above, this type of flageolet has considerably more keys than most French flageolets: usually 13 in total; and, with the exception of three keys around the windway, each key is far more elaborate than those that appear on other instruments. Compared, however, to the flute, the benefits of the additional keywork are not so apparent: flageolet tone-holes tend to be very small in any event and a certain amount of cross-fingering is inevitable. However, the simplification of some fingering is very helpful and, to my ears, the Boehm-system flageolet has greater power than other versions of the instruments.

Most Boehm-system flageolets are slightly longer than normal French flageolets. Two keys allow the playing of a low G and G♯ without with performer putting his little-finger into the bell of the instrument. The low G is particularly useful since this opens up much music written for the flute or recorder which otherwise cannot satisfactorily be played.

Collinet Flageolet

A photograph of a Collinet flageolet on a bland background. © La Couture-Boussey, musée des Instruments à Vent, © Direction des musées de France, 2007.

Perhaps the most unusual type of French flageolet is the Collinet flageolet which was developed by the Collinet family of virtuoso flageolet players.

In Collinet’s Handbook for the Flageolet the author complains that the simplicity of the instrument is under-appreciated by musicians and beginners are sold inappropriately complex instruments under the pretense that a large number of keys are needed. He states that whilst most flageolets have “four to seven keys” all but two of them are “useless” and that even one of the two remaining keys is not generally needed for most passages.

The two keys that are suggested by Collinet are the lowest one, between the lowest tone-hole and the bell, which allows playing a B♭ (sometime written as an E♭) and the one between the third and fourth holes which allows playing a E♭ (sometimes written as a G♯/A♭). The second key is usually positioned so it can be played with the left thumb. It is not altogether clear why Collinet would regard the E♭ as so important, considering that the E♭ can usually be played with cross fingering. The lower C♮ is perhaps more commonly encountered and harder to play in tune.

The other distinguishing feature of the Collinet flageolet is that, despite being a high-quality instrument, usually made in granadilla with ivory mountings, is that it has a recorder style mouthpiece. The advantage of this might have been that, in the hands of a virtuoso, there was a greater ability to control the breath into the instrument (since the regulating function of the barrel would be done away with); or it may be that the barrel and beak mechanism was seen as unnecessary like the keys.

It is not clear whether any of the Collinet family actually played instruments like this on a regular basis. French flageolets were also produced, stamped “Collinet” which were more traditional in pattern. Equally, the one “portrait” of Collinet, by Dantan shows him with a beaked instrument.

Double French Flageolets

Whilst the double English flageolet is the most familiar form of multiple flageolet, a number of French makers experimented with multiple French flageolets in the late 18th to early 19th Century.

The French maker, Jean-Jacques Baumann (1772-c.1830) made a number of double French flageolets carved from a single piece of wood (in a similar manner to the Eastern European double flutes). Both bores have the usual six holes of the French flageolet but the windows are staggered, so that pipe on the right sounds a third lower than the one on the left (usually giving an F and A). The left pipe also has an additional vent hole at the bottom. It appears that the instrument was played with both hands covering both pipes so that a simple harmony in thirds resulted, although it is not quite clear to me how Baumann overcame a number of challenges such as keeping the pipes in tune (especially since the tone holes are in the same place for pipes of different length); playing in the higher octave; and playing accidentals.

Triple & Multiple French Flageolets

A triple French flageolet was made by Hippolyte Collin, another French maker, active at a similar time to Baumann. His instrument was similar to conventional double flageolets in that it had three pipes inserted into a single headjoint. However, the two additional pipes seem to have been used as a drones: the right-hand one sounds at the full length of the instrument (probably an A) whilst the left-hand one had a key which allow playing a fifth higher.

The German National Museum in Nuremberg (the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg) has one sextuple flageolet (!) where two pipes, each, presumably, containing three bores, are joined by two metal tubes to a traditional ivory mouthpiece. A large number of keys cover every hole. I have not had a chance to further investigate this instrument.

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