Buying an Antique Flageolet

Buying an antique flageolet can be problematic. Few are available and those which are are often broken. However, from time-to-time one can buy a wonderful instrument very cheaply through good luck and the advantage playing an instrument that is not very popular.

This article considers some of the factors in choosing an antique instrument.

English or French Flageolet?

In general:

  1. The English flageolet is the most accessible instrument since its fingering is similar to that of the recorder, tin whistle and most modern woodwind instruments (e.g. the saxophone or oboe). It is therefore the easiest to play for most musicians.
  2. The French flageolet, with its unique fingering system, is much more of a challenge and requires significant study to play. However, it is the “classical” instrument of the family and so much of the more substantial music was written for it.

The remainder of this site has much information about the differences between the two types of instruments if you are undecided.

What to look for in an Antique Flageolet.

The most important issue for an antique flageolet is whether it works. Unfortunately, this can be very difficult to establish. Even if one has the opportunity to play the instrument before buying, many minor problems can cause an otherwise fine instrument to be unworkable. Fully restored, “ready to play”, flageolets are very rare, indeed.

Having decided what type of flageolet to buy and having found one for sale, these are some factors to consider before purchasing:

Sound Quality

Of utmost importance, this is something which rarely can be assessed when buying a flageolet, except from the most specialist shops. If given a chance to try an instrument before purchasing, consider following four questions:

  1. Is the instrument easy to play throughout its entire range? The higher notes often do not speak easily (or at all) with older instruments. On both the English and French instruments the note played with the first two fingers of the left hand in the top octave (usually A on the English instrument or D—sometimes written G—on the French) may be difficult to speak. Another troublesome note is the one in the second octave with all but the lowest hole covered (usually E on the English or B—sometimes written E—on the French).
  2. Is the instrument in tune with itself, particularly when changing between octaves? Playing with an electric tuner is particularly helpful here, although remember that many flageolet were not designed to play at A=440 and so may be in tune with themselves at a lower pitch. The main tests are:
    1. Is the lowest note in tune with the same note an octave higher?
    2. Are the notes a major and minor third above the lowest in tune?
    3. For the English flagoelet, are the major and minor seventh (usually the C♮ and C♯) in tune?
  3. Does the instrument possess a good dynamic range which is not detrimental to its intonation? If the pitch of the instrument bends too easily, it may be hard to vary the dynamics.
  4. Is the sound quality as you would expect for the type of music you wish to play?

Number of Keys

The historic rule was that the more keywork available, the better and more valuable the instrument would be. By the 19th Century, makers appeared to exploit this knowledge, adding superfluous keys to the instruments, much to the annoyance of virtuosi such as the French master Collinet. There is some strength in Collinet’s argument: instruments with many keys tend to be less reliable due to leaking pads!

For an English flageolet, the instrument is easiest to play with four or more keys. From bottom-to-top, four keys allow the playing of D♯, F♮, G♯ and B♭ without resorting to cross-fingering, usually to the benefit of intonation and speed. The fifth key, if present, is usually a second F♮ key, allowing either the left or right hand to press the F♮ key.

With the French flageolet, the use of keys is much less important since the instrument was designed to be fully chromatic. A low B♭ / D♯ key may be helpful since this note can only otherwise be played by half-covering the bottom hole.

An exception to this principle that few keys are needed on the French flageolet is the Boehm-system French flageolet. This instrument, with its 13 keys, was always the most expensive form of French flageolet and therefore it still commands the highest prices. However, the full-keywork dramatically simplifies the fingering and the easiest form of the French flageolet to play.

Maker’s Name and Date

A close up photograph of the maker’s mark on a boxwood flageolet.

Most of the flageolets that appear for sale are unmarked and tend to be from the early to mid-19th Century. Those that are stamped often have a retailer’s name rather than the name of the maker.

Whilst older instruments, and those by famous makers tend to sell for more (e.g. a Bainbridge English flageolet from the 1820s might sell for twice the price of a unmarked English flageolet from the 1880s), it is very rare for the playability of a flageolet to be affected substantially by its maker since the condition tends to be far more dependant on how the instrument has been stored and maintained then who made it.

What to Avoid When Buying a Flageolet

Serious Problems

A photograph showing a closeup of a boxwood flageolet’s windway with extensive damage to the labium.

A particular problem with flageolets (and, indeed, all fipple or duct flutes) is that their sounding mechanism is very fragile and built into the instrument. The tip of the labium is particularly susceptible to damage which can render the instrument unplayable. It is therefore essential to examine this as closely as possible and, if there are potential blemishes, to proceed with great caution.

A photograph showing a closeup of a two flageolets: one has a missing key and the other has had the missing key repaired by having the hole filled in.

Missing keys are sometimes encountered. They tend to be expensive to replace. Sometimes it is possible to restore an instrument to playing condition by sealing hole (including on a semi-permanent basis by carving a small piece of wood to fit the hole and sealing it with beeswax. How practical this solution is will depend on how frequently used the key is: losing a second F♮ key on an English flageolet may not seriously matter but losing the D♯ key may make the instrument less useful.

A photograph showing a closeup of a dark wood flageolet which has had a crack repaired by having the hole filled in.

Cracks often arise in older instruments. How serious they are will depend on their depth; length and location. Sometimes cracks do not penetrate to the inside of the bore of the instrument. In this case they may have little or no impact on the instrument. If they do penetrate, if they are in the non-sounding part of the instrument (i.e. the beak, conical tube or barrel), the damage may be limited and can easily be resolved by a little melted beeswax. However, if they penetrate through the sounding part of the instrument, sound quality may be seriously adversely affected and an expensive repair may be necessary.

Occasionally one comes across an instrument missing the barrel and/or conical windway. Whilst damage to the non-sounding part of the instrument may not affect sound quality it may require expensive restoration before the flageolet becomes playable.

Less Serious Problems

A number of other problems are sometimes encountered with antique instruments which stop them being playable but which are solvable. The most usual problem with antique flageolets are leaking keys. Even if they appear to work old, decaying or badly fitting pads can cause the instrument not to speak properly, sometimes in non-obvious ways.

One way of testing for leaks which I sometimes use, although it is not without risks, is to place a piece of “low tack” masking tape under the key and then press the key down to stick it over the hole. “Low tack” masking tape is designed not to damage varnished surfaces and should provide an air-tight seal. Once the keyed holes are sealed, if the flageolet works, the problem is likely to be badly fitting pads. If it does not, there may be sometimes more seriously wrong.

Damage to fittings (such as the ivory or bone rings) is common and, for the most part, cosmetic. The main danger is with early-19th Century English flageolets which had ivory markers between the tone-holes. Often these are missing in part. It usually does not matter, except with some instruments where the holes drilled for these markers penetrated to the inside bore of the instrument. This can cause the instrument to be no longer airtight and adversely affect playability.

A missing ivory beak is extremely common with antique flageolets. This will not affect playability in any substantive way and, from wear patterns on some instruments, it appears that often flageolets were played without their beaks in the past. Since the beak is a non-musical part of the instrument, any person who is skilled in wood-turning and who has access to a small enough lathe should be able to create a replacement from a small piece of imitation ivory.

If you do play the flageolet without its beak (which is possible for a short period to ) be very careful not to damage the varnish on the conical tube with your teeth!

Prices

The question of price is always tricky with antiques and musical instruments. With the flageolet, fluctuations in price are often wild due to a lack of specialist knowledge and understanding amongst those dealing with them.

Type of flageoletSpecialistGeneral
19th Century “classic” French flageolet£300£150
As above but without ivory beak£200£150
Boehm-system French flageolet£1,500£1,000
19th Century “classic” English Flageolet£150£100
As above but without ivory beak£100£75
Double flageolet, unstamped£1,500£1,000

Where to look?

For bargain prices, ebay is a good place to start and there is, on average, at least one flageolet for sale at any time. Specialist sites which sell flageolets include:

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  1. hi, i have a vintage flageolet for sale. I wanted to know if you are interested in it? it has one hole on the back and 6 holes on the front with 5 silver keys. no name on it-manufacturer. it is rare and is talked about on wikipedia-flageolet. my email is janettegass [@] yahoo.com thank you janette
    janettegass [@] yahoo.com, posted on: 19th January 2016 at 3.52 PM