In May, 2005, I posted a question on the Chiffboard tin-whistle forum asking if any whistle makers would be interested in making modern versions of various flageolets. Daniel Bingamon and David O'Brien kindly contacted me and after some discussion, two instruments were commissioned.
The French flageolet is a fipple flute which had a long history from about 1600 to 1900. It became popular as an amateur classical instrument both in the 1650s (when it was played by Samuel Pepys) and the 1850s when it was used in Quadrille bands (hence its alternate name “the Quadrille flageolet”). It was traditionally made of wood, but there is not particular reason why its characteristic fingering could not be applied to a metal body…
Pictures are probably more helpful here than my explanation. Here is my O'Brien “French Flageolet” (with the mouthpiece attached) next to an ordinary D whistle.
The instrument itself is of very high quality. As has been said repeatedly on this site, an O'Brien whistle feels like an exacting piece of engineering in the hand and the nickle outside and the copper is very attractive. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly David was able to make it for me (it seems changing the fingering pattern is an easy modification).
As you can see from the pictures, the flageolet has the same finger holes as the normal “D” whistle but drilled in a different pattern. The top and penultimate holes are on the back of the instrument and it is fingered either in the form T, 1, 2, 1, T, 2 or T, 1, 2, 3, T, 1.
The tuning is also different to a tin whistle. Rather than producing the scale D, E, F♯, G, A, B, C♯ as each key is removed, it produces the classical French flageolet scale of D, E, F♮, G, A, C♮, D. For someone (such as myself) used to the traditional six-holed fingering of most Western wind-instruments, this is, of course, rather strange to understand, particularly as you cannot produce any diatonic without cross-fingering. However, there is a strong reasoning to this arrangement, as it soon becomes apparent that the wider-spacing of the holes on the French flageolet than the whistle allow it to be fully chromatic with fairly accurate tuning throughout, whilst the normal whistle is still very much diatonic. The arrangement of holes, which brings both thumbs into play is also useful as it allows pinching to help the higher notes speak (comparisons to another, 8-holed fipple flute are obvious here, but again there is an advantage of having a second thumb-hole as for the highest notes, both thumbs can be pinched).
Sound-wise it is, of course, identical to a whistle but in performance it is very different as the arrangement of holes does make it a more sophisticated instrument although this has to be balenced against its increased complexity.
Something which may be of practical value to whistle players is the use of the little finger and bell of the instrument. Regarded as an essential part of French flageolet technique, a good player was supposed to be able to accurately play two extra notes by inserting his finger into the bell (C♯ and C on a D instrument). This is, of course, still possible on any cylindrical whistle, but it does seem to have completely died.
Double wind instruments always seem to have fascinated musicians but very few have successfully been produced. Indeed, I believe the only instrument which has succeeded in combining two pipes so that complex harmonies can be played is the Double Flageolet, invented in the early 1800s by John Parry and William Bainbridge.
The Bingamon Double Flageolet is strikingly different from a the 19th Century ones in appearance but almost identical in function. I should say that this model is very much a prototype and required much experimentation on Daniel's part to get right. I might also mention, as a few people have been a bit confused by seeing the instrument the instrument is blown through the delrin tube in the right of the pictures!
What particularly impresses me about this instrument is how well Daniel balanced it. The two pipes can be tuned and then stay accurately in tune with one another. Also, they are identically voiced which helps with some of the trickier passages where the top note of the chord alternates between each pipe.
The basic idea is that the left hand covers the top 4 holes and thumb-hole of the left hand pipe (the one which is like a normal whistle) and the right hand covers the 4 holes of the right pipe. If the same number of holes on each pipe are covered, then the instrument plays a major third. Thus simple tunes are very easy to play. The lower two of the three keys at the top of the right pipe extend its range up by two notes, and opening the thumb-hole on the left pipe allows it top play a D without over-blowing. The highest key on each pipe operates the wind-cutter which silences that pipe (and by silencing the right pipe, the left can be used as a normal instrument with both hands). There are also D♯ keys.
The complications come with more complex harmonies (and some were very complex, as this example shows) which frequently require one pipe to be overblown whilst the other stays in the bottom octave. It will certainly be a challenge to master this instrument (which somewhat explains its fall from popularity) but there is a reasonably large and varied repertoire for the Double Flageolet which deserves to be heard once more.
In conclusion, I am very grateful to both makers for working with me and helping with these projects. Daniel has mentioned to me that he might put the Double Flageolet into proper production which would certainly be great for the instrument. I'm also continuously on the look-out for new makers who might be interested in making flageolets, of whatever sort, as the more people who know about these instruments, the more likely a revival of them will be.