W. N. James on modes (keys) on the flute (1826)

The following essay is taken from A Word or Two on the Flute by W. N. James (1801–1854), originally published in Edinburgh in 1826. A modern facsimile is published by Tony Bingham (London, 1982), with an introduction by Stephen Preston.

Different modes (keys) will sound different on early 19th century flutes. James does not claim this is due to some abstract reason and that the effect is similar on all instruments, but rather that the variation is due to the construction of the flute. The alteration of tone quality, intonation, and difficulty of technique depend heavily on the particular mode on the simple system flute.

His opinions may surprise some players of early flutes, most of whom prefer keys with one or two sharps. James says that the flute is constructed so as to be best in tune in Eb major (which he calls "E three flats"). He says the G major is a "very difficult" key. Amateurs were partial to F major, he says.

What I think James is refering to when he says the flute is most perfect in Eb is the fact that the notes produced by the keys (Eb, F, Ab, Bb, and C, all of which appear in Eb major along with D and G, which are normally good notes) could be tuned "perfectly", while the finger holes had to be in places the fingers could reach and arranged so that the third octave fingerings worked, etc., so many other notes were compromised. The intonation in G major—due to these compromises—is what he thinks to be "very difficult", as the fingering is easy. Of course, it must be kept in mind that James was writing about the English-style flute and the English taste. Many of the large-holed flutes fashionable in London do have sharp A's and B's in addition to flat F#'s and relatively weak E's. But there is some truth in what he says for all simple system flutes.


by W. N. James

THE flute that is now manufactured executes the whole of the modes or keys which music comprehends; although, as in many other instruments, some are more perfect than others. E three flats is, perhaps, the best in tune, as the flute is manufactured to be most perfect in that key. This mode is also very beautiful on the flute, but contains much mechanical difficulty, which must be conquered before it becomes perfectly easy and familiar. The prevailing character of this key is majesty and tenderness, which it expresses very finely. One of the chief difficulties in this mode, is the ascending and descending from the E flat to F natural, and from F to E. The long key which the left hand little finger uses, was invented to overcome this difficulty; but it does not overcome it in every instance. I am of opinion with Mr. Nicholson, with regard to the propriety of having this key at all on the flute; and think, with him, that music can be well managed without it; besides, the disadvantage of an additional perforation in the lower part of the instrument, which is not sufficiently compensated for by the exchange. Practice will soon conquer the great difficulty of this fingering, without having recourse to this key; and the labour will be abundantly recompensed by being free from any of the disadvantages which attend it.

The key of A four flats is decidedly the most pathetic, and one of the most effective on the flute. It is not so difficult as the generality of players imagine, for I have found that those who execute the three flats well, are even more successful in the four. There is nothing, therefore, which ought to deter the amateur an instant from playing in this delightful mode; for in none is the tone more fully developed. It partakes more of the elegiac and plaintive softness, which the poets are so fond of ascribing to this instrument, than any other key; and, perhaps, of all others, will pourtray a melancholy or an adagio movement with the chastest and most exquisite feeling.

The mode of B two flats is not, I think, so fine as the two preceding ones, although it is, perhaps, as perfect as either: it has not, however, so much grandeur as the one, nor so much pathos as the other. Without being exceedingly difficult, it discovers the inequalities of the instrument more, perhaps, than any other. But a duet, in this key, is very effective, in consequence of the harmony of the two flutes mixing so accurately together, which is not always the case in the sharp keys.

The mode which amateurs are generally the most partial to is F one flat; and more music has been written in it than almost the whole of the others put together. I do not know the reason of this, unless it be that it is by much the easiest: for it cannot arise from its beauty, as it is, in my opinion, the very driest on the instrument. It is not particularly adapted for great pathos, or for brilliancy, as there are modes which can express either of them more correctly. All our public performers have generally played in this key, partly, perhaps, on account of its easiness of fingering, and its great facility in execution. Mr. Nicholson has written the bulk of his music in this key, although he has discontinued the frequent use of it in his latest and best compositions; which the greatest admirers of this gentleman will no doubt much rejoice at.

The best point of beauty in this key is the brilliant shake on the G, which is, perhaps, the most correct within the whole range of the instrument.

But the sharps are the most exhilirating and brilliant keys on the flute; and the three and five sharps possess every advantage in these points. The five sharps is peculiarly rich and sparkling; but requires much dexterity in accomplishing the mechanical difficulties, which are here numerous. The three sharps has a decided character of buoyancy and airiness, and is withal very plaintive and pathetic. It is a rich beautiful key; and the only circumstance which will prevent its more frequent use, is the difficult shake on the B natural. I would, however, most earnestly recommend much practice in it.

The one and two sharps possess more fire and spirit than any other keys. The one sharp is M. Drouét's favourite mode, and is that which he has written the greater part of his music in. It is for the display of brilliant execution, the most effective of the whole, although it must be confessed that it is a very difficult one. The fourth of the key being C natural, a proportion of the difficulty lies in producing it sharp enough, which is not without much practice familiarly acquired. The relative minor of this fine key E, is also a great favourite with most of the Continental composers. Gabrielsky, Berbiguier, and may others, have delighted in writing in it: it blends a great deal of brilliance with much pathos and tenderness; and its general effect is alternately cheerfulness, and the most pensive and soothing melancholy.

I should not forget here the delightful contrast between the E minor and E major, four sharps. There is nothing, perhaps, in the whole range of the flute more irresistibly impressive than these two modes alternately, —the one full of the most touching tenderness, and the other brightening and sparkling, as it were, with its own effervescence. Rossini's finest overture, "Il Barbiere di Siviglia," commences in this key, and is succeeded by the four sharps major. The flute gives the subject almost throughout the whole of it.

The patience of the reader must, I am aware, have been put severely to the test to attend to these observations on the modes. But I have only one more strongly to recommend to him before I quit the subject. It is curious enough, that the mode I am going to point out has seldom been written in for the flute, and yet it is unquestionably one of the most beautiful. I mean C, the relative minor of E three flats. Nothing can possibly be finer than the deep pathos which pervades the whole of it, particularly in the very lowest notes. I know of no mode which can express on this instrument so well the loftiness of grand and deep feeling; and should I be fortunate enough to tempt the amateur to make a trial of it, I am not at all fearful of the result. Let his first trial be made on the Scotch air, "Roslin Castle;" and if the effect do not at once make an impression on him, let him never again take up his flute.

I have pointed out this beautiful minor mode to many of the best amateurs with whom I am acquainted, and they all acknowledge its decided superiority in a pathetic minor movement over every other. I believe that Beethoven has written his grandest symphony in this mode.