The London flute virtuoso Charles Nicholson (1795–1837) was as popular an idol as any movie star today. His huge tone was admired, but his expression was also extravagently praised. It is possible to imagine that no flutist since has moved his listeners as much.
A taste of Nicholson's style can be gleaned from his arrangement of the Scotch air Roslin Castle, which appeared in his Preceptive Lessons for the Flute of 1821. It might be hard to believe that anyone ever played like this if we did not have this documentation. When played as he directs, and with feeling and understanding, his arrangement can still speak to and greatly move a modern audience. We make this arrangement available in facsimile form below.
Roslin Castle makes an excellent study in early romantic flute performance practice. One must keep in mind, however that this extreme style, as exemplified here, is applied by Nicholson primarily to national airs and popular tunes.
Nicholson played and wrote for the English seven- or eight-keyed flute. A similar instrument is required to follow his instructions completely, of course. But much of the effect can be obtained on the modern flute, and this is discussed at length in an article by Jan Boland in Flute Talk (December, 1989, pp.11–17), which also contains a modern edition of the piece and notes on performance. Jan has also recorded Roslin castle on Titanic (Ti-161).
Nicholson's notation is explained earlier in the Preceptive lessons. Here is a quick guide (for the simple system flute).
The crescent shaped mark, as illustrated above, is a glide—a portamento done by more-or-less slowly sliding one or more fingers off their holes. This can give a shakuhachi-like effect to passages.
A zigzag line indicates vibration (finger vibrato). Nicholson reminds us that he recommends that the vibration on c'' be done with RH1, vibration on g' with RH3, and vibration on e' and e'' with the D# key. The c'' is fingered [-2- 456k], i.e. holes 2,4,5,6 closed and the D# key opened. If the recommended fingerings don't seem to give much effect, consider changing the method of blowing and tone until they do—in that way, the flutist might be getting closer to the reedy, focused tone advocated by Nicholson.
The asterisk-like star over a b''b indicates the fingering [1-3 456k]. This is an assisted harmonic of e'b
A circle with a plus over a g'' indicates the fingering [123' 45,-k] (holes 1 through 5 closed; G#, F, and D# keys open). This is a somewhat veiled note, often tending to be sharp, that Nicholson recommends strongly in F minor. It will not work with a G# key on the lower center joint.
The notation shown above means that c''' and d'''b are to be played as harmonics of f' and f'#. The fingering is the same as that of f'' and f''#, whence the notation. The D# key is to be open as well as the F key. The c''' can be assisted with hole 2 as a vent hole, but it is not necessary.
An "x" under f''# means [123 -56k].
An "x" under c'' means [-2- ---k]. This is used in the turn on b'b. This is indicated explicitly at the end of the third staff, but should be used in each of the turns on b'b.
The slurred octaves are to be performed with the low note first and distinctly heard, but very short (say a thirty-second note, no matter the length of the notes), with the rest of the time given to the upper note. The low note is thus more-or-less an attack or articulation to the upper (main) note.
It can be a surprise to those familiar with 18th and 19th century flutes, on which modes with one or two sharps are the easiest, to learn that the English prefered flat keys! F major was the most common key in the 1820s and the favorite of Charles Nicholson.
It is interesting to note W. N. James' opinion in A Word or Two on the Flute (1826) that the English flute was manufactured to be best in tune in Eb major, a relatively difficult key. Notes in this mode are primarily sounded through tone holes under the keys, and perhaps these notes could be tuned well without the compromises necessary in the tuning of the six uncovered finger holes. These holes served many purposes and were also required to be within reach of the six fingers. The intonation in D major of English flutes from the 1820s and later is sometimes not so easy.
Nicholson asserts that Ab major (and F minor) are capable of great beauty. Thomas Lindsay in his Elements of Flute Playing (1830) associates F minor with melancholy sadness, tenderness, and sorrow. But Lindsay sets his version in C minor. For more comments on keys see the extract from James on the best modes on the flute.