The Story


“A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle Earth…” – Gandalf

While attending the Boxwood Flute Festival in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in July 2002, a curious announcement was made at lunch one day by Terry McGee, the flute maker in residence, and Adrian Duncan, another festival attendee, about the unveiling of a newly discovered missing link in flute evolution at a talk that afternoon. Even though I didn’t have much interest in old flutes at the time, their teaser for the presentation had both an air of mystery and a sense of humor and I was intrigued enough that I decided to attend. The flute unveiled that afternoon was Clinton #50, which was a curious combination of the simple system eight-keyed flute of the early 19th century with a unique, but rather brilliant mechanism to correct its intonation issues.

After the talk, we all got the opportunity to try the flute, which made its way first through the hands of the festival artists/instructors and eventually to the students. As soon as I started playing the flute, every head in the room turned! Something about it and me clicked, and I was able to make some pretty nice music on it immediately. I think it was because, as a classically trained player fluent in the modern flute, and also a budding Irish flute player, I carried the right mix of technique and chops and was not put off by the mechanism. Later that evening, at the nightly Irish music session, McGee and Duncan bought me a beer or three and asked me to be a part of their project which was to take a new look at the flutes and flute makers from the tumultuous 19th century from the points of view of a modern flute maker (McGee), historical researcher (Duncan) and artist/performer/teacher (soon to be me). I was flattered by the invitation (and well lubricated) so we drank a toast and then I actually had to do it!

So who was John Clinton (1809-1864) and why had I never heard of him? Looking at Clinton's biography, you would have thought he would be one of the most prominent figures in the history of the flute. A native Irishman, he moved to London as a young man and had a successful career as a musician. He was the Professor of Flute at the Royal Academy of Music in London, published well over a hundred compositions, arrangements and instructional books for the flute, had a fine reputation as a performer both on flute and piano and founded a successful, although relatively short-lived, flute manufacturing company featuring instruments of his own design – a brilliant career by any reckoning.

But at that time there were SO MANY rival flute makers competing to put out the next big thing that they libeled and slandered each other in a way that would make any modern American political campaign seem genteel. In these kinds of professional verbal slugfests, it is often the last man standing who has the final say, whether right or not. The ultimate victor in the flute design controversy was the German Theobald Boehm (1794-1881), who developed what is essentially the modern flute in 1847. But Boehm’s instrument was not universally accepted for another 50-75 years and Clinton died relatively young after being in the flute making business for just over a decade.

Richard Shepherd Rockstro (né Rackstraw, 1826-1906), published A Treatise on the Construction,  the History and the Practice of the Flute in 1890, which is an important primary source of information on this era. Unfortunately, Rockstro was hardly an unbiased author, as he was also a flute designer and player vying for business during this chaotic time in the development of the flute. He basically labeled Clinton as a lunatic who had “utterly false” and “ridiculous” ideas and whose energy was “often misdirected.” Clinton wasn’t the only contemporary to feel the sting of Rockstro’s pen – he described Boehm, inventor of the ultimately successful flute design of today, as an “ignorant imposter” and denied Boehm’s right to any credit for the invention of that very instrument. But while Boehm’s reputation survived unsullied, Rockstro’s opinion of Clinton and his work has basically been adopted as the conventional wisdom regarding Clinton (when anybody even bothered to think of him at all).

However, we were so impressed with the quality of the flute we encountered that we wanted to learn more and find out the real story of this interesting man (the fact that he was Irish didn't hurt either!!!). We wanted to see, from an objective point of view, if Clinton's music and flutes were as shallow as Rockstro claimed or if they had merit and were worthy of a more prominent place in flute history. So we worked on finding extant examples of flutes manufactured by Clinton & Co. and got them playing. We scoured the historical records and Clinton family documents to get a better picture of his life. And we searched the globe for Clinton’s compositions and treatises.

When I was recruited for this project, it was with the idea that I would make a recording of Clinton’s music performed on his flutes. Being familiar with a lot of the music written in the 19th Century by flutist/composers, I was skeptical of finding music that might prove interesting, especially to non-flutists, fully expecting a canon of pedestrian, potboiler air and variation type works with little musical substance. I was so disdainful of this type of piece that my doctoral dissertation was titled The Transcription as a Supplement to 19th Century Flute Repertoire, precisely because the vast majority of the flute music from this era was so inferior to the repertoire of other instruments. I feared that I wouldn’t find enough worthy original Clinton material to make a decent length CD.

But I worked to acquire as many Clinton works as I could locate and when I finally had them all in hand (no small task due to the glacial pace of the British Library), pianist Robert Holm and I spent two days reading through them all. A task I had been dreading turned out to be absolutely delightful!!!! The music was tuneful, interesting and contained quite a bit of variety. Filling a CD would not be a problem at all; instead it would be hard to decide what could not be included! In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised at this - even Rockstro admitted that some of Clinton’s compositions possessed “considerable merit.”  How right he was, in this respect at least!

The resultant CD contains 75 minutes of Clinton’s music played on seven different flutes designed by Clinton, and for the most part manufactured by Clinton & Co. This project became a labor of love combined with missionary zeal and I hope it will demonstrate that the music of John Clinton is worthy of inclusion in the flute repertoire and that his flute designs were also deserving of respect. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with these instruments and to rediscover this music.