Copyright 2020 Martyn Shaw

'Nicholson's "Improved" Flute'

Charles Nicholson’s (1795-1837) influences on flute design, pedagogy and performance, have remained unparalleled to the present day. Nicholson may be considered directly responsible for a surge in flute popularity in early nineteenth-century London, the effects of which has ultimately shaped the design of the flute in the present day.


As far as we can ascertain all legitimate Nicholson-endorsed flutes were produced by Thomas Prowse senior (d.1833) and his eldest son Thomas junior (d.1867). Between 4500 and 4600 Nicholson’s ‘Improved’ instruments were produced in the period 1820-1845. They were made initially by Clementi & Co. for whom Prowse worked, until 1831 when Muzio Clementi retired, a year before his death. Although there were six partners in the business Clementi and Co., it is thought that Prowse senior was the sole maker involved in the production of ‘Nicholson’s “Improved” flutes’. Production continued in an interim period by Clementi’s partners, Collard & Collard until Prowse junior announced the establishment of his own ‘manufactory’ in The Times in 1834. According to W. N. James (1801-1854), ‘if we were inclined to take the trouble, we could bring forward newspapers, from every town in the kingdom, wherein were inserted advertisements of his [‘Nicholson’s] “Improved flutes”’.


The ‘Nicholson’s “Improved” flute’ is an adapted eight-keyed, simple system instrument with a typical conical bore. Also typical of flutes of the period is the metal lined head, which increases the projection of the instrument and changes its sonority. The headjoint bore is the standard size for English flutes of the early nineteenth century (18.8mm), with a slight concavity of the outside profile around the embouchure.  This alters the shape and depth (‘chimney’) of the embouchure hole, which changes both the tuning and tone-quality of the flute.  The combination of an enlarged embouchure hole together with larger tone-holes results in a stronger overall sound.  However, as the holes were enlarged without an adjustment in their positioning along the tubing, intonation is problematical.  Some tone holes are significantly larger than others, requiring a complex series of air speed and direction adjustments by the flautist in order to play in tune.


Through hearing the ‘Nicholson’s “Improved” flute’ one becomes acutely aware of the impact that the enlarged embouchure and tone holes have upon tone production.  Gliding and ‘vibration’ are more effective on this flute, in comparison with smaller holed instruments of the period.  The head joint of the ‘Nicholson’s “Improved” flute’ is particularly responsive to changes in vowel shape within the mouth, and this greatly facilitates the production of varied tone-colours.  The Nicholson flute provides the flautist and listener with a unique window on the performance practices of Charles Nicholson.


charles nicholson

I have a particular specialism in the performance practice of the 'Nicholson's "Improved" Flute.  To hear the Nicholson flute live, visit my upcoming performances & events page.


I perform regularly on an original Thomas Prowse (Junior) 'Nicholson's "Improved" Flute' (#3986), c.1839. If you would be interested in booking a recital, seminar or lecture recital on the Nicholson flute please contact me.