American Memory | Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection

A Puzzling Trade Catalog: Albert System--A Nominal Question

The Dayton C. Miller Collection of instrument-maker trade catalogs contains the 1890 issue from Martin Thibouville Ainé, E. Bercioux Successeur, 91, rue de Turenne, Paris. It features all of the flute and reed-wind instruments common in France at that time, including an all-metal contrabassoon, patent no. 186,778 (not a contrabass sarrusophone) and the five principal sizes of saxophones, the B-flat bass designated a "contra-bass."

The clarinet category is large and interesting, including soprano, alto, and bass models with both old and Boehm system fingerings. However, this puzzling European catalog inconveniently challenges the theory that the term "Albert System" was common at that time largely or only in North America. The catalog is illustrated with engravings or woodcuts of various models, and they seem accurate enough to serve as evidence, except for the curious mistake that two of six soprano clarinet illustrations show an instrument without a barrel joint.

The soprano clarinets ("en ut, sib., la ou mi b.") include instrument model numbers 22 through 53, beginning with "Système Boehm," models 22 through 25, the most expensive, and further captioned "Modèle de l'Armée et du Conservatoire." The Boehm system illustration is one of the two missing the barrel joint but otherwise quite good. Models 26 through 36 are simple system, with thirteen to fifteen keys plus the two right-hand B/F# vent key finger rings. They are listed in three groups, each labeled as exemplifying the elusive "Système Albert." Numbers 26 through 30 are lesser quality, such as grenadilla or ebony. Numbers 31, 32, and 33 are the same but "Qualité Supérieure," with some minor extra keywork such as "double clé d'ut dièze et double clé de si b" (not actually shown in the illustrations). Models 34, 35, and 36 are the same but made "en Vulcanite," the hard rubber compound known in English as ebonite.

The next category, models 37, 38, and 39, offers essentially the same ebony or grenadilla thirteen-keyed, two-ring simple system clarinets but in less expensive models, apparently because their keywork is less sophisticated, as the illustrations suggest. This category is designated "Clarinettes Genre Français." Numbers 40 through 45 are yet less expensive boxwood models, "Clarinettes en Buis," and include twelve- and thirteen-keyed instruments with or without the right hand vent finger rings, as well as six- and eight-keyed models as ultra-budget-line clarinets.

The final group of soprano clarinets, models 46 through 53 (three of ebony and five of boxwood), is simply captioned "Clarinets," followed by the words in smaller type "Fabriquée specialement pour l'Espagne et les Colonies." It includes only thirteen-keyed clarinets with or without the two vent finger rings, none having the extra keywork as in Models 31-33. However, Model 50, the most expensive of the five boxwood choices, offers "3 rouleaux" (rollers for the little-finger key levers), which were apparently not available on any of the thirty-one other soprano clarinet models.

A curiosity is the matter of instruments "Fabriquées specialement pour l'Espagne et les Colonies." Which colonies? Based on the illustrations and price scheme, the instruments in that category were the cheaper ebony and boxwood models. The implication is that, like Spain, the colonized locations might require instruments made to adjust to hotter climates. However, ebony and boxwood are not necessarily ideal materials for instruments to be exported anywhere with the idea that they might be less prone to mechanical failure. One must wonder why the vulcanite (ebonite) instruments suitable for varied conditions are not offered in this category, although they are recommended for hot climates in the catalog's opening descriptive preface cited below.

The fact that the Martin Thibouville catalog designates instruments for export to "les Colonies" and displays the phrase "Commission Exportation" on the cover suggests that this firm was particularly interested in developing or specializing in export sales. That conclusion is further supported by the catalog's preface, which describes the company's roots, wares, awards, attractive prices, and so forth. In addition to the French original, the preface is translated into English, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. German is curiously absent. Does that suggest export aimed largely westward? One may wonder if the firm hopefully anticipated "Albert System " sales in the United States, where the term "Albert System" was relatively common. Who in 1890 Europe would likely have responded well to "Albert System" clarinet advertising when even the Albert factory in Brussels used the term only for a saxophone octave key mechanism?

The Martin Thibouville catalog is the earliest European sales catalog in the Miller Collection to advertise any clarinets as Albert System, and it raises more Albert questions than it is likely to answer. What did Martin Thibouville Ainé mean by "Système Albert" in 1890? Their eleven models so captioned are all pictured as having the wrap-around register key that opens on the front with the principal rank toneholes. None of their other similar thirteen-to-fifteen-keyed clarinets has that feature, according to the illustrations. Did that one key design justify the Albert designation at Martin Thibouville? It is doubtful that anybody then or today has used the term Albert System to refer to any specific keywork element.

In conclusion, despite this unusual early French example citing so-called Albert System clarinets, it is perhaps accurate to reaffirm that no such system by that name actually exists as a specific type having been devised by anybody named Albert. Any or all instruments casually identified as Albert System are simply various improved versions of Müller thirteen-keyed instruments of the early nineteenth century. In common parlance, the term "Albert System" has always included any nearly-obsolete modern non-Boehm system clarinets other than those very elaborate multikeyed Oehler and similar models still used by Germanic classical players.

American Memory | Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection