American Memory | Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection

Meyer-Albert: Systematic Misnomers

Museums occasionally receive inquiries about the discovery of yet another late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century simple system conical bore flute. Its archaic design may lead the discoverer to assume that it is quite old and valuable, a hope that may be further raised if the instrument still has its quaint period carrying case. Many such flutes are unmarked or marked with a trade name that does not indicate the actual manufacturer. If the flute is marked, it is often designated "NACH / H. F. MEYER / HANNOVER." In many cases such instruments are as good as or better than the prototype instruments from the apparently highly esteemed Heinrich Friedrich Meyer factory in Hannover, Germany. Such Meyer and "nach Meyer" instruments were merely late versions of simple system flutes made all over Europe throughout the nineteenth century, but they became very popular with amateur players and even a few professionals.

The Meyer name and flutes ("Meyerflöte") became so famous that such simple system instruments were often incorrectly referred to as being of the "Meyer System," which does not exist. As a prime example, 1890s issues of C. G. Conn's Truth (an advertising circular) offer the factory's simple system "Wonder Concert Flute" as a "Meyer System" instrument, and it thus appears that the Meyer name was expected to help sales in the United States well before 1900. Apparently seeking to share in any late-nineteenth-century flute sales that the Meyer name might generate, J. B. Claus of Boston began importing a standard conical Boehm system ring key instrument of the period and offering it on the American market as the "Meyer-Boehm" flute. Dayton Miller received this advertising circular from J. B. Claus around 1890.

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J. B. Claus
Advertising circular, 1890

It is interesting to imagine how Theobald Boehm (1793-1881) might have reacted to this 1890s name-dropping approach to marketing. Meyer-Boehm poses an entertaining oxymoron in that the progressive Boehm establishment had ceased to manufacture or encourage the use of conical bore flutes of any key system by the middle of the century.

The Miller Collection contains ten simple system flutes marked either H. F. MEYER or NACH H. F. MEYER, and the collection has numerous similar instruments that former owners may have considered to be "Meyer" flutes. Such flutes stayed in production as the archaic economy model for a curiously long time. The 1925 catalog from Lyon & Healy in Chicago, for example, still includes simple system conical bore flutes and piccolos along with the most modern Boehm system models of the period. In fact, the Lyon & Healy 1925 catalog even includes the simplest kind of simple system flute, a one-keyed model. Among the flute-related ephemera collected by Miller are several copies of a 1915 cartoon that lampoons the use of simple system flutes when the Boehm system instruments were so readily available. It depicts a frazzled gentleman struggling to play a simple system flute (complete with an embouchure mouthpiece clamped to the head joint) and bears the following text:

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"Breathes there a man
with a soul so low
who in preference to a Boehm
a Meyer would blow?

An answer to that question is that the simple system instruments can sound quite beautiful. Like any early instrument, they are ideal for music written in eras when composers and instrumentalists knew them as the only models available and therefore skillfully employed them to the best advantage. Currently, Irish folk- and dance-band musicians still favor simple system conical bore flutes, particularly nineteenth-century English instruments, originals or replicas, which usually produce more sound in the low register than the Meyer and similar German models of the late nineteenth century.

Is there an Albert System?

A similar misnomer concerns the simple system clarinet of the same period. Non-Boehm system clarinets having thirteen or more keys including two or four finger rings were made in the thousands by many factories in Europe and America, including Eugène Albert of Brussels. Albert became so famous for good-quality simple system clarinets that the term "Albert system" became common although it does not describe a system unique to Albert's instruments. Apparently the term came into use in the United States well before 1900, and again the Miller Collection library provides some examples in the form of instrument-manufacturer catalogs. C. G. Conn advertising circulars and catalogs in the 1890s refer to all the company's simple system clarinets as "Albert system."

However, at that time, such terminology seems not to have spread to Europe and certainly was not used at the Albert factory. Miller's copy of the June 1895 Albert catalog offers numerous simple system clarinets labeled "système 13 clefs" (thirteen keys), "système 15 clefs," and so on, with no mention of a "système Albert" for clarinets. Other individuals are credited in the Albert catalog for parts of a key system. For example, the two left-hand finger rings ("les deux anneaux à la main gauche") are called "système Barrett," and "la double clé de la [natural] et la double clé d'ut#" is called "système Chappell." Several models display either one or both devices. The catalog's only reference to a full fingering system for clarinets is the "système Boehm," and its only reference to a "système E. Albert" pertains to a patented octave key mechanism for saxophones.

A similar Miller catalog from Millereau, H. Schoenaers, Succ.r, Paris, ca. 1903, page 7, strongly advocates their "système Boehm" clarinets (six of ten models.) Their simple system clarinets (none with more than thirteen keys and two finger rings) are all termed "système ordinaire" (models 7 through 10) with no mention of système Albert applying to anything.

A ca. 1900 catalog in the Miller Collection from Alfred Hays, a London dealer for the Paris maker Buffet-Crampon, Evette & Schaeffer, lists a large variety of simple system "clarionets" by just the number of keys, such as "Clarionet, 16 keys" with diverse extras such as "Barrett system" and the second (upper) pair of finger rings. There is no mention of an Albert system. However, a later Buffet (Paris) catalog, dated September 1925, designates all simple system clarinets as (1) "Clarinettes modèle spècial," (2) "Clarinettes système 'Albert,'" and (3) Clarinettes Françaises." The 1925 catalog of the Chicago firm Lyon & Healy designates all simple system clarinets as "Albert system." Today, any clarinetist, such as a traditional jazz musician, playing an instrument of this kind will likely still refer to it as an "Albert system" instrument, so strong is the persistence of the traditional nomenclature.

American Memory | Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection