A flute by Bernard Lee, part 2

This page continues the story, begun here, of the old flute I received in December 2008. It was, as I said there, dilapidated but obviously far older than most of the old woodwind instruments we come across in Australia – or anywhere else, I suspect. This page focuses on the flute, then its maker – click here to jump to the maker’s section.

The Flute

Lee flute after cleaning
The Lee flute after cleaning

Condition and Repairs

When got the flute I saw a gaping crack the whole length of the head joint, and when I started cleaning it I found hairline cracks in the barrel, the lower body joint and the foot joint, all starting at the sockets as usual. The lower-body and foot joints were stuck together but came apart easily when I flexed the joint slightly to crack the deposits holding them together, and the thread was in the best condition by far. There were no problems getting the slide open, and the head cork slipped out very easily. As on the piccolo, it had been screwed right up, with the cork as high up the bore as it could go (that’s what happens when non-players fiddle with the cap and ‘tighten it up because it feels loose’!). The cap was lightly stuck to the screw stem but moved easily enough when unstuck.

I wrapped a bit of paper round the stopper cork and put it in the orthodox spot, and closed the C’ and Bb’ key holes with scraps of high density foam to be able to play G# – C#’ reasonably well. Big surprise – and disappointment: they were closest to being in tune at A466, i.e. a semitone above modern pitch.

Then I removed and cleaned the keys, cleaned and oiled the body, rethreaded the two middle joint tenons, and put it all back together, replacing all the pads as I went. The only keys not functioning at all are the two F keys. The long F is broken where the rivet for the spring pierced it, so it’s unsprung (apart from a rubber band!) and unreachable. The spring of the short F is simply missing. Also, the key itself is lop-sided as though half the touch has been broken off, though it looks like it has been that way for much longer than the spring has been broken.

The flute shows evidence of a long working life. Finger holes are worn, and during repairs I was able to see that several of the key-springs have been replaced at different times (repairers have used different metals) and the axle of the D# key has worn down very thin.

Measurements and tuning

With the flute in that state a fortnight after I got it, the flute played well within the limits set by the still-leaky pads. The octaves off B, A, G and E were in tune at about A=460 with flute pulled out 2 mm and head cork button just level with its cap.

Having done that, I looked again at Terry McGee’s site (http://www.mcgee-flutes.com/flutelengths.htm) and measured the flute according to his scheme:

According to that, the flute was designed for about A425 – 430, to be played pulled out a long way at the slide. That worked perfectly when I tried it: pulling out 22 mm gave me A440 (in Townsville summer temperatures – it would be lower at English temperatures) and still in tune with itself – and a very big smile: I can play it with modern instruments! THANK YOU, Terry!

Coincidentally or not, that extension is about the limit of the silver outer sleeve on the slide – any further and it looks ugly.

Following another hint on his site (about Irish players playing turned well in and blowing hard) improved the internal tuning of the lower register – the B and A which had been far too sharp came down nicely. Rick Wilson (http://www.oldflutes.com/english.htm) had a bit more to contribute on that subject:

The large-holed English flutes can be very difficult to handle. Intonation is weird. The low d’ is often very flat, while the a’ and b’ are sharp. The e”’ and e”’b can be flat. Often bore shrinkage exacerbates the problems, but these symptoms seem to be part of the design. The correct method of blowing can help. They seem to require a tight embouchure with the lips above but close to the outer edge, and like to be played “on the edge”, where notes, especially the lower octave notes, are about to overblow into higher harmonics. Then the tuning seems better, and the tone is wonderfully rich. No other type of flute can sound like this. But to keep this up for long takes a lot of strength. Nicholson could do it, but some of the rest of us have trouble.

The Lee flute is by no means as extreme in its design or behaviour as the Nicholson models Rick is talking about, but is clearly heading in that direction and responds well to similar changes to playing style. This whole issue is still leading-edge research into old flutes, so I’ll leave my comments at that. For more, immerse yourself in the sites I have already referred to.

Back to the flute in question: I was able to go quite quickly from playing notes to playing tunes, and then from slow pentatonic airs to waltzes to polkas … there seemed no limit so I found the appropriate fingering chart and checked the high notes. I got all the way to high G# fairly easily and might have gone higher except that the F keys, needed for some of the highest notes, are both non-functional. It’s a lovely flute to play – incredibly responsive – but needs some expert attention to the cracks if it is going to be robust enough for regular work, and it would be nice to have an F natural. That’s its current state; more news when it changes.

  • Update, 2021: I sent it to Terry for renovations in 2012 and he did an excellent job. I played it quite often for a while, and it was lovely, but have neglected it since the break-up of the group I played it with.

Bernard Lee, Flutemaker

The flute is stamped…

B LEE & Co

… just below the top tenon of the upper body joint; again, fainter, on the lower body joint but without the middle line of text; and once more, fainter still, at the bottom of the foot joint, again without the middle line.

When I got it, that was all the information I had. I did not recognise the name and my first efforts to find out about Lee on the internet were fruitless so I emailed a query to Terry McGee, whose work on early flutes I knew.

Terry’s reply was, ‘Bernard Lee, Old Bond St, listed as “Flute Mfr”, author of flute and flageolet tutors, in Nassau St, Soho after 1838 to post 1842. It’s not known when he was at the New Bond St address. Author of “New Flute Tutor” but a search of British libraries doesn’t yield any extant copies. One 8-key flute noted in a private collection,’ and a suggestion that the flute was ‘probably cocus wood (from Jamaica or Cuba).’

With the Christian name I was able to find more:

(1) As a maker

From the blog of Bev Whelan (UK)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007 A trip to visit flute maker Fred Rose

Yesterday … I headed over to Nelson in East Lancashire, where I spent an hour with the flute maker Fred Rose (http://www.fredrose.co.uk/), who did some renovation work on my old flute. Fred makes top class whistles, as well as high quality keyless flutes. …

The flute Fred fixed up for me was made by B. Lee, 17 Old Bond Street, London, between 1839 – 1841. Bernard Lee reputedly learned his craft at Rudall and Rose, before setting up his own business. He only made flutes under his own name for three years, so it is a pretty rare instrument, and much along the lines as a Rudall in design and quality. A very nice flute indeed. …

Monday, March 12, 2007 Workshop Session – The Unicorn, Preston

After the workshop concluded there was a session in the bar, which went on until after 7.00 pm. … I played my renovated B. Lee flute at the session and wow, Fred Rose did a fabulous job. I hadn’t played it properly for more than five years, and I’d forgotten what a fabulous instrument it is.

(2) As a composer

I found some music by Lee republished by Jacob Head on his flageolet site and got in touch. Jacob was not able to tell me much about Lee, saying, ‘as far as I am aware he is not one of the major English flageolet makers (such as Bainbridge, Simpson or Hastrick) and [I] have never come across an instrument by him,’ but did steer me towards the British Library catalogue for details of Lee’s other publications.

The British Library listed:

  • Three Concertante Duets for two flutes, Op. 1 [1818]
  • Dear Harp of Sweet Erin, Ballad … written by Miss Chapman [WM 1819]
  • A Choice Collection of Twenty Airs for the Single and Double Flageolet [1821?] (republished online by Jacob at http://www.flageolets.com/music/20airs/)
  • Divertimento for the Flute [wm 1827]
  • A Complete Preceptor for the Quadrille Flageolet [1833]
  • A Fantasia for the Flute, with an accompaniment for the Pianoforte. [1835?]
  • The National Waltz, arranged with variations for the Flute and an accompaniment for the Pianoforte. [1835?]

Google found me two more publications:

The Pupular [sic] Sicilian Air, Home! Sweet Home! Arranged with Variations for the Flute, with an Accompaniment for the Piano Forte, By Bernard Lee. Sold by Clementi § Co [from http://scrc.swem.wm.edu/findingaids/Music_Volume_Index_d.pdf which seems to be the table of contents of a collection dated 1821.]

Lee, Bernard, New Flute Tutor. Bernard Lee’s Edition of Wragg Improved, London: S. Nelson (late Mori & Lavenu) [1840] [from http://www.flutehistory.com/Resources/Lists/Flute.methods.php3. This is presumably the tutor Terry McGee mentioned.]

That seems to be all that I am going to find from this distance but it is enough to put together a credible sketch of his life:

Bernard Lee – a Speculative Biography

His music, all for flute or flageolet and almost all consisting of arrangements and tutors, was published in London from 1818 (and perhaps a little earlier) to 1840 (and perhaps a little later) with no gap longer than six years. This low but focused productivity over a long span suggests quite strongly that Lee was a player of both instruments and was professionally involved in music in some capacity other than composing. He could have been a maker (as we know he was in later life), a teacher and/or a player, but anyone who was primarily a composer or arranger would have left more music and in a wider range of genres.

According to Bev Whelan, he learned flute-making at Rudall and Rose (founded 1821) and made flutes under his own name for just a few years around 1840. Terry McGee confirms the latter, though the two don’t agree on details.

If Bernard Lee was born about 1790-95 he could have made a big enough name as a performer by his late twenties for publishers to risk a little money on his music. We know he had encountered Clementi & Co, one of the well-known flute makers, by 1821 since they published his music in that year. He is likely also to have come across Rudall and Rose and may well have worked for them. In his forties he seems to have struck out on his own as a maker but that can’t have lasted long or we would have had more surviving instruments. We don’t hear of him at all after about 1842, so perhaps his health failed, which wouldn’t be unusual at that age in that period, or his business failed and he went back to working for someone else.


The skills needed for making flutes and flageolets are so similar that one might have expected most makers to produce both but that seems not to have happened, at least at amongst the makers proud enough of their work to put their name to it.

Jacob’s short list of prominent flageolet makers (above) does not overlap at all with Terry’s list of prominent flute makers and his opinion is that:

“… we can say with a fair degree of accuracy that none of the makers who were instrumental in the developments of the flute in the late 18th to early 19th Centuries were also involved in the developments of the English flageolet in the same period. Whether the makers who were not so concerned with developing instruments but just making them produced both flutes and flageolets is harder to say. My impression is that they must have done so (especially in the lower-value categories).” (Email, Jan 2009)

A search of his flageolet makers’ names in DCM backs that up, locating just one flute (by Simpson) and a few flute/flageolets amongst twenty-odd flageolets. (A flute/flageolet is a single body supplied with both flute-style and whistle-style heads. Most were at piccolo size, although there is one at flute size by Bainbridge.) Complementarily, the DCM collection has one flageolet with seven flutes by Thomas Prowse (active 1832 – 68), the only flute-maker I recognised amongst the makers of flageolets held there.

It is therefore not terribly likely that Lee made flageolets as well as flutes, even though he probably played both.

Knowledge replaces speculation

I sent a note about this page to the ‘Earlyflute’ discussion list and promptly learned more about Lee from Robert Bigio:

In my book Readings in the History of the Flute there is an engraving on page 64, possibly of Bernard Lee himself, from his New Flute Tutor of the 1830s.

Lee was most unlikely to have been a maker. It was common enough for flute teachers to have flutes made and stamped with their names. Drouet did this, as did George Rudall and Thomas Lindsay.

Bernard Lee was a member of the Royal Society of Musicians, whose list of members says he was born on 17 April 1784 and died on 23 December 1860. (The Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain List of Members 1738-1984, compiled by Betty Matthews, published by the RSM in 1985.) Lee joined the RSM on 4 January 1829. His entry reads, ‘Has practis’d Music as a Profession for upwards of Seven Years. Performs on the Flute, Violin and Tenor – has considerable Teaching on the above Instruments’. …

So: Lee was a teacher and performer who had flutes made under his own name, presumably with sales to his students in mind. That certainly fits better with his compositional activity than does regular work as a maker.

I no longer know who made my flute, of course, but it is none the worse for that – and it is good to be aware of the limits of one’s knowledge.

31 December 2008
to 17 February 2009