“On Villette And Other Musings”
The Louis Lot shop operated from 1855 to 1951 under six different individual owners. H.D. Villette was the second after Louis Lot, followed by Debonneebeau, Barat, E. Chambile and his daughter G. Chambile. Villette became the shop owner in 1876 and retired after just six years. Previously, he worked for Godfroy as a key maker. He became the foreman of Louis Lot in 1855 where he worked for 20 years. Flutes produced during the Villette period were different than what came before and after. Some of these differences are quantitative and can be seen or measured easily, some are more subjective as in how the flutes sound and feel to the player.
The beginning of the third quarter of the 19th Century was fertile ground for flute makers. Louis Lot’s exclusive license to make Boehm flutes in France had expired. Bonneville and Rive established their workshops in 1876 and 1877 respectively. Godfroy’s widow was still active and continued to produce a small number of exquisite wood and metal flutes until 1888. Bonneville and Rive both worked for Godfroy before they struck out on their own. Their early instruments were very fine flutes indeed. For twenty years, Louis Lot and Godfroy would have trained a select few workers who were able to produce fine flutes under the directions of the established and nouveau shop owners.
Very little information is available about Villette or his workshop. He produced a total of about 1,000 silver and wood flutes in 6 years, averaging about 90-100 silver flutes, plus a steady 68 cylindrical and conical wood flutes per year. His yearly production was at least 40 flutes more than Louis Lot’s best years. The production numbers were fairly consistent through the end of Debonneebeau’s tenure (1882-1889). During Barat’s period (1889-1904), the average yearly production of silver flutes was down about 10-15%.
Villette made many changes when he took charge of the Louis Lot workshop. The motivation behind these changes are unknown to us, but they were bold and fascinating. Before 1877, Boehm system silver and wood Louis Lot flutes were numbered consecutively in one series. Beginning in 1877 even numbers were assigned to silver flutes and odd to wood flutes. The previously rolled Louis Lot stamp on the body was replaced by the same hand-engraved logo found on the headjoint, but the serial number was omitted. Many first generation Louis Lot flutes have worn stamps on the body, some are barely visible, because the impression of the rolled stamp was quite shallow. The omission of serial numbers and discontinuation of the rolled stamp on the body probably occurred in 1877 or 1878.
Villette’s keywork was quite distinct. The two most obvious features were the addition of adjusting screws and the execution of the back connector (clutch).
Elegant small back connector on 1st generation Lot
Unique Villette clutch
There were five adjusting screws on the mainline keywork and occasionally, one for the C/C# adjustment on the footjoint. The C/C# adjustment screw rested on the bridge of the mechanism which was not an original Boehm design. Boehm used two pins to connect the C# key and its lever while the later pinless mechanism used a bridge to connect the C key to its roller. All the 1st generation Louis Lot flutes shared Boehm’s pinned setup.
First generation Lot pinned footjoint
Villette pinless footjoint with adjusting screw
It was unclear why Villette preferred the pinless footjoint mechanism. Bonneville, Rive and Godfroy flutes of this period used the pinned mechanism. There was never a need to line up more than two posts at a time on the entire flute until the invention of the pinless footjoint. In order for the new mechanism to work properly, all four posts in the footjoint needed to line up perfectly – a task that was time consuming and required much skill. It was easier to support a section of keywork between two pivots where the relative position of the two posts was not as critical. Villette must have looked forward to the implementation of his new features on the 20-year old Louis Lot design. Making any change on a flute was not a trivial matter – tools and dies had to be made, trials might not be successful, new procedures and scheduling were involved, and above all, the uncertain outcome could be unsettling and devastating especially when it concerned the acoustics of the flute. Villette was likely contemplating these changes for some time. Most of the changes were made during his first year of ownership.
Some other modifications including the use of a separate trill rib instead of a one-piece rib, advent of hallmarks, slightly different shaping of the touches, reconfiguration of the right-hand section – from a three-lug system to a single lug setup, relocation of the G tail, and the use of slightly thicker seamed tubing.
I enjoy flutes from the Villette period and find them to be robust both in construction and sound. They are easy to play and have good response, perhaps owing to a slightly deeper embouchure wall. It is less intimate than some of the 1st generation Lots and the scale tends to be slightly longer, as the “normal” pitch at this time was A=435. Many Villette flutes I have played have an internal scale of A=438. They are certainly not as low as advertised. The sonority of Villette’s silver flutes is dark, rich, and very colorful. The tin flutes are not overly bright. There is enough resistance which allows for good dynamic control and smooth color changes. Wood flutes are much more scarce. As with any vintage wood flute, they are very difficult to assess as the wood tends to change over the years.
Villette flutes are seldom on the market due to a small supply. He made less than 600 metal flutes. The number of surviving flutes is anyone’s guess. The prices of Villette flutes are usually at a premium. But they are truly delightful to play, exquisitely beautiful and historically significant.
by David Chu, 2015, Maynard, Massachusetts
Copyright © 2015 David Chu
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