“Comparison of Two Early Louis Lebret Flutes”
In collecting vintage flutes or other rare objects, it is helpful to have a pair for comparison and validation. The center of this article rests on two silver plated Lebret flutes, #668 and #1038. My goal is to present these two flutes visually and offer comments that would be useful to another Lebret enthusiast.
Louis Leon Joseph Lebret was born in 1862 and started his own workshop when he was only 26. In his advertisement of 1902, he publicized that he had worked at the Louis Lot workshop. Considering that his employment at Louis Lot began ten years prior to opening his own firm, he would have apprenticed under Henri Villette, the second owner of the Lot workshop, when he was sixteen years old. By the time Lebret established his own business in 1888, Debonneetbeau, the third owner of the Lot workshop, would have been getting ready to retire and pass on his control to Barat in the early part of 1889. The possibility of Lebret becoming the successor of Debonneetbeau instead of Barat is not entirely unimaginable.
The location of Lebret’s establishment, 8 Avenue Parmentier, Paris, was only about 2 miles from the workshops of Louis Lot and Godfroy, yet closer still to Bonneville (1/2 mile) and Rive (1 mile). It would not be unreasonable to think that Lebret had hired away some workers from these other flute companies to work for him at the outset. 1888 was also the year the Godfroy line of flutemaking ended, a good opportunity for Lebret to absorb some of Godfroy’s workforce.
Lebret went on to become one of the suppliers of flutes to the conservatories in France, perhaps as early as 1893, the year I have estimated when #668 was made. The mark on #668 reads: L.L/LEBRET/PARIS/668/Feur des Conservatoires (Fournisseur des Conservatoires). Same for #1038 except the serial number is different (probably made in 1897). An earlier example, #526, which would have been made in 1892 has an entirely different logo: LEBRET/PARIS/526.
Including in Lebret’s advertisement of 1902 was his receiving a gold medal in 1897 and an official Registration of Design. The two accolades might be related and the words Modèle Déposé (Registered Design) were added to his logo on flutes as early as #1176 (probably made in 1898) and on all subsequent flutes.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) The two Lebret flutes here are of the typical configuration for teachers and students of the conservatories in France: open hole, inline, Bb shake, to low C. All French flutes of this period were made of seamed tubing, including the body and headjoint, rings, mechanical tubing and the tone holes. All other parts were forged, stamped, spun, or turned. Very little casting parts were used, if at all. Over the years Lebret drastically changed the design of his keywork, from the traditional French style, as shown here, perfected by Louis Lot, Bonneville, Rive, and Godfroy to the more striking look of what I call the Art Deco style keywork found on most later flutes. Around 1898, he also developed small pointed arms to install on all the open hole keys as depicted in his 1902 advertisement. I think the 1898 style soon gave way to the Art Deco style.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) The footjoint cluster is very beautiful. The teardrop D# key is flatter and wider than that of a first generation Louis Lot’s, but very similar to what Villette produced. It’s interesting that there is no inner ring on the footjoint box and only a guide instead of a post between the C and C# key on flute #1038.
A flat bar stock instead of a round rod serves as a bridge to connect the C key to the C roller. It is clearly visible here on #1038 (left). This design eliminates two “figure 8’s” supporting each side of the bridge and was incorporated in the later Art Deco models. This picture also shows another view of the guide post next to the curved cutout of the C key bridge. Quite elegantly done, #668 (right) has the traditional bridge made from a rod.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) Both headjoints are original and have not been shortened. The acoustic lengths are identical at 600 mm. They play very well at A=440. The scales are quite good. I will contribute an article detailing the scales of different French flutes to this web site.
(Top #1038, bottom #668) One readily recognizable feature of Lebret’s crown is a large raised inner circle. It resembles the top of a wooden cork assembly found on wooden flutes. Lebret also produced wooden flutes as indicated in his 1902 advertisement. The knurl design of these two crowns are very different, but the basic structure is the same. There is no identification mark anywhere on the two headjoints. Later flutes are marked on the lower back side of the lipplate: LEBRET PARIS.
(Top #1038, bottom #668) The embouchure of #668 measures 10.26 x 11.61 mm versus #1038’s 10.11 x 11.89 mm. The wall height of both is fairly low.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) Notice the thumb posts sit on very large round bases. I have seen an early Lebret flute with individual posts of the same style soldered directly on the body instead of using ribs. The hook trill guides on both flutes are quite stylish and clever. A trill bar would only make contact with the inside of a trill guide due to the direction of force asserted by the springs.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) The back connectors are nicely shaped.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) The earlier flute has narrower ribs and longer points.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) Two views of the Bb shake, with handsome contours. It is soldered along side the mechanical tubing instead of wrapping around it, much like how the G# lever is attached to the tubing.
(Top #668, bottom #1038) The headjoint guard rings of the two flutes are quite different. #668 is a very thin wall flute, the tubing thickness averages about 0.0125” – very unusual for a silver plated flute. Rings designed for the normal thicker wall flute would be too loose to fit on such a thin tube. Base metal (non-silver) rings of the correct inside diameter would have to be made for this flute. In France, the base metal of a silver plated flute is commonly referred to as maillechort, an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc. It’s relative density is 8.72 as compared to silver’s 10.49 – almost 20% lighter than silver. Silver plated French flutes of this period are routinely made in 0.016” - 0.018” tubing thickness. #1038 has the normal tubing thickness of about 0.016 and weighs 13.28 ounces (377 grams). It is a rather light flute. #668 weighs in even lighter at 12.97 ounces (368 grams).
(Left #1038, right #668) The bevels of the tone holes look entirely different. It is risky to make such a deep bevel (right), because the cutting tool would come very closed to the body and could cause damage.
This pair of Lebrets flutes are lovely to play, each has its charm, both possess the French sound. #668 may be a little darker than #1038 – an unexpected result seeing that it weighs less. It resembles many silver Villette flutes that I have played – dark, smooth, focused and with the right amount of resistance. The embouchure of #1038 is small, less than 0.400” measured front to back, yet it is very free blowing and has a brilliant rich sound. Lebret flutes don’t draw the same attention as the instruments of the other French makers. Perhaps it is because they are difficult to work on, especially the later model with the distinguished Art Deco keywork. However, once the flute is set up correctly, a Lebret is a joy to play.
Copyright © 2016 David Chu
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