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“The Curious Similarities Between the Flutes of Villette and Millereau”

…continued from “On Villette And Other Musings

It was odd that Villette’s new design of Louis Lot’s key work was abandoned soon after Debonneebeau took over the Louis Lot workshop. But the story did not end there. There was one other flute manufacturer which took Villette’s idea and made many fine flutes. It was the firm of Millereau.

Villette #2668, made in 1879 (top), Millereau, made between 1879 and 1911 (bottom)

 

Villette (top), Millereau (bottom)

In this article, I will describe the keywork of my Villette period Louis Lot flute #2668, made in 1879 and show how similar it is to my silver Millereau flute. This Millereau flute has been in my collection for over 25 years. On the body is the engraving of the logo and the rue d'Angouleme 66 address, with no serial number. This flute could have been made any time between 1879 and 1911. I would further limit the end point to before 1900 due to its seamed tube construction. Most French flutes switched from seamed tube to drawn tube around the turn of the 19th Century. The end point also corresponds to the death of  Millereau around 1898. Both my Millereau and Villette play with a robust, full body sound, and not that dissimilar to each other. They exemplify all the good qualities expected from a good French flute.

The whimsical do-mi-sol logo of Millereau, beautifully engraved on all three joints.

In 1861, François Millereau established his workshop to manufacture brass instruments. He began offering flutes in 1873 at rue de Trio Bornes 29. The firm moved in 1879 to rue d'Angouleme 66, and again in1911 to rue Gambey 15. The firm also published much music including Méthode complète de flûte by Henri Altès, flute professor of the Paris Conservatory from 1868-1893. In 1883, Altès awarded Millereau “a certificate of the most flattering for the Boehm flute he had tried.” (une attestation des plus flatteuses pour la flûte Boehm qu'il avait essayée.)

L'Orchestre de l'Opéra (1870) by Edgar Degas

Altès is the flute player in this painting. 

 

Louis Lot flute #1752 – a fine example of the definitive French flute design.

After making many changes from the original Boehm design, Godfroy and Louis Lot reached a final configuration of what we may think of nowadays as the French flutes. The key work is beautiful, elegant and functional. It has open holes and pointed arms. Two main sections of four inline key cups each, all hinged on the same side, and a small cup for the C# operated by a separate button shape touch form the main line. The back line consists of two trill keys, a sideways (longitudinal) thumb setup usually involving two long keys, and a single G# key for the closed G# models. On the footjoint are three sets of keys placed around a central hinged tubing. There are no adjustment screws.

Villette’s modification on the original Godfroy/Lot design started with rearranging the back connectors. They become the main visual cue of a Villette. (The word “Villette” is used here for both the flutes he made, and his person.) He changed the time-honored three-piece arrangement to a two-piece configuration. Villette’s execution and aesthetic of  his design are splendid. The end result is graceful, simple, unique and strong. Instead of using flat tabs, which provide large surfaces for affixing adjustment corks, Villette chose a ball and rod arrangement with an adjustment screw in the middle. The ball provides the thickness required  to accept several threads of the screw while a flat tab would not.

Back connectors, Villette

On a three-piece back connector, if one were to fit adjustment screws to two of the tabs, perfect alignment and symmetry would be difficult to achieve, and the screw heads become obtrusive. It just would not look right!

The New York maker Theodore Berteling (1855-1890) was very much interested in using adjustment screws on his flutes as well. In this example, they were added to the three-piece back connectors. In order to increase the thickness of the flat tabs to receive enough threads, Berteling soldered on round collars. They look like mindless add-ons, quick and dirty! The visual result is an unsatisfactory mishmash, there are just too many unrelated shapes in too small an area.

Berteling’s clumsy design.

The ball and rod arrangement on the Villette back connectors seems to repeat the motif of a post, but lying sideways. Millereau is the only flutemaker who used the exact same design. His post motif is further developed to include a small waist. And we will see that Millereau duplicated the entire “Villette system” on his own flutes.

Back connectors, Millereau

Perhaps the impetus of Villette’s modification was to incorporate adjustment screws to the mechanism. He accomplished the task with grace. His twenty plus years of working for Godfroy and Louis Lot gave him the aesthetic sense of what a flute should look like, and the mechanical know how to make the keys function properly. A full Villette system has six adjustment screws, one for each pair of keys. The only omission is the thumb Bb. Not all of Villette’s flutes have the full system. Later flutes do not have the C/C# adjustment screw, and many earlier flutes lack the A/Bb adjustment screw. Nevertheless, all the Millereau flutes that I have seen of this model and vintage have the full Villette system.

The full system of adjustment screws, starting from low to high, consists of six pairs of keys: C/C#, D/F#, E/F#, F/F#, F/Bb, A/Bb. Each pair has its own design challenge. Villette did not use a one-size-fit-all approach. He sought out the requirement of each screw, its function, accessibility, and the overall visual effect, and came up with the best solution for the circumstance. As a flutemaker, I can appreciate the arduous hours he spent on testing and making new keys. None of the adjusting screw looks like it is an afterthought, but an integral part of a key.

Villette’s C/C# adjustment screw on the footjoint was only used for a couple of years and then abandoned around 1880. This is probably Villette’s weakest design. The undefined area where the screw touches the bridge does not convey assurance. It would be better to have a designated flat area on the bridge to receive the adjustment. Bridges also tend to be long and can have some flex causing inaccuracies. For these reasons, Villette may have felt that the design was not up to his standard and abandoned it. On the other hand, Millereau retained the same design and used it for many more years.

Footjoint C# adjustment screw, Villette (top), Millereau (bottom)

Villette formed the pointed arms by hand from a square bar stock, then fitted and soldered them to the cups before bending and soldering again onto the hinged tubing. The adjustment screw is at the end of the pointed arm showing the cross section of the stock used. The execution on the Millereau shows a very high degree of  craftsmanship. Extra care was taken to round the square end to match the contour of the screw head - an added touch that is not found on Villette’s rendition.

Villette’s arrangement of the D/F# adjustment screw, as well as the working of the right hand section was a departure from the Godfroy/Lot tradition. The standard right hand section has two pinned lugs operating the D/F# and E/F# adjustments, the F/F# connection is via a back connectors. Villette used one pinned lug that is shaped like a “T” to connect both the D and E to the F#. A tab has to be added on the far side on the D hinged tubing in order to reach the lug. The F/F# connection is now on the top side via a tab that extends out from the F kicker, received by the F# with an added lug under the key. This lug also provides a place for the spring catch that is nearer to the post than before, promoting a shorter spring length. Now, all the springs on the right hand section are the same length which could make the job of regulation a bit easier. Millereau’s arrangement is exactly the same. Also notice on the Millereau, the key cups are small and the rings around the open holes are highly sculpted with circular ridges.

D/F# adjustment screw. Villette (top), Millereau (bottom)

The E/F# adjustment screw is accessible from under the hinged tubing. It is well hidden to avoid any unwanted action on the screw head. The E tail is also moved from the cup to a higher position, otherwise, it will block access to the screw. It is interesting that Villette also moved the tails of the D, G and A away from the back of their respective key cups. I wonder if his intention was to clear the view of the back of the cups for padding purposes. On the later Villettes, the same treatment was also applied to the low C on the footjoint. The repositioning of the tails was not accidental or a cost saving device. Millereau copied these details faithfully because he understood the real purposes behind them. One has to wonder if the flutemaker(s) who made Millereau’s flutes were the same people who worked at Villette’s workshop. Nonetheless, Millereau’s flutes have much of their own character and aesthetic due to the fact that their cups and touches are all their own. They also chose to use the old fashioned one-piece rib recipe while Villette pioneered the use of a separate trill rib. 

E/F# adjustment screw in the back of the lug. Villette (top), Millereau (bottom)

The F/F# adjustment screw/spring catch/back connector array is the crown jewel of Villetts’s achievement. By using a two-piece back connector and putting the F# adjustment on top, he avoided the need to reconcile the impossible task of awkwardly placing little screws on little tabs. He was now free to use any shape he wanted for the two parts that connect the F to the Bb. The adjustment screw is also well concealed and can not be disturbed easily. There is just enough room under the sculpted shake (Bb or B/C) for a slim screw driver to reach in and turn the screw head. This design is so unique that there is no mistaking anyone would come up with the same idea and exact details. Millereau must have worked closely with Villette or one of his workers, unless he just took apart a Villette and started meticulously duplicating the entire mechanism. 

F/F# adjustment screw under the shake. Villette (left), Millereau (right)

Villette #2668 does not have an A/Bb adjustment screw. The picture below is of a later Villette. It is not obvious why this screw was left out. Villette’s design of the right hand section is so logical and complete that it was odd that he would stop short of adding just one more screw and have a complete system of adjustment screws for the main line. Perhaps the omission hints at the fact that the modifications were developed in stages. Again, the A tail was moved to provide access to the screw head.

A/Bb adjustment screw. Villette (top), Millereau (bottom)

Millereau’s execution of the A/Bb adjustment screw is identical to that of Villette’s. However, he made one small unrelated change in the same area. He placed the pin on the lug instead of on the Bb pointed arm. Millereau flutes made before 1879 also share the same practice.

Pin positions, Villette (top), Millereau (bottom)

The last feature that Villette and Millereau shared is an odd shape D# touch. It looks like a traditional tear drop with a straight lower side. It is not a pleasing shape. Villette might have found some benefit in it, perhaps he felt it was easier to manipulate the pinky cluster. This shape was only used for a couple of years before he replaced it with a wider, flatter (less dome) tear drop shape D# touch. Most Villette flutes have the later version. It seems that the lopped off version is more common on Millereau flutes of this period.

D# touch on footjoint. Villette (top), Millereau (bottom)

 

It is unclear why Millereau modeled his flute after Villette’s 1877-79 flutes when the firm already produced flutes of excellent quality. Their first period flutes from before 1879 do not share the key style with their later ones. They resemble Godfroy and first generation Louis Lot flutes. Millereau was familiar with the work of these two master makers as he bought a wood piccolo from Louis Lot as early as 1864 for 100 francs. The list price was 120 francs at the time. The discounted price suggests a certain relationship existed between the two firms. Millereau might have bought it for resale, personal use, or study. There could be other transactions after 1864, but the record books from about 1865 to 1886 were lost. This time span covers the second half of Louis Lot’s career, all of the Villette period, and most of Debonneetbeau’s tenure.      

 

Louis Lot’s entry of Millereau’s purchase of a piccolo in 1864

 

The Millereau wood flute pictured here has the rue de Trio Bornes 29 address, showing that it was produced between 1873 and 1879. It plays very well and the craftsmanship is on the same level as that of Godfroy’s and Louis Lot’s. Millereau’s first period flutes were contemporaries of the well developed first generation Louis Lot and Godfroy flutes. They shared the same aesthetics and elegant sound quality. 

 

Wood Millereau, made between 1873 and 1879

At some point after 1879, Millereau changed his design to take advantage of the Villette system. Without serial numbers, it is impossible to say when exactly the first model was introduced. I have not seen any metal flutes from the rue d'Angouleme 66 period that bear a resemblance to their pre-1879 flutes. 1879 may be the pivotal year when Millereau adapted the full Villette system, while Villette moved on to eliminate the odd shape D# and footjoint adjustment screw. It is plausible that a close relationship existed between Villette or his worker(s) and Millereau around 1879. Knowledge was transferred from Villette to Millereau and not the other way around for one can trace the developmental stages of Villette’s flutes, while Millereau’s flutes are all end stage products. There may exist other situations of how the two flutemakers were linked. I have been curious about this Millereau since the first day I acquired it. As I am an admirer of Villette’s work, it would be irrational for me not to seek out Millereau’s stories fervently and let my imagination run wild. I will remain skeptical until new evidence comes to light.    

by David Chu,  2020, Maynard, Massachusetts

 

Copyright © 2020 David Chu


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