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“Exploring Contrasts: Two Villette Wood Flutes Under the Microscope”

Wood Louis Lot flutes in excellent playing condition are the gems of the flute world. They are light, responsive, well designed, beautifully crafted, and, above all, have gorgeous tones. In this article, I aim to showcase two Louis Lots that were made within the close timeframe of two months in 1882 during Villette’s ownership. My goal is to identify their similarities and differences, providing insight into the working methods and philosophy of the shop during this brief period, and to understand the reasons behind their unique characteristics. While some technical details mentioned here may cater more to flutemakers, collectors, or researchers, I believe they are engaging enough to spark interest in general discussions.

(Top #2975, bottom #2957)

(Top #2957, bottom #2975)

The two flutes under the microscope are Louis Lot #2957 and #2975, wood cylindrical flutes with Maillechort keys, open holes, inline G, and a C-foot. They belong to the collection of Phil Unger and the author. They are both Model #3 in Louis Lot’s catalogue with a list price of 350 francs:

            "Flûte en bois de Grenadille ou Ebène, garniture et mécanisme en Maillechort, a patte d'Ut"

In 1882, Villette produced about 110 metal flutes and 65 wood flutes, which included both Boehm cylindrical and ring-key conical models. To achieve an annual production of 175 instruments, the workshop would likely have needed a workforce of 13 to 15 employees. The output of first-generation Louis Lot instruments never surpassed 125 units in a single year. The 40 percent increase in Villette's production aligned with the consistent economic growth of France in the latter half of the 19th century. Despite this growth, the prices of their flutes remained unchanged from 1870 to the early 1900s.

(Top #2957, bottom #2975)

When placed next to each other, the two wood Louis Lot flutes display a striking difference in color. Today, we generally refer to this wood as cocuswood (Brya ebenus). However, they are clearly not the same species. Louis Lot called this wood Ebène, often mistranslated as Ebony (Diospyros crassiflora). As time passes, cocuswood darkens and eventually resembles grenadilla. However, aged grenadilla typically appears almost entirely black without visible stripes. While some grenadilla may exhibit brown stripes when freshly sanded, exposure to oil and sunlight results in a uniform black color. One distinguishing feature between aged cocuswood and grenadilla is that cocuswood tends to have a smoother grain and a subtle hint of brownness.

(Top #2975, bottom #2957)

Lot #2957, weighing 343 grams, is much lighter than #2975, which weighs 434 grams. This suggests that the lighter color brown wood has a lower density since the key material, body dimensions, and specifications are basically the same for both flutes. In general, I find the wood quality of Louis Lot instruments appears less refined than that of the English maker Rudall (Rose) Carte. Pieces with knots and wavy grains are rarely found on the English maker's instruments, and single-body one-piece flutes are not uncommon. It’s remarkable that these long pieces of wood are usually flawless. It seems that these choice pieces of wood were not available to the French, possibly due to geo-political circumstances.

When it comes to the finish of French wood flutes, a high gloss French polish is usually applied to the exterior. However, this finish is typically not present in the tone hole cutouts. It is likely that the tone holes were cut after the finish was applied and set. The cutting tool used must be sharp, as a dull cutter that overheats can damage the finish and create unsightly marks. It is very difficult to recreate the original finish in a restoration project. Both our flutes have lost their French polish finish over time. Only a small amount of the original finish is still visible under the G# lever.

(Top #2957, bottom #2975)

All Louis Lot flutes are functional artworks and one may be slightly different than another due to the unique signature of each individual worker. The D# keys on our flutes take on rather different shapes, one is longer, and the other more broad like most of the Villette period flutes. The tails of the low C key are also in different positions.

Villette's workshop probably employed some form of labor division to manufacture 175 flutes annually. One of the departments was key making. We know that Rive and Bonneville were key makers for Godfroy, and no doubt that Louis Lot would operate in a similar way as Godfroy. Consequently, bodies, whether wood or metal, were likely crafted by a separate unit, which may or may not include parts manufacturing and a small machine shop. Finishing (padding) would have been carried out in yet another area. Villette's consistent headjoints could potentially be the work of a single headjoint maker, with Villette himself being a probable candidate for this role.

(Top #2957, bottom #2975)

(Top #2957, bottom #2975)

The two wooden bodies closely resemble each other, exhibiting excellent craftsmanship and precision. The tone hole cutting tools create clean cuts with no chatter or tear-out. Given Louis Lot's lineage of skilled wood turners, the superb quality of the work is expected. The only distinction between these two bodies lies in the positioning of a single rib screw. On one flute, the screw is located at the right side of the spring post, while on the other flute; it is at the left side.

(Left #2975, right #2957)

Several other irregularities can be observed on the bodies as well. The tenon sleeve wraparounds vary in length. Crafting this part requires significant skill. The barrel sleeve is placed into the body, and the metal is spun around to create a J-channel above the joint. This delicate process, once completed on the flute, is irreversible, as any error made would be permanent. Collar rings are the same.

(Top #2975, bottom #2957)

The body tenon that fits into the footjoint typically features a thin ring on the shoulder. However, this ring was omitted in #2957.

 

(Left #2957, right #2975)

On #2957, the adjustment screw is harder to reach due to the B/C shake obstructing access. Conversely, in #2975, there is adequate space for the screwdriver blade to navigate between obstacles and reach the screw head. The shakes on the two flutes vary in form and position. These minor discrepancies could indicate that workers had some flexibility in their craftsmanship rather than rigidly adhering to a standard code or template. I do not view them as errors, but rather as unique variations.

(Top #2957, bottom #2975)

Louis Lot and Godfroy flutes come in 4 main configurations based on key cup sizes:

(1) Small mainline, small footjoint
(2) Small mainline, large footjoint
(3) Small left hand, regular size right hand, large footjoint
(4) Regular size mainline, large footjoint

Modern Boston handmade flutes use regular size cups for the mainline keys. The cup fits a 17.5 mm pad. Since the tone hole sizes are graduated in 3 sizes, it would make most sense to have cups in 3 different sizes, for both practical and aesthetic reasons. For 19th century French flutes, when the entire mainline keys are small, the tone holes are also not graduated (same size for left and right hand).

 (Top #2957, bottom #2975)

The main distinction between our two examples lies in their right hand tone hole and cup sizes. #2957 features small keys for the mainline, whereas #2975 has small left hand keys and regular size right hand keys. This does affect the playing characteristics. In general, a larger cup results in a more open and powerful tone, particularly in the low register. However, it can lead to harmonic venting issues in the 3rd register, where a smaller vent is preferred. Since there are no large holes in the left hand, this negative effect does not exist. The modern Cooper Orchestral model flutes are based on this principle. Cooper designed plateau left hand cups to reduce 3rd register venting, and French cups for the right hand to maximize venting.

(Top #2975, bottom #2957)

Visually, the size difference is more pronounced with the keys turned over.

(Top #2975, bottom #2957)

The embouchure holes of Louis Lot's wood flutes don't deviate much in their shape. They are always ovals. In contrast, the oval design was never incorporated in their metal flutes and vise versa, the rounded corner hole was only used on their metal headjoints and never found on their wooden siblings. (See article on embouchure design) The oval hole gives a mellower, woodier, as well as a reedier sound. The rounded corner hole produces a more metallic and brighter tone. Louis Lot designed these flutes with distinct characteristics to cater to different musical preferences and requirements, rather than aiming to create a universal flute that fits all purposes. This distinction is more pronounced than what is commonly encountered in today’s modern instruments.

The wall height is determined by the outside diameter of a headjoint. Most Louis Lot and Godfroy flutes have a relatively small outside diameter of about 1.040", resulting in a wall height of about 0.180", which would be considered low. Lipplates, which could control the height and outside curvature of the blowing area, were never implemented on their wood flutes. There is never any overcut or undercut on Louis Lot headjoints. The magic of the sound is in the overall geometry/curvature of the inside. The approach is comprehensive and the result could not be easily reverse-engineered.

  

(Left #2957, right #2975)

The distinctive Villette clutch (back connector) was utilized for just 6 years during Louis Lot's 96 years of uninterrupted flute production. It stands out as the most identifiable key design associated with a Villette period flute. These subtle details reveal the artistic aspect of the company, highlighting its dedication and commitment to providing customers with more rather than less.

      

      

      

The back connectors on 1st generation Louis Lot flutes (above) exhibit a wide range of shapes. It appears that the key makers had considerable freedom in determining how to craft the three pieces and integrate them harmoniously. At least four distinct configurations can be identified. Three or more key makers were likely employed at the workshop at the same time, each with their unique working methods and artistic styles. Louis Lot seemed to permit and perhaps even encourage these variations. In contrast, Villette's revision of his master's keywork led to uniformity.

  

(Left #2957, right #2975)

A look at the thumb setup: The posts are screwed directly onto the body instead of being soldered onto ribs. This production method is borrowed from ordinary flutes - simple and effective. Villette's flutes are distinguished by their exceptional quality and consistency.

(Left #2975, right #2957)

The same worker makes the points on both trill ribs, evident in the consistent asymmetrical angle. Achieving perfect symmetry in handwork is nearly impossible, as each side typically displays its unique characteristics. The rib screws and their installation do look different enough to suggest they were the work of different body makers or were part of later repairs.

(Top #2957,bottomt #2975)

The intricate keywork of these flutes is truly remarkable, resembling works of art. Meeting again after over 140 years, #2975 displays heavily worn French cups, while #2957 appears almost new. The unique journey each flute has taken is evident in its current condition, reflecting the places they have been and the musicians they have served, although their specific histories remain unknown. Unlike renowned violins, flutes often lack documented records of their previous owners, yet we value them for what they are.

Playing both flutes side by side is a delightful experience. They offer a similar feel and sound. The tone quality is exquisite and intimate, not overly loud but possesses a strong presence, rich in colors, and distinctly woody. The key descriptor is warm. #2975 is a little freer and more open in the low register, likely due to the larger right hand tone holes. #2957 feels more even because of the equal sized mainline tone holes. The lightness of #2957 is uncanny. It weighs less than most silver Louis Lot flutes. Both flutes require a good embouchure to produce their potential tone, benefiting from a relaxed approach. Articulation is delicate and fast. Baroque tonguing is especially fluid. Interestingly, the difference in weight does not significantly change the responsiveness or sound of each flute. They still feel like Louis Lot, embodying the defining characteristics of quality instruments: impeccable balance across registers, exquisite tone, a wide range of easily attainable colors, fast and precise response at the player's whim. The experience of playing on two wood Villette flutes this week will always hold a special place in my memory.

by David Chu,  2024, Maynard, Massachusetts

 

Copyright © 2024 David Chu


For more information please email Alan Weiss at alan@vintagefluteshop.com