Theobald Boehm – Romantic Composer. Part 1: The Original Works.
November 6, 2014 (No Comments) by
Theobald Boehm

Theobald Boehm

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) is undoubtedly one of the most famous names in the history of the flute, as a result of his revolutionary redevelopment of the instrument’s design, which had an enormous impact on not just the flute, but all other woodwind instruments. His work creating the 1832 and 1847 model flutes is well documented, not least in his book The Flute and Flute Playing, as well as in numerous texts dealing with the history and development of the flute. This work alone was enough to secure Boehm’s place in history, but although enormously significant, his work as a flute maker was only one facet of Boehm’s life.

Born in Munich in 1794, Boehm was the son of a jeweller, and worked in the family business from the age of 13. Here he demonstrated a talent for his work, and developed skills which would be invaluable in his later work as a flute maker. He began to learn the flute at the age of 16. Two years later, his teacher, Johann Nepomuk Kapeller, declared he had taught him all he could, and Boehm began his orchestral career, first with the Royal Isartortheaters and, from 1818 with the Royal Court Orchestra in Munich, which was one of the leading orchestras of the time. He was principal flute there from 1830-1848. He was regarded as one of the best flute players in Germany and enjoyed a successful career which took him on tours throughout Europe. He opened his first flute-making workshop in 1828 at the age of 34, having built his first flute 18 years before. From 1839-1846 he held a workshop with Rudolph Greve, and from 1862-1888 with Karl Mendler. His 1832 model flute had a conical bore and ring keys, while the 1847 model returned to a cylindrical bore with a tapered heard joint, and had improved acoustical positions for the tone holes. His flutes demonstrate the highest quality craftsmanship, and around 300 instruments made by Boehm and his associates still exist today.

Boehm’s flute making skills show that he was mechanically minded, and he was also responsible for a number of successful innovations in other areas, including musical boxes, piano construction, locomotive chimneys, power transmission in rotary engines, procedures for iron smelting and work on blast furnaces. He also invented a telescope for locating fires in 1841.

Boehm began composing in 1818, at the age of 24, and studied under Peter von Winter, Joseph Gratz and Joseph Hartmann Stuntz. His complete compositional output includes 37 works with opus numbers, and a further 54 unnumbered works, including 26 arrangements for alto flute. The works were extremely well received in Boehm’s lifetime, with numerous positive reviews, and the works appeared in print in over 300 reprints and editions. Given this success, it is perhaps surprising that only a handful of his works are well known today. These include the Grande Polonaise, Variations on Nel Cor Piu, Variations on a Waltz by Schubert and some of the arrangements for alto flute, which were thought to have been lost until relatively recently. However, a surge in interest in virtuoso Romantic repertoire, combined with the release of the complete Boehm edition means that the works are once more available to be explored by the current generation of flute players.

   Ludwig Boehm

Ludwig Boehm

The complete edition has been prepared by Ludwig Böhm, great-great-grandson of Theobald Boehm, and founder of the Theobald-Böhm-Archiv (, and flute-playing musicologist Raymond Meylan. The Theobald-Böhm-Archiv (note the spelling of Böhm according to Theobald’s birth certificate and the family tradition, although Theobald himself used both spellings during his lifetime) is the result of tireless research since 1980 by Ludwig Böhm to track down as much information as possible regarding Theobald’s life and work. This work has enabled him to relocate manuscripts of scores, letters and other documentation, as well as to locate the remaining flutes made by Boehm and his associates. In celebration of Theobald’s work, the Archiv organises a competition for flute players, with the next one planned for 2016. In addition, over the summer of 2014 Herr Böhm presented a talk in commemoration of the 220th birthday of Theobald Boehm at the BFS convention in Warwick, UK as well as at conventions in Slovenia, China and Spain.

The edition comprises 88 works, which themselves reveal much about the development of the flute, and about Boehm’s facility as a player. From the first glance, it becomes clear that Boehm had enormous technical facility, with virtuoso passagework, wide intervallic leaps and detailed articulations featuring in almost every work. The melodic writing, too, shows that it is highly likely that Boehm had a good tone and an instinct for phrasing. Many of his works are based on pieces in the song style, including operatic arias and popular folk songs from around the world, and these works were written at a when the ability to phrase a melody musically with a good tone was as important a part of a virtuoso’s arsenal as a dazzling technique.

The 37 numbered works (with just Opus 15 still lost) show a fascinating chronology of flute history. Opus 1-18 become all the more spectacular once it becomes known that they were written for the simple system conical wood flute. These pieces include the variations on Nel Cor Pui, a number of fantasies and variations, and the challenging Grande Polonaise. These are demanding works, both in terms of duration (many of them are over ten minutes long) and technique, and are stylistically aligned with the salon music that was popular at the time. It is likely that in performing these works, Boehm developed a strong sense of where improvements could be made to the flute, and Boehm’s imagination and abilities as a composer undoubtedly will have contributed to his work as a flute maker.

  Boehm Flute, 1832

Boehm Flute, 1832

Opus 19-24 were written for the first Boehm flute, the 1832 ring keyed model (above). It is perhaps unsurprising that the first pieces he wrote for this flute were the op. 19 etudes; two sets of finger exercises designed to develop evenness of technique in all keys. These were written in 1831 when the new flute was in development, and it is thought that Boehm composed the works for his students to help them adapt to the new fingering system. The pieces that comprise op 20-24 show facets of the capabilities of the new flute in Boehm’s writing. There is more evidence of chromaticism, and more challenging key signatures also appear; for example, the introduction of the Variations on a waltz by Schubert (op 21, written in 1838) begins with a key signature of seven flats, before moving to B major. There is evidence of confidence in a wide range of challenging keys, and the full range of the instrument is used with a sense of flair and evenness of projection. Although stylistically similar to Boehm’s earlier works, these pieces are more difficult to play and harmonically and musically more complex as a result of the capabilities of the instrument he was writing for.

  Boehm Flute 1847

Boehm Flute 1847

After the invention of the 1847 model cylindrical flute, (above) which is very similar to the modern Boehm flute, apart from an open G sharp and a logical thumb key design which had the B flat key on the right hand side of the B natural key, Boehm’s first compositions were once again studies. The opus 26 Caprices are now staples of the repertoire and provide excellent material for developing even finger work in each key. First published in 1851, they have been made available in numerous editions around the world. The first edition by Rudall and Rose in London in 1851 was dedicated to Edward Jekyll, a British player who owned Boehm’s flute number 56, a cylindrical silver flute, bought in may 1851. The Richault edition, published in Paris in the same year, is dedicated to amateurs of the flute.

One more set of etudes is included in the complete works of Boehm. Opus 37, a set of 24 Etudes for flute and piano, is the last of the works to have been given an opus number, and was written in 1858, the year Boehm invented the alto flute. Two of these studies (number 2 and 11) also exist in arrangements made for the alto.

Boehm’s later works include a number of shorter, more lyrical pieces, often at slower tempi. These were written in the years leading to the alto flute’s development, where he was actively searching for ‘deeper, stronger and at the same time more sonorous flute tones’ (Theobald Boehm, The Flute and Flute Playing) which could not be achieved by either the C flute or the flute d’amour.

Ludwig Böhm and Raymond Meylan present these original works as a scholarly edition which enables the player to trace the evolution of the work through different reprints and often provide ossias to show different extant versions of individual passages. This is a collection of works with historical significance, which is invaluable to those interested in the history and evolution of the flute and its repertoire, as well as ensuring that Boehm’s music is given the recognition it deserves.

Also included in the complete edition are Boehm’s arrangements of works by other composers, which will be the focus of part 2 of this survey.

Review by Carla Rees

The Theobald Boehm Complete Edition is available from

This article was first published in PAN, Journal of the British Flute Society, June/September 2014.


        Carla Rees

Carla Rees

Carla Rees is a British low flutes specialist who has gained an international reputation for her innovative work. She is Artistic Director of rarescale, Programme Director for the British Flute Society and Director of Tetractys Publishing. She is professor of flute at Royal Holloway University and London College of Music and teaches composition for the Open College of Arts. Carla plays Kingma System flutes, and has had several hundred works written for her to date. She performs as recitalist and chamber musician, writes articles and reviews for several of the world’s flute magazines and has recorded for Atopos, Metier, Capstone and rarescale records. She also works as a professional photographer.


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