Heavenly Flute Players 27 - Captain Gordon
Captain Gordon may seem an unlikely candidate for a Heavenly Flute Player, but in heaven he certainly is, and he was an influential figure in our history too.
Captain W. Gordon, of French birth was thought to be of Scottish descent. So little is known about his early life that we are not even sure that his initial stood for William. He was a Captain in the Swiss Guards of Charles X and an amateur flute player passionately fond of his instrument. During the time that his regiment was stationed in Paris, he had lessons with the famous Louis Drouet, and with Tulou. He seems to have been an ingenious man as he spent time the year 1826 onwards trying to improve the mechanics of the flute. This was the period before Boehm introduced his first serious modification to the flute, his 1832 conical bore model.
In 1830, Charles X lost his throne, and on July 29th, Gordon was carrying out his regimental duties guarding the Louvre in Paris, and no doubt thinking of further mechanical improvements to flutes when a Paris mob attacked the building causing some of the Guards to panic, some escaping into the street. Those soldiers who remained to protect the building were cut to pieces by the mob and their uniforms and arms taken as trophies. This terrible act unhinged poor Gordon, and though he escaped, he seems never to have recovered from its effects.
After this appalling incident, he decided to devote his life to improving the flute's mechanism and he visited London in 1831 where flutes were made for him by Rudall & Rose. Though he was treated with consideration, it seems that people considered him to be 'of unsound mind', and paid scant attention to his new ideas. Theobald Boehm happened to be in London at the same time, and Gordon lost no time in making his acquaintance, showing him his experiments in keywork design. Up to this time, the holes on flutes were stopped with the tips of the fingers, and Gordon had designed crescent shaped pieces of metal on hinges placed around these holes which were attached to remote keys. Thus the action of stopping a hole with the finger communicated extra motion to a key further away, thus killing two notes with one stone!
There is no doubt that Boehm was a little influenced by Captain Gordon's ideas though Boehm was working on a similar design of putting rings around each hole which were attached to keys, a far more workable and reliable way of setting in motion two or three actions with the movement of a single finger.
Though Gordon spent a lot of money getting the best workmen to make his flutes, they never seemed to work well enough. He had spent his fortune on flute innovation and returned to Lausanne in Switzerland where the wooden flute on which he had spent so much time cracked and he became mentally unhinged as a result. He was said to have thrown his flute into Lake Leman, and probably committed suicide in a mental hospital at an unspecified date in about 1839 or 1840.
Well, our story should end there, but after Boehm's new flute of 1847 - the flute we play today - was introduced, there were those who thought that Gordon's ideas were copied by Boehm and incorporated into his new 1847 flute: they were known as 'Gordonites'. The opposing camp were known as 'Boehmites'.
Controversy reigned in the press for many years about the respective claims of each of the parties, not least by Gordon's widow, but it wasn't until Christopher Welch's book, 'History of The Boehm Flute', was published in 1896 that the ghosts were laid to rest. Welch closely examined the claims of both parties and, after investigation, showed beyond doubt that the rightful inventor of our modern flute was Theobald Boehm.
We can't help feeling sorry for poor Gordon. He seems to have invented rather similar ideas at the same time as Boehm, but didn't have the genius of Boehm for improving them and making them workable.
I have passed by Lake Leman once a year for many years by train from Geneva, and mentally salute the poor sad soldier in passing