An Interview with British flutemaker Albert Cooper

By Alexander Eppler

In the early evening hours of August 10th, 1988, Albert Cooper was interviewed by flutemaker Alexander Eppler. Though a nearly lifelong Londoner, Cooper still speaks in the soft accents of his home district outside the capitol. His interview, edited for length, follows:

AE: How old were you when you became a flutemaker and how did you come to this trade?

AC: Well, I first started in the flutemaking business at the age of fourteen, in 1938. I had four and one half years of flutemaking from that time, then I was called up into the war, into the services.

AE: Was this making flutes, or other woodwinds as well?

AC: Yes, my first job when I went to Rudall-Carte was making nameplates for flute cases. I soon progressed to pad making, then to the making of six-key piccolos. Of course they don’t make them now. I used to make B-flat flutes for the military people. But from the age of fourteen to eighteen-and-a-half, when I was called up, I learned the business in those four and a half years. I came back at about twenty-two after the war and demobilization a skilled flutemaker.

AE: In those years, can you give a rough estimate as to how many flutemakers were working in England?

AC: A, that’s a good question. When I first went to work at Rudall-Carte in 1938 before the war the staff was about 15 and they had about 400 flutes in stock. Of course, once the war started half of these men went into the service straightaway and the other half died off. There were about three or four of us left in 1940; it got down to only two in the war. It’s a wonder the trade survived. When the war finished two or three of them came back, but it never really got going again.

AE: How many flutes have you made?

AC: I’ve made ninety-three instruments with my name on. Included in that number were eight alto flutes, two piccolos, and three C-bass flutes.

AE: Stories about your alto flutes have reached me over the years. What do you think of them?

AC: Well, I always regard the altos I made as the best effort on my part. I got it about right. What I mean is, I got the right-sized hole in the right place and the bore size right. It was an original design of flute which I had figured, not a copy of an existing instrument. The C-bass flutes were also original in design, though I’m not so happy with them as I feel I got the bore a bit too big on them.

AE: When did the idea of the A=440 modern scale come to you, the “Cooper Scale”?

AC: Well, going back to when I left Rudall-Carte in 1959, before the flood of Japanese instruments came along, one or two of the London players obtained Haynes and Powell flutes, which were the only flutes available. Rudall-Carte couldn’t get any wood, which caused the wooden flute, then the most popular, to just die in the immediate post war years. They complained (the London players) about the American instruments being flat on the bottom and sharp on the top like the old French instruments. We had plenty of French flutes in London, particularly before the last war. Of course, France was a lower pitch than we were, but things seem to be more or less stabilized now. Everybody seems to play a bit sharper than A=440, everyone wants an A=442 flute now. We always regarded the American and old French ones as A=435. If you can’t have an instrument pitched exactly at what you want to play at, it’s better to have one sharper than flatter. [laughter]

AE: What other flutes or flutemakers influenced your work?

AC: Well, each country has its own style. If anything, what style interested me most—I would have to say the French style. And, of course, when I first started making flutes, people would say, “Oh, I see the Rudall-Carte in your work.” Inevitably, I did change the style slightly toward the French, altered the cup shape on the later flutes, and I suppose I’ve created my own style in a way.

AE: I’ve certainly seen your idea concerning an offset G# key cup arm spread to other flutes, including my own.

AC: That’s one little thing I like to think I was the first in with. The idea was to make a stronger key arm avoiding the trill key tubing.

AE: Had anyone else made an A=440 scale before you came out with yours?

AC: Not to my knowledge. What puzzled the London players was why were the American flutes being sold and called A=440 flutes when they weren’t. They were copies of the French ones, as we saw from London, that were made actually to A=435, the lower pitch that prevailed before the last war.

AE: The flute is a marvel of 19th century engineering. Just when many were saying that this design could no longer be improved on, your scale appeared. Do you feel any significant improvements have appeared since the introduction of your scale?

AC: I think the standards of American and Japanese padding is way ahead of anything you see in Europe

AE: I’ve seen the Brannen flutes that have the “Brogger Mekanik” and their own very clever ideas about pads. Have you made any contributions to some of these efforts?

AC: No, it has nothing to do with me. I know Brogger very well actually, he’s a Danish flutemaker. I’ve been to his place in Denmark. It’s not really a new idea, he’s done it better than previous attempts.

AE: The Brannens seem to have improved, rationalized Brogger’s original work even further…

AC: Yes, exactly! Brannen has improved on what Brogger has done, it’s just as much a Brannen mekanik as it is Brogger’s mekanik, as I see it, but his giving Brogger the credit, well, that’s up to him—very nice.

AE: If you were to make a flute for yourself, or to put it another way, if the slate were to be wiped clean, and one example had to be made to show everything you think a flute should be, what form would this instrument take, what do you think is important?

AC: If I was going to make a flute for myself, and it was my intention to play it and learn the instrument. To start with, I have no interest in contemporary music, although I do admire what Robert Dick has done very much. A man like that must have an open cup flute; they don’t appeal to me all that much, open cup flutes. I’d be inclined to have covered keys on the left hand and open on the right. I think that open cups on the left hand, although they’re good for quarter tones and gimmicky fingerings and all that, I don’t think, really, it does the flute any good. They always complain to me that high F# is always more difficult on an open cup flute than on a covered one. B or C foot—I’m not bothered, they are both good. Some people tell me B foots are best and others say C foots are. I don’t know, I can’t make me mind up on that one. But, if you said to me, what’s wrong with a flute, what should we concentrate on to improve next, I’ll be bound to say, let’s do something to that middle E. As you come down the middle octave there is always that slight stuffy feeling that would be an irritant to me. Why is it bad? I’m sure it can be cured—but I don’t know the answer to that one.

AE: Do you think there is any point to building modern flutes made of wood?

AC: Yes, why not! The trouble seems to be getting the wood. In the old days it had to be cocus, nothing else would do. Have you seen any cocuswood recently?

AE: Yes, I have enough for several hundred flutes bored and turned at my shop. It took me over fourteen years to get….How many flute manufacturers are now using your scale?

AC: Well, officially, Brannens and Boosey & Hawkes, they have permission to use it, but anyone else, no.

AE: If there is something you’d like to be remembered for as a craftsman or something else, what would it be?

AC: I’d say this about the scale. At the time, I thought there was a need to do something about the flute scale that Powell and Haynes were using at that time. No one seemed to bother themselves about it, only me. Really, someone with a better mathematical education than I had should have come in and worked it out better than I could have done. My mathematical training wasn’t particularly good and I just got on with it because there was no on else to do it.

AE: Does the flute still hold your interest?

AC: Oh, yes! Of course, over the last ten years I’ve only made headjoints. The headjoint market is so good, unbelievable! Obviously, the Japanese and the Americans can produce the keywork by their high-tech methods. Compared with how I used to make my keywork.…Well, I can compete with making headjoints, put it that way, but cannot compete making the mechanism. Let’s face it, I made a flute mechanism with a knife and fork.

(c) 1988 A. Eppler

1. Wood Headjoints. Flute, alto, bass, piccolo

2. Wood flutes. Models. Flute restoration and repair

3. Flutes, alto flutes, piccolos

Flute restoration: "before" and "after" views of old flute

Return to Home Page

Web page last updated 21 March 2009