When I found out that at one time there was a German concert flute made of of aluminum, I was intrugued. Aluminum? Everybody wants a flute made of solid silver, if not gold. Stories abound about the effects of material on the sound of the flute. Silver is bright, gold is rich, platinum is powerful. It certainly seems to make sense…except it is all nonsense. The metal of the instrument does not vibrate enough to make a difference. Full stop. It is the shape of the inner chamber–the geometry of the air column–that determines the sound, along only with the smoothness of the bore.
But we never really believe it. Synesthesia is hard at work: it looks different, it feels different–it MUST sound different. Plus we have the flute manufacturers hard at work on angles to sell instruments–with an average $6000 premium on a gold flute, for instance…
So an aluminum flute…hmmm…How would THAT play?
I wanted to find out.
They are not easy to find. Made by Gerhard Rudolf Uebel in the then GDR (East Germany) for only about 10 years starting in 1959, these flutes were iconoclastic in the extreme, with the body milled from a solid rod of aluminum, and keys and head with an interesting, modernistic design plated in silver.
I spent quite a bit of time looking for one, and finally did find one in splendid shape on eBay, which I won–to my great delight.
When I got it and started to play, I was quite surprised. It is a professional flute of the highest calibre, which I had not expected from an East German instrument, which tend to be OK but often rather crudely made. This one is beautifully machined, with fast and light keywork. The bore is a wonder–straight and smooth as a rifle barrel; the body is wonderfully finished inside and out.
These flutes came with three embouchure plate designs. There was a reform plate (with wings) in plastic, a normal embouchure plate in plastic, and a normal one in metal. Mine came with the reform head. The embouchure hole is oval, about the same size as a standard square Boston cut, with a fair undercut on the sides and a huge undercut on the front chimney wall–in fact the front of the chimney joints the wall of the tube without any overhang. It is somewhat reminiscent of a Cooper design, and it blows very nicely.
The sound is quite unique as well. The tone is quite bright, but not shrill or thin. It is full bodied and present. It feels quite focused and very solid, but the sound is neither airy like the old French flutes nor “roomy” like modern designs. The sound seems to have a well-defined edge, and if you find the sweet spot, it cuts through like no other flute I have played.
Let’s have a look at this very unusual instrument:
Here is the top part of the flute. The long head joint fits directly into the body without a tenon socket. Keys are quite oversized compared to a normal Boehm flute, and the body is as thick as a wooden instrument.
The flute is of unibody construction, with no detachable foot joint. Both ends of the flute taper, which to some people makes the body resemble a cigar, hence the nickname. Note the large angled pinky keys, with D# roller. The whole pinky cluster is rotated quite far outward, with the rod of the foot keys angled about 2/3 of the way towards the front of the body keys, instead of right in the middle, as all teachers recommend. It is quite comfortable, nevertheless, and actually feels better to me than the standard position of the foot keys.
Here is a better view of the foot keys and the unique trill keys. Note also that instead of pins, tiny screws are used to tie the rods. Note also that the posts have set screws. This allows for fine adjustment of the pivot screws (which do not have heads)–an excellent idea IMO.
Here is the embouchure assembly, compared to that of a standard Boston cut head. I am not a big fan of reform heads, but this one plays quite well, and actually the plastic feels quite comfortable. There is no head cork, but rather an aluminum stopper and gasket arrangement, so that the head is quite short. Later flutes had a flat crown, this one has a rather odd peaked design.
Now we come to what I suspect is the secret of the unique sound of this flute. The head is very long and the body short, as can be seen here, compared to my handmade silver flute. But the bore and hole dimensions are quite similar. But there is one important difference. As you may know the head joint is not cylindrical, but contracts from the tenon to the embouchure hole. This is done in order to get the octaves to play in tune, but it plays a very important role in determining the overall sound and character of the flute. Holding the two heads the other day, I realized that of course the contraction on the normal flute can only start at the end of the tenon area of the head joint, but the contraction on the Uebel head, which is much longer, starts much lower, just where the head leaves the body. This seems like a small difference but even tenths of a millimeter difference in diameter in this area can have a major impact on the sound. This is the only flute with a contraction that extends so far down the tube, and I believe this (and not the aluminum of the body) explains the distinct character that this flute has.
The Uebel “cigar” is an excellent instrument, that can often be had quite cheaply (in respect to the quality of the instrument). It is quite heavy, weighing about 1/3 more than a comparable flute in silver or nickel, and the weight distribution is a bit odd with the short head crown, but it is quite a charming and absolutely respectable instrument that is well worth investigating if you run into one.