Pratten – The Man Behind the Traditional Irish Flute Style
You’ll often hear the name Pratten or term ‘Pratten-style’ when talking about Irish wooden flutes but who exactly was Pratten and what exactly was his influence on modern Irish flute making?
Robert Sidney Pratten was born in England in 1824 into a musical family and by all accounts was somewhat of a child prodigy with a natural gift for music. He taught himself to play flute with help from his older brother, Frederick and by the age of 12 was beginning to become noticed for his playing style, in particular his excellent intonation – in fact critics were quick to point out his superiority to the then celebrated flutist, Joseph Richardson, all the more extraordinary considering Pratten’s lack of formal training.
Pratten was a large man with bags of charisma and was a popular personality, eventually going on to become first flute of the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden in 1945 although, notably, for Irish audiences anyway, his first formal position was with the Theatre Royal in Dublin from the age of 12.
His flute of choice during this phase was a much praised but oft forgotten “diatonic” flute produced in 1842 by Abel Sicamma – among its key characteristics was its vibrant and pure tone, and its improved intonation over other models at the time. It seems that Pratten was very much taken with his Sicamma but felt he could improve upon it even more. Accordingly, he set about designing his now famous, and legendary among Irish flute players, Pratten’s Perfected flute.
Pratten, with his large hands, massive stores of breath and full-tone playing style (a solo performance he gave in Covent Garden was deemed ‘a monster concert’) proposed an enlarged bore, a bigger embouchure and larger-holed simple system flute to produce the ‘big’ flute sound he is now so famously associated with. In tandem with John Hudson, foreman for renowned flute makers Boosey & Co. and previously involved with Sicamma, he commissioned his first flutes in the mid 1850s. Boosey & Co. continued to produce so-called Pratten Perfected flutes well into the early 1900s even though Pratten himself passed away at the young age of 44 in 1868.
Little could he have guessed that his name would become so synonymous with the traditional Irish style of flute making and playing that continues unabated to this day.
Featured image: Robert Sidney Pratten, -1868. , . Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/dcmphot.a0383/.
Second image: Von Vudu – selbst fotografiert, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3262090 (modern copy of a keyed Pratten Perfected Flute)