Musical Instruments

Fifes and flageolets

The preceding post discusses a tune found in the third volume of “Aird’s Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and foreign airs; Adapted for the Fife, Violin, or German Flute.” This is a six-volume series produced during the final two decades of the 18th century. The title page of the first volume illustrates a fife in a military context and the following volumes are dedicated to the British and Irish armed forces.

The collection does not include a noteworthy amount of military music and there is no obvious musical intention behind the dedication. This raises a question about whether the fife was highlighted at the start of the list of instruments simply as part of the homage, or if it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. A hand drawing on the back of the illustrated page sheds light on this and will be examined more closely below.

A fife is seen in a similar setting in this post’s banner image, taken from a French textbook on dance by Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesographie, published in 1596. His list of instruments used for military march and dance includes a “fifre” and an “arigot,” seen at the right and left sides of the illustration, respectively. In a subsequent discussion of recreational dance, he defines the fifre — fife — as “a small transverse flute with six holes, which the Germans and Swiss use, and since it has a very narrow bore the size of a pistol ball, it produces a sharp sound.”

Arbeau’s arigot is an end-blown duct flute — flageolet (“flajol”) — that “due to its small size has more or fewer holes; the best made have four holes in front and two behind.” This arrangement permits a closer placement of the fingers than does the one with all six holes on the same side. Arbeau otherwise regards the fife and flageolet as equivalent and notes that musicians accompanying recreational dance who find the sound of the fife too strident use the flageolet instead. (It may be more than a passing coincidence that the terms arigot and flageolet are echoed by the designations for the similarly diminutive haricot and flageolet beans.)

Marin Mersenne describes both the fifre and the flajolet in his monumental Harmonie Universelle, from 1636. He also clarifies the association of cylindrical transverse flutes with Germany. His discussion of the Fleute d’Allemande explicitly states that it had a cylindrical bore. The segment pierced by the toneholes was redesigned with a conical bore by French makers between 1660 and 1680, without giving the instrument a new name. The latter design is the one labeled a German Flute in Aird’s collection and numerous others like it.

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