Musical Instruments

Penny whistle, tin whistle

The earliest use of the term “penny whistle” attested in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1730, in the play Bays’s Opera by Gabriel Odingsells.

Musicians with Halters about their Necks — Their Instruments strung behind, penny Whistles, Trumpets, and so forth, in their Hands.

This doesn’t tell us what a penny whistle was but clearly refers to a musical instrument of that name. It is similarly uncertain what the name designates in the review of a performance at the Covent Garden Theatre, in the 22 September 1809 issue of the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle. An announced increase in ticket prices triggered an organized wave of disruption throughout the event.

A pause of some minutes ensued, and then the cat calls, bugle horns, and posthorns began discord afresh. … This was succeeded by the usual concord of sweet sounds proceeding from penny whistles, squeaking trumpets, watchmen’s rattles, horns, catcalls, &c. &c.

A letter to the editor in the 9 September 1810 issue of The Examiner complains about the noise caused by street criers.

… persuade them, if instrument they must have, to change the hoarse window-shaking and nerve worrying mail-horn, for the light and softer cadence of a penny whistle.

The 15 June 1818 issue of The Huntingdon, Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough Gazette and Midland County General Advertiser, notes the following about the visit of a contentious politician.

… he entered the town amid the braying of trumpets, the beating of drums, and the shrill piping of fifes and penny whistles …

Compilations of Irish and Scottish traditional music began to name the flageolet shortly after the initial printed evidence of its English form (discussed in the preceding post along with its proximity to the fife). The first such collection I know of was published ca. 1804.

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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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