1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fife (military flute)

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FIFE (Fr. fifre; Med. Ger. Schweizerpfeif, Feldpfeif; Ital. otlavino), originally the small primitive cylindrical transverse flute, now the small B♭ military flute, usually conoidal in bore, used in a drum and fife band. The pitch of the fife lies between that of the concert flute and piccolo. The fife, like the flute, is an open pipe, for although the upper end is stopped by means of a cork, an outlet is provided by the embouchure which is never entirely closed by the lips. The six finger-holes of the primitive flute, with the open end of the tube for a key-note, gave the diatonic scale of the fundamental octave; the second octave was produced by overblowing the notes of the fundamental scale an octave higher; part of a third octave was obtained by means of the higher harmonics produced by using certain of the finger-holes as vent-holes. The modern fife has, in addition to the six finger-holes, 4, 5 or 6 keys. Mersenne describes and figures the fife, which had in his day the compass of a fifteenth.[1] The fife, which, he states, differed from the German flute only in having a louder and more brilliant tone and a shorter and narrower bore, was the instrument used by the Swiss with the drum. The sackbut, or serpent, was used as its bass, for, as Mersenne explains, the bass instrument could not be made long enough, nor could the hands reach the holes, although some flutes were actually made with keys and had the tube doubled back as in the bassoon.[2]

The words fife and the Fr. fifre were undoubtedly derived from the Ger. Pfeiff, the fife being called by Praetorius[3] Schweizerpfeiff and Feldpfeif, while Martin Agricola,[4] writing a century earlier (1529), mentions the transverse flute by the names of Querchpfeiff or Schweizerpfeiff, which Sebastian Virdung[5] writes Zwerchpfeiff. The Old English spelling was phife, phiphe or ffyffe. The fife was in use in England in the middle of the 16th century, for at a muster of the citizens of London in 1540, droumes and ffyffes are mentioned. At the battle of St Quentin (1557) the list of the English army[6] employed states that one trumpet was allowed to each cavalry troop of 100 men, and a drum and fife to each hundred of foot. A drumme and phife were also employed at one shilling per diem for the “Trayne of Artillery.”[7] This was the nucleus of the modern military band, and may be regarded as the first step in its formation. In England the adoption of the fife as a military instrument was due to the initiative of Henry VIII., who sent to Vienna for ten good drums and as many fifers.[8] Ralph Smith[9] gives rules for drummers and fifers who, in addition to the duty of giving signals in peace and war to the company, were expected to be brave, secret and ingenious, and masters of several languages, for they were oft sent to parley with the enemy and were entrusted with honourable but dangerous missions. In 1585 the drum and fife formed part of the furniture for war among the companies of the city of London.[10] Queen Elizabeth (according to Michaud, Biogr. universelle, tome xiii. p. 60) had a peculiar taste for noisy music, and during meals had a concert of twelve trumpets, two kettledrums, with fifes and drums. The fife became such a favourite military instrument during the 16th and 17th centuries in England that it displaced the bagpipe; it was, however, in turn superseded early in the 18th century by the hautboy (see Oboe), introduced from France. In the middle of the 18th century the fife was reintroduced into the British army band by the duke of Cumberland[11] in the Guards in 1745, commemorated by William Hogarth's picture of the “March of the Guards towards Scotland in 1745,” in which are seen a drummer and fifer; and by Colonel Bedford into the royal regiment of artillery in 1748, at the end of the war, when a Hanoverian fifer, John Ulrich, was brought over from Flanders as instructor.[12] In 1747 the 19th regiment, known as Green Howards, also had the advantage of a Hanoverian fifer as teacher, a youth presented by his colonel to Lieutenant-Colonel Williams commanding the regiment at Bois-le-Duc. Drum and fife bands in a short time became common in all infantry regiments, while among the cavalry the trumpet prevailed.

For the acoustics, construction and origin of the fife see Flute. Illustrations of the fife may be seen in Cowdray's picture of an encampment at Portsmouth in 1548; in Sandford's “Coronation Procession of James II.,” and in C. R. Day's Descriptive Catalogue, pl. i. (F) (description No. 42, p. 27). (K. S.)


  1. Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636), bk. v. prop. 9, pp. 241-244.
  2. For an illustration of one of these bass flutes see article Flute, fig. 2.
  3. Syntagma musicum (Wolfenbüttel, 1618), pp. 40-41 of Reprint.
  4. Musica instrumentalis (Wittenberg, 1529).
  5. Musica getutscht und auszgezogen (Basel, 1511).
  6. See Sir S. D. Scott, The British Army, vol. ii. p. 396.
  7. See H. G. Farmer, Memoirs of the Royal Artillery Band (London, 1904).
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Stowe's Chronicles, p. 702.
  11. Grose, Military Antiquities (London, 1801), vol. ii.
  12. See Colonel P. Forbes Macbean, Memoirs of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.