(Fr. fifre; Ger. Querpfeife, Militärflöte; It. fiffaro; Sp. pifano).
A small cylindrical transverse Flute, but with a narrower bore and hence a louder, shriller sound than the flute proper. Fifes were generally made from a single piece of wood, sometimes with ferrules of wood, cord, leather, brass or other metal at both ends, and had six finger-holes. After the 18th century they were sometimes supplied with a single key. In modern British drum and fife bands, short conical flutes with six keys (and therefore essentially a piccolo), pitched in B (a 6th above the concert flute and a major 3rd below the orchestral piccolo), are called ‘fifes’.
In the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, fifes and side drums regulated the infantry while trumpets and kettle drums were reserved for cavalrymen. By the late 15th century fifes were associated especially with Swiss and south German mercenary foot soldiers (as the names soldatenpfeife and fistula militaria indicate), who evidently introduced the instrument to much of western Europe (fig.2). In German sources, for example, Martin Agricola (Musica instrumentalis dendsch, 1529) and Praetorius (Syntagma musicum, ii, 2/1619), the instruments are even called Schweitzerpfeifen, or (in Praetorius) Feldpfeifen. Praetorius explained that they were built then in two sizes, with a compass about an octave and a half upwards from either g' or, in the case of the larger instrument, d'; and he noted that they were fingered differently from other flutes (Mersenne in Harmonie universelle, 1636–7 gave a tablature for the fife). Virdung’s Musica getutscht (1511) is the earliest theoretical source to picture a fife, which he called Zwerchpfeiff and did not distinguish from an ordinary flute. (The term Zwerchpfeiff was also used for the pipe of the Pipe and tabor.)
Military fifers and drummers regulated the cadence of the march, played for roll call and gave the soldiers signals during battle. A British source dating from 1557 explains that the fifers and drummers must ‘teach the companye the soundes of the marche, allarum, approache, assaulte, battaile, retreate, skirmishe, or any other challenge that of necessitie should be knowen’. On later signals by military fifers and drummers, seeFife calls. 17th-century manuals show the fifes and drums situated next to the colours to provide a rallying point and a centre of command. Fifers also served as heralds and emissaries. Arbeau, in his book on dancing, Orchésographie (1588), described how players of the fife extemporized music for marches and for dances imitating battles, and gave an example of a free improvisation in which successive motifs are briefly taken up and varied.
From Arbeau’s work and from various pictorial sources of the late 15th and 16th centuries, it is also clear that fifes and drums accompanied dancing, especially outdoor dancing, among all social classes.
During the 17th century the fife disappeared from the British army but it was reintroduced about 1745 in very much the same form as before, that is, with cylindrical bore, in one piece, and with no keys. A fifer then seems usually to have carried two fifes, one in B (that is, a 6th above the concert flute) and one in C (a 7th above the concert flute), both slung from his belt in a baton-shaped metal case. Around 1870, this instrument was replaced in Britain by a short conical flute in B, with one key (eventually called a ‘piccolo’ with six keys). In 1810 the London maker George Miller was granted a patent for a brass fife intended ‘to obviate the effect of hot climates’. In continental Europe late 19th-century fifes had a seventh tone hole at the foot of the body for the right-hand little finger. This tone hole was either open and built up above the body of the instrument or closed with a key.
In the USA, Switzerland, in most countries of the Commonwealth or former British colonies and in Ireland, instruments descended from the old Feldpfeif are played in military and civilian fife and drum bands. There is a fife and drum tradition in Caruarú, Brazil, and the Jonkonnu festival of the West Indies includes ‘fife and drum’ music played by an ensemble of bamboo fifes, drums, banjo and scraper. In the USA, civilian fife and drum bands were formed in the mid-to-late 19th century as military use declined; the ‘ancient fife and drum corps’ of the Connecticut River Valley (also copied elsewhere) are descended from these bands. In the USA and Canada, military-style fife and drum bands have been revived, primarily by amateurs, to perform ‘field musick’ as part of the movement for historical re-enactment. Both ‘ancient’ and re-enactment bands play reproductions of 18th-century wooden fifes and rope-tensioned wooden field drums with gut snares. A Company of Fifers and Drummers devoted to the preservation and promotion of martial music was founded in 1965; in 1997 the Company maintained a museum, archive and library in Ivoryton, Connecticut, and had an international membership of over 100 corps.