The fife and drum are prehistoric musical instruments; simple in design, they were first made before man’s written history. They were and are used in various forms and combinations in nearly every culture. The first time that they were probably used together in a form which we would recognize as “fife & drum” was in Switzerland. In the 1400s the Swiss military used fife and drum as a means of communication and also as an aid to help their soldiers on long extended marches. The Germans adopted this military music in the 1500’s and 1600’s. The French use of Swiss mercenaries in the 1600’s and 1700’s, who used their fife and drum music, greatly influenced the rest of the French army. During the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain the English army had become very disorganized and undisciplined. The Hanoverian (George I) who succeeded Queen Anne 1714 reorganized the English Army, requiring the troops to march in step to proper military music. Thus fife and drum music was adopted by the British military (except in Scotland where the tradition was the use of the Bagpipe) this was the model, which the English colonists in North America followed in forming their military organizations.
In the military pattern, a company of about 100 men would have one or two fifers, and one or two drummers. When 8 or 10 companies were gathered together to form a regiment, their fifers and drummers were “banded” to form a regimental band.
Fifes & drums have long been a part of the culture and traditions in the music played in Ireland, more so in the Protestant community. This stems back to the days of the Irish Volunteers. The Irish Volunteers were formed in the 18th century to protect Ireland from a French invasion. They were part time soldiers and the movement was particularly strong in Ulster Scotch areas. These Volunteers demonstrated their strength through parades. Following the collapse of the Volunteers in 1796 the fifing tradition would have continued on in other part time militia and yeomanry as well as the newly formed Orange Order and Hibernian lodges.
This tradition has continued through to the present day. In Northern Ireland we have a fast number of flute bands, although not many still continue to play the fife. The B Flat Flute or A Flat, because flutes are wrongly named, is an improved form of fife. They began to appear in the late 19th to early 20th century. These new flutes were probably developed for military use and originally would have had only one key, the D sharp key. The fife had a cylindrical bore throughout and was for the most part a single piece. The new small flute had a conical bore and was made in 3 or sometimes 2 pieces with the head being of cylindrical bore. Eventually more keys were added thus allowing the musician to obtain a greater variety of notes. One of the most famous makers of this type of flute was Hawks & Son’s of London. They manufactured a B flat flute which they called the Crown AZ. These instruments are widely sought after by bands folk, and are regarded as probably the best B flat flute ever made. There are very few companies still making this type of flute, especially from the original material that Hawks & son’s manufactured their instrument from, chiefly African Black Wood. Miller Wicks London (John Miller & John Wicks) set about making a copy of this flute. John Miller & John Wicks both worked for the famous Rudall Carte Co of London. This company also made B flat flutes along with many other models of flute. The Miller Wicks Flute is now regarded today as probably the best of its kind on the market. The company at present has relocated to Northern Ireland where this fine tradition of flute making is to be continued. For information on the different models of flute produced by Miller Wicks please go to our products page.
Flutes are Wrongly Named
What is generally called the
B flat (Military) Flute is really in................A flat
E ,, ,...........................................................D
F ,, ,, .........................................................E flat
Evidently these instruments have become so erroneously named because when the six open holes are covered on the each of the different models as listed in the right hand column above the note produced is the note listed in the left hand column above.