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Military flutes


References in the great German saga, the Niebelungenlied (c1300) compare the flute's sound to the trombone and trumpet, while some fourteenth-century pictures of flute-playing indicate that it was used as a military instrument, in combination with large bells, drums, bagpipes and trumpets.

Flutes came into widespread military use after Swiss infantry defeated the supposedly invincible heavy Burgundian cavalry in battles in 1476. The Swiss soldiers used a flute and a drum to signal precise movements to a tight annd mobile formation of soldiers armed with pikes, halberds, swords, crossbows, and firearms. These effective techniques, including the use of the flute, were copied all over Europe within a few years.

No distinction was made at this time between 'flute' and 'fife', so that the earliest written instructions for playing the instrument (Virdung, 1511) described only the instrument's military role. A slightly later instruction book (Agricola, 1529, 1545) showed that by then it was used in four-part consort music too.

The instrument we recognise as a 'fife', a short, shrill flute with six or more fingerholes, had appeared by the end of the 16th century. German mercenary troops and others made it the traditional signalling and ceremonial instrument, so that massed bands of fife and drum became an emblem of the American War of Independence, among other struggles.

The fife was replaced by the bugle in the 19th century, but has recently been revived in Switzerland, by North American war reenactors, and in the Pope's Swiss Guard at the Vatican, which was founded in 1548 but replaced fifes with bugles in 1814.

The Company of Fifers and Drummers

Chapter 1, 'Shepherds, monks, and soldiers', of Ardal Powell's The Flute (Yale University Press, 2002) contains more information on this topic.

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