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FIFE

The primary accompaniment to the snare drum was the fife, a primitive, high-pitched form of wooden flute of European origin.  The design of fifes varies considerably in terms of length and material.  Historically, British military fifes were bored from hardwoods and capped over each end with a band of sheet brass to protect against damage.  Boxwood or grenadilla were favoured for fife construction, although other exotic hardwoods such as ebony, cocobola or rosewood were also used.  Interestingly, a few examples of all-brass fifes made from soldered sheets exist in several museum collections, although these examples are usually attributed to the armies of the Honourable East India Company.  The exact length and pitch of British military fifes of the 1812 period is subject to some debate. The Drums use a custom-made fife in the key of C, different from most modern fifes which play in Bb. The fingering holes are exact copies taken from a 19th Century fife.

 

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the use of the fife had fallen into abeyance in the British army, being replaced with hautbois (a form of oboe).  However, following the ascension of the Hanoverian monarchy in 1714, the fife (which had remained popular in German armies) was gradually re-introduced, and had returned to general usage by British field musicians well before the Napoleonic era.  Nonetheless, the status of fifers during the early nineteenth century is the source of considerable confusion, and regulations concerning them often differed from practice.  Regulations authorise only two fifers per infantry battalion, attached to the grenadier company to provide ceremonial music.  It is notable that a return from the 41st Regiment stationed in Canada in 1811 lists the regiment as having twenty-two sets of drummers’ clothing and sidearms, but only twenty drums, implying that the two remaining musicians must have been the grenadier fifers.  

 

However, it seems highly incongruent that regiments made do with only two fifers given the importance that music played in the daily life of the British soldier.  While the drum beat was the primary means of signalling, most duty beatings in Drum Major Potter’s manual have a corresponding fife tune, indicating that the two were normally played together, and which suggests that the fife was an important accompaniment to these beatings.  Furthermore, it makes little sense musically for there to have been such a heavy imbalance between the two field instruments.  Many regiments possessed ‘fife majors’ to train and supervise regimental fifers, implying there were more than two fifers in need of leadership.  Some regimental standing orders even dictate that drummers were to be trained to play both the fife and drum, and were to carry both instruments.  It is therefore possible that many, if not most regiments had more than the two authorised fifers, and that this was likely accomplished by having some of the company drummers play the fife in some capacity.  To reflect this, and to balance the sound of the instruments, the Drums typically field an equal number of fifers and drummers whenever possible.